Newt Gingrich’s Catholicism and his 2012 penance

Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich speaks to a cheering crowd during the annual Conservative Political Action Conference. Thursday … Continued

Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich speaks to a cheering crowd during the annual Conservative Political Action Conference. Thursday February 10, 2011. (Photo by Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

In a shameful lapse of attention, I missed Newt Gingrich’s 2009 conversion to Roman Catholicism–a departure from his previous status as a somewhat lukewarm (by right-wing evangelical standards) Southern Baptist. But there is nothing lukewarm now about his use of his conservative brand of Catholicism to promote his presidential ambitions. He and his third wife, Callista Bisek, have produced a film about the role of Pope John Paul II in the fall of Communism in Poland. Speaking before Ohio Right to Life, Gingrich recently asserted, “To a suprising degree, we are in a situation similar to Poland’s in 1979. In America, religious belief is being challenged by a cultural elite trying to create a secularized America, in which God is driven out of public life.” I have no idea what Gingrich means by this pointless comparison between two completely unrelated political situations. He is apparently unaware that communism eventually collapsed throughout the Soviet empire, for reasons that had nothing to do with religion or the lack thereof, after the rise of the reformist Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in the mid-1980s.

I normally consider the private lives of politicans irrelevant–unless they are presenting themselves as exemplars of morality and deriding secular values as “immoral” while engaging in private behavior that runs directly counter to their public positions. That was the case with Gingrich, the Catholic convert. He has acknowledged that he was having an extramarital affair with the woman who would become his third wife–apparently a devout Catholic as well as a Congressional staffer–while he was leading the move to impeach President Bill Clinton for lying about his own extramarital adventures. Clinton, of course, never presented himself as a pillar of sexual morality–and that is probably the reason the public forgave him.

Indeed, Gingrich had better stay on the straight and narrow now, because he cannot remain a Catholic in good standing if he divorces his third wife and marries yet another woman. He could seek an annulment from the Catholic Church if he were to repeat his previous pattern of serial adultery and remarriage, but that might be a little tough after he and Callista have devoted so much effort to presenting themselves as an exemplary Catholic couple and peddling his 2006 book, “Rediscovering God in America,” throughout the nation. (For those who are curious about how Gingrich can be accepted into the church after divorcing two previous wives, suffice to say, without going into the minutiae of Canon Law, that the standards applied for valid marriages between non-Catholics are different from those applied to Catholics.)

One of Gingrich’s more disgusting moves, just a few days before his formal conversion, was to criticize (in a semi-literate tweet) the University of Notre Dame for inviting President Obama to speak in 2009 “since his policies are so anti catholic [sic].” By “anti-Catholic,” Gingrich presumably means that Obama opposes the church hierarchy’s positions on abortion, gay rights, and sex education. As repeated public opinion polls have shown, the majority of American Catholics also disagree with the church hierarchy’s positions on these matters–as well as with the hierarchy’s opposition to married priests and women priests. It is utterly laughable that a man like Gingrich should take it upon himself to lecture one of the nation’s most distinguished Catholic universities about its duties to a church he has so recently embraced.

But Gingrich is not merely a Catholic convert. He is a convert to the small conservative faction within Catholicism, also represented in American public life by such figures as Supreme Court Justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito and John Roberts and Kansas Sen. Sam Brownback. Gingrich, like Brownback, is a convert to the authoritarian church of the past, to a church in which the pope and his bishops have absolute teaching authority. The arrogant assertion of that authority is the main reason why native-born American American Catholics are leaving the church in record numbers. According to the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, 25 percent of adult Americans raised as Catholics have left the church and no longer consider themselves Catholic.

Gingrich’s conversion also represents an ironic turn of American history–the emergence of an alliance between conservative southern Protestants and the most conservative elements of the Catholic hierarchy. Historically, the strongest anti-Catholic sentiment in the United States came from southern Protestants who were not only deeply suspicious of the idea of papal authority but who saw Catholic immigration from southern Europe in the late 19th and early 20th centuries as a challenge to “traditional” Protestant American values. There was a time–only 50 years ago–when converting from the Baptist faith to Catholicism would have been political suicide for any public figure from the South. Indeed, Gingrich the voice of the right might have some problems today with the sympathetic attitude toward immigration taken by the Catholic church in the United States. The American hierarchy must welcome immigrants from Latin America, because most of them are Catholics and without them, the church would not be able to maintain its numbers in view of the desertion of so many American-born Catholics.

