What kind of Catholic is Newt Gingrich?
Amid the hubbub surrounding the Gingrich surge, this is one question that has perplexed commentators of all religious and political persuasions. There’s no consensus about where to find the Catholic in Newt.
At this point, the question is not where it is exactly, but where to begin looking.
So, let’s review speculation about the Catholicity of Newt Gingrich. I’ll also advance my own hypothesis and give it a professorial flourish by using a suitably big word.
Hypothesis number one: The new Catholic Newt is simply being American.
Playfully characterizing Gingrich as a “religious flip-flopper” draws attention to how Gingrich, like many other Americans, has seemingly changed his religion to suit prevailing fashion. Perhaps there’s also an ironic part to this interpretation in that Gingrich has supposedly made use of the religious market place to embrace a religion that would take umbrage if treated as a “commodity.”
It might be reasonable enough to see Gingrich’s Catholicity as a kind of epiphenomenon reflecting American cultural propensities–after all, Newt is indeed American. But conversion as “flip-flop” seems to preclude understanding conversion as a turn toward something; it’s not just a lurching back and forth from one view to another. It also makes the Catholic in Newt hard to locate.
Hypothesis number two: Professor Newton Leroy Gingrich has recognized Catholicism’s intellectual appeal.
Reading oneself into Catholicism has a long and venerable history. For some generations, it was Karl Adam’s The Spirit of Catholicism or Ronald Knox’s The Belief of Catholics that opened up a new intellectual vista. For later generations, it was Thomas Merton’s The Seven Storey Mountain or Malcolm Muggeridge’s Something Beautiful for God that made Catholic spirituality accessible and real. For Newt Gingrich, it seems to be volumes by George Weigel and a book by Benedict XVI.
But apart from periodic references to “natural law,” there’s not much engagement with the breadth of the Catholic intellectual tradition in Gingrich’s writings and speeches — which is somewhat surprising since Gingrich likes reading lists, he even gave one to his Republican caucus in 1995. Identifying where Gingrich situates himself within Catholic intellectual paradigms is difficult. Is he partial to Aquinas or Augustine? Does he prefer Mariology or martyrology? Does his Catholicism 101 syllabus include more than one or two authors?
To his credit, Gingrich seconded Herman Cain’s statement that Republican candidates are not running to be “theologian in chief.”
Hypothesis number three: Former Speaker Gingrich has found Catholic ammunition for the culture wars.
Gingrich speaks often about the dangers of secularism. His views on the subject range from concern about eroding values to apocalyptic visions of America’s fall into relativism. Andrew Sullivan, for one, sees similarities between Gingrich’s positions and those of another strong critic of secularism and secularization: Pope Benedict XVI.
Gingrich has recently drawn fire for having said that life begins at implantation rather than conception. Certainly, many of Gingrich’s other views also seem to depart quite markedly from the mainstream of the Catholic intellectual and ethical tradition. Gingrich’s support for pre-emptive war, waterboarding, and child-labor would probably not earn him a Papal medal.
Of course, both Republican and Democratic Catholics struggle with the fact that neither political party reflects the totality of Catholic teaching. Liberal Catholics would reflexively write Gingrich off. For their part, many conservative Catholics cannot square Gingrich’s positions and behavior with Catholic teaching. Gingrich has a conservative aura that isn’t exactly a halo.
Locating Catholicism in Newt’s specific policy proposals is like trying to read a map without a key or legend. Some Catholics would agree with Gingrich’s positions and politics, but it’s hard to see Catholicism as the dominant framework for his critique of America and its ills.
Hypothesis four: Newt loves Catholic style.
This is my hypothesis. I would go so far as to say that Newt is a “Catholic “aesthete” — that’s my big word. Aesthetes appreciate art and beauty. But here I’m not referring to the fact that Newt is a Catholic who shops at Tiffany’s or one who might rhapsodize over scarlet choir dress and other Catholic eye-candy. Instead, for Newt, Catholicism’s beauty seems to be in its “bigness.” After all, the Catholic Church can often have a weighty, serious, style.
Gingrich once called himself a “grandeur conservative.” It’s interesting that one of Gingrich’s books, Rediscovering God in America, discusses America’s religious roots via a tour through Washington D.C.’s architecture: the monuments give bulk to the ideas. It’s not surprising that when Gingrich talks about Catholicism, he refers to St. Peter’s basilica and the person of The Holy Father—a point dully noted by commentators in their initial work-up of Gingrich’s conversion to Catholicism. He also quite interestingly describes Catholicism as a two-thousand year old “movement.”
But grandeur includes more than buildings, personages, and movements. In his speeches, Gingrich often assumes a magisterial posture. He has speculated that he might even give classes if elected to the White House — as if becoming president brought with it a special kind of teaching authority. Gingrich’s ideas not only have a terrestrial purview in their effort to reclaim American territory for God, there’s also an otherworldly, even salvific, quality to his proposals for space mirrors and lunar colonies. This is a vision that seeks to bridge heaven and earth.
Like it or not, Newt Gingrich does have a Catholic style. In fact, one reason that Catholics like myself react so strongly to him is because he reflects back to us a certain Catholic approach to things: bold and big, declarative and definitive, always asserting the inter-relatedness of all things and a comprehensive way to see and fix it all. It’s a style that’s familiar to Catholics and resonates with each of us in different, difficult, and contradictory ways.
Locating the Catholic in Newt really isn’t that hard: it’s right before our eyes; it’s been there before he or anyone else actually realized it.
Of course, much has been made of whether Newt Gingrich’s belief in grandeur is simply gussied up grandiosity. When talking about the visible grandeur of Catholicism — its history, institutions, and ritual — it’s important not to delink it from the spirituality that places all of it in proper perspective. To do otherwise would be a paradoxically secular move that separates religious form from its content, its style from its substance. That’s not only a challenge for Newt Gingrich and other Catholic politicians; it’s a challenge for all of us Catholics who wonder whether religion and politics can come together in a coherent and meaningful way.
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