So former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich was received into the Roman Catholic Church this past weekend. He had been Baptist. For most people, conversion isn’t exactly a political event. But when you’re a prominent Republican whose name is being mentioned as a possible future candidate for President, well, everything is political.
Much of the coverage has centered around what this conversion means for his political future. Perhaps that has something to do with the fact that it’s difficult to pursue the story on many other levels — Gingrich hasn’t been giving interviews about his conversion, as Dan Gilgoff at U.S. News & World Report notes.
Katharine Seelye had a mostly straightforward report about the conversion for the New York Times‘ The Caucus blog:
Mr. Gingrich was confirmed into the church on Sunday at St. Joseph’s Catholic Church on Capitol Hill and celebrated that night, according to The Hill, with friends at Cafe Milano, one of Washington’s most insider-y dining establishments. His guests included Cardinal McCarrick, the retired Cardinal of Washington.
On the occasion of Mr. Gingrich’s conversion, the Daily Beast listed a dozen other notable converts to Catholicism. They include Jeb Bush and Nicole Kidman. Tony Blair, the former British prime minister, converted to Catholicism in December 2007, facing too many political difficulties of trying to do so while he was prime minister.
Things are a bit different in the United States, of course. While Britain has never had a Catholic P.M., the United States has had a Catholic president. Still, being Catholic can complicate a political career: John Kerry, the Democratic presidential nominee in 2004 and a Catholic, was threatened by some bishops with excommunication because of his support for abortion rights.
Um, I don’t have the best memory but I feel like I would remember if Kerry was threatened by some bishops with excommunication. I suspect that Seelye doesn’t understand the difference between excommunication and Catholic teaching about who should and should not receive communion. It was that latter point that various bishops weighed in on, considering Kerry’s support for abortion rights was in conflict with church teaching on the sanctity of human life.
The blog post goes on to discuss the political ramifications of Gingrich’s conversion. Most other coverage was of the bloggy variety. It was a bit snarky. The most mean-spirited punditry had to come from Christopher Buckley.
Much of the punditry and blog reports seemed confused about whether Catholicism requires all converts to have lived perfect lives prior to their conversion, much less after! There was lots of evidence confusion about how Gingrich, thrice married, could be received into a church that forbids divorce. I’m always amazed at how little the mainstream media and popular culture understand what Christians believe about sin. Yes, they think divorce, adultery, lying, gossiping, etc. are bad. They also believe in something called forgiveness. This is, in fact, the much more important part of the equation. Christians believe that God forgives sin.
The twice-divorced Gingrich, who has confessed to previous marital infidelities, converted to the faith of his third wife, Calista Bisek. And politicos are already speculating that the conversion will help shore up his position with values voters as he contemplates another race for the presidency in 2012.
Deal Hudson, who founded the Catholic magazine Crisis and advised George W. Bush’s political guru Karl Rove, argues that the Gingrich’s conversion represents a personal and political cleansing.
“From a Catholic point of view,” Hudson told the Daily Beast’s Max Blumenthal, “Newt’s sins no longer exist — they’ve been absolved. He’s made a fresh start in life. So Newt will continue to sin and confess but there aren’t going to be a lot of Catholics who will hold that against him. They understand why being a Catholic makes a difference.”
Our final Gingrich selection comes from Betsy Rothstein at The Hill. In a gossipy item about the conversion, she ends with this quote from Former Rep. Vin Weber, now a lobbyist at Clark & Weinstock:
Becoming Catholic isn’t simple.
“It’s harder than becoming a Lutheran or a Methodist,” said Weber. “You go through several months of preparation — it’s not like joining a country club.”
Now I don’t know how anyone from Minnesota could know so little about Lutherans but at my Lutheran congregation and every Lutheran congregation I’ve been a member of, there’s no set amount of time that one must be catechized before reception into the faith or communion. But the minimum is “several months.” For my husband, it took years from start to finish. From his first visit to our church to baptism was at least four or five years. And the last two or three years were spent in regular catechesis. Our pastor teaches ongoing catechesis classes for interested parties and individualized instruction as well.
Catechumens are taught the key accounts and teachings of Scripture, the “whats” and “whys” of liturgical worship, Christ-centered prayer, church history and the basics of the Small and Large Catechisms. And at the end, you’re not guaranteed membership. If our pastor determines that the candidate has learned the chief parts of the Christian faith and is able and and willing to confess them; if the catechumen has shown a desire to worship God and receive the sacraments and has given evidence of faithful participation in the Divine Service; and if the catechumen demonstrates the desire to renounce his or her sin and live as a Christian — then he or she may become a member. My church might do things differently than other Lutheran churches but such catechesis is the norm for reception into traditional, sacramental, liturgical churches.
Now, reporters can’t be responsible for all the misstatements of their sources but there’s an obligation to balance out the “country club” slur.