In his idolatry of John Paul II as the man who defeated communism in Poland, Gingrich might well consider that although Poland remains more Catholic than the other, more secular Eastern European countries that once were part of the Soviet empire, Polish society has become increasingly secular since the fall of communism. Although 95 percent of Poles identify themselves as Catholic, only 41 percent attend Sunday mass regularly–and only 20 cent in large cities with the highest percentage of educated citizens. The vast majority of Polish Catholics, like Catholics in America and western Europe, also oppose the church’s teachings on divorce and in vitro fertilization. Under communism, the church was a bastion of opposition to state authority. In a more democratic society in which the state does not repress the citizenry, religion cannot play that opposing role.

In any case, Newt Gingrich is hardly in a position to present himself as a man who can restore traditional moral values to his nation. While it is true that the sacrament of penance provides devout Catholics with a clean slate and a mandate to start over again on the path to heaven, American elections do not take place under the seal of the confessional.

Susan Jacoby
Written by

  • jckdoors

    There is no god.

  • quapawsix

    Just what we need another nightmare looking to happen in the White House

  • elderbetty

    It is sickening to read people equate Christianity with Catholicism. The two are not the same. The last time I looked in my bible I couldn’t find where the Lord Jesus needed a representitive on earth. Jesus is Lord of every believer and His death and resurrection has made it possible for every believer to go boldly before the throne of grace without the need of a “priest” or “pope.”

  • elderbetty

    That being said, Susan great article and finally the truth of Gingrich’s hypocricy on display! I pray Gingrich does indeed get saved.

  • elderbetty

    Oh and this is a lie:

  • elderbetty

    Sorry I meant this:

  • acebojangles

    Edbyronadams,I don’t how great of a sin hypocrisy is. What matters is the nakedly political way Gingrich is using his “religious faith,” whether sinful or not.Also, Ms. Jacoby clearly stated that she doesn’t make politicians’ personal lives an issue unless they make personal life choices an issue first. Newt is fair game in my book.

  • persiflage

    I’m just crazy about Newt’s newfound Catholicism. All he need add is the hair shirt and scourge, and his penitential goals will soon be complete. His emulation of fellow rightwing Catholics on the Supreme Court is quite touching! If he would just leave the rest of us alone with his naked late-in-the-day political ambitions, he could better indulge in some simple self-flagellation in a nearby coat closet – begging his dead wife’s forgiveness for dumping her before she was cold in her bed. Catholicism and S&M have long had a close relationship…..

  • Farnaz2Mansouri21

    Newt’s conversion goes hand in hand with his antisemitism, which the peerless Telnaes cartooned not long ago. That he remains a public figure says much about the level of American discourse. Free speech junkydom suggests that the Supremes would have no problem with demonstrations outside Baptist churches nation wide. I recommend they be organized by gay bikers, carrying signs of gay Jesus holding hands with a dazzling Israelite boy of about twenty, with both awash in pink satin with silk brocade. (Consult Pope Benedict’s fashion designer.)Jes’ suggestin’, Constitutionally speaking.

  • Farnaz2Mansouri21

    BTW, my understanding is that hypocrisy is a minor sin. It doesn’t make the cardinal list at all.Posted by: edbyronadams | March 2, 2011 12:10 PM–David

  • eezmamata

    I greatly resent your calling Nute Grinch immoral. He is not immoral, he is amoral.

  • usapdx

    Very interesting artical and all should read it that will vote in 2012. The G.O.P. should take this artical as a guide also before they chose their 2012 candidate since their poor choices of late.

  • persiflage

    ‘And they should read Susan’s Sept. 6 column before not voting for Romney for the wrong reason:’No danger of that – I only need to look at the respective political party of each candidate in question ;^)Aside from that, the likelihood of getting a truly secular, non-religious candidate for POTUS is just about zero….and there are none in the line up for 2012.

  • jckdoors

    The cloak of religion, the last refuge of a scoundrel.

