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Republican presidential candidate and former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich (L) speaks at the Heartland Acres Agribition Center as his wife Callista Gingrich listens on January 2, 2012 in Independence, Iowa.
It is not clear that Newt Gingrich will be the Republican party’s presidential nominee, much less the next president of the United States. But asking the question about a “Catholic president” sharpens what “Catholic” means in politics.
One becomes a Catholic by Baptism, obliged to observe the commandments of God: do not lie, steal, fight, or commit adultery. Catholics are also supposed to go to Mass on Sundays. Mr. Gingrich qualifies best for the first and the last practices on this list, with a dubious record for the in-betweens. He has been rejected by his party for unethical behavior, married three times and twice remarried. Many in Catholic America can not understand why Mr. Gingrich was able to have his third marriage recognized by the church. But John F. Kennedy had failings on the sixth commandment, just like Gingrich, and is still revered as “the first Catholic president of the United States.” Availing himself of the Catholic sacrament of Reconciliation, Mr. Gingrich’s sins can be forgiven. If Baptism and Sunday Mass are all that is need to be Catholic, then Mr. Gingrich is another JFK.
A far more complicated assessment of Catholicity is how the church’s teachings impact on presidential decisions. John F. Kennedy clearly separated his administration from a “Catholic agenda.” In fact, he probably would not have been elected president without stating:
“Whatever issue may come before me as president–on birth control, divorce, censorship, gambling or any other subject–I will make my decision in accordance with these views, in accordance with what my conscience tells me to be the national interest, and without regard to outside religious pressures or dictates.”
Recently, however, some in the American hierarchy like Archbishop Chaput have rejected these principles and insisted instead on a new set of criteria. By Chaput’s standards, John F. Kennedy was not a Catholic president.
The political issues that directly engage Catholic teaching have familiar boundaries. Let’s begin with the social issues like abortion and same sex marriage. It is settled that no federal dollars can be used to fund abortions. Mr. Gingrich and the Republicans clearly agree with this principle (as also do President Obama and the Democrats). Catholic doctrine, however, bans
abortions — even those that follow rape or incest. Moreover, reversing the famous Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision merely returns abortion laws to the states. Only a constitutional amendment would end all abortions. That path has been pursued fruitlessly for nearly 40 years, although an alternative strategy reduces abortions by expanding family services. Mr. Gingrich opposes expanding such programs, choosing to support the amendment.
Same-sex marriage – like divorce — can be recognized in civil law without affecting how the church administers the sacrament. But should civil law force a Catholic understanding of marriage on non-Catholics? Mr. Gingrich intends to take the right of marriage away from persons of the same sex. Since he advocates a constitutional against both same sex marriage and abortion, he qualifies as a Chaput Catholic