  • edbyronadams

    “I have not sat down with hypocrites. With men of evil I do not mingle.–David”He must have stood the entire time after sending Uriah to his death.

  • Farnaz2Mansouri21

    “I have not sat down with hypocrites. With men of evil I do not mingle.–David”He must have stood the entire time after sending Uriah to his death.Posted by: edbyronadams

  • solsticebelle

    Hypocritical – check.Sanctimonious – check.Treating women like used kleenex – check.Yup, Newt fits right into the Catholic church!

  • Bridge3263

    Newt Gingrich continues to damage conservatives and their causes. His personal hypocrisy has been evident for thirty years. Now he’s playing the penitent to bilk the pious fools.

  • davivman

    Isn’t it fun to point out hypocrisy in other people? Doesn’t it make you feel good inside, knowing that you are definitely better than that dirty old hypocrite? I know I feel better making fun of hypocrites that make fun of other hypocrites that make fun of those first hypocrites.Seriously though, virtually all people are hypocrites. Those that think they are not are usually the biggest ones. Instead of focusing on how poorly people follow their own ideologies, let’s restrict our arguments to the worthiness of the ideologies themselves.

  • Farnaz2Mansouri21

    Farnaz, perhaps you don’t think that someone chosen to rule by God breaking his commandments is hypocritical, but I do.Posted by: edbyronadams

  • glenn113

    Excellent article and how true.

  • YEAL9

    Newt’s Christianity, no matter what version, is “dead in the water”:There was and never will be any bodily resurrections i.e. No Easter, no Christianity—-

  • Montesqu

    he has the merit at least of displaying and at most effecting, the attention of his audience. let us endeavour first, to ascertain his objective on this point?

  • Americacares

    I am a Catholic. No way will he get my vote. I would be willing to bet that most of us Catholics see him as using the title of being a Catholic as means to promote his type of weird political beliefs. I am a pro life Democrat that can view America’s problems as more than a single issue. We can promote the rights of the unborn by raising awareness,education,strong middle class, ending poverty, increasing health care benefit for all Americans,feeding an clothing the homeless,support all types of education and a strong faith in God. Making the rich richer is not the answer and neither is the GOP.

  • ronnysivils

    Newt Gingrich is just a typical politican, nothing more, nothing less. His deplorable conduct is just about what I expect of a politican no matter what party they belong to.

  • mrbradwii

    Newt is as unelectable as Hillary or Palin.The GOP is unlead, uninspired, adrift in a sea of maladroit has-beens and wannabes.If they don’t get their act together soon, they’ll have lost all momentum going into 2012 and the tide will turn back as surely as it turned towards them in ’10.

  • usapdx

    Why would any American want any person in our goverment that wants a religion directly or indirectly in our government?

  • davivman

    Eezmamata, your comment doesn’t address what I was saying. I wasn’t advocating any kind of a plan to alter the level of hypocrisy in society. I was merely pointing out that the existence of hypocrisy is immaterial to the evaluation of the worthiness of opinion of the hypocrite.For example, let’s say that Joe advocates and preaches to the world that stealing is wrong. Joe also happens to be a giant car thief. Is the actual wrongness of stealing in any way affected by the fact that Joe doesn’t live up to his own standards? Of course not, the wrongness of stealing is completely independent of the behavior of Joe.So when people deride the value of the principals of Catholicism by pointing out that a supposed advocate like Newt is not very good at practicing it, they have in fact not really said anything about the value of the principals of Catholicism.

  • eezmamata

    DAVIVMAN it seems you’re more interested in defending Catholicism than you are interested in the perfidies of Newt Gringrich.His hypocrisies are greater than just the lying he does inside your religion.I must press the issue – it isn’t today’s hypocrisy, yesterday’s or tomorrow’s, it’s the ongoing and even predictable hypocrisy of this man which I find most disgusting.He is making a fool out of everybody who forgives him for it, time and time again.I never say Newt is an immoral man, he is an amoral man. The morality he presents to people is what he perceive morality to be in other people … he’s faking it. He knows it’s important to you, so he puts on a show that fills in your simplistic requirements then demands you go out and defend him.he is making a sucker out of you, and you’re praising him for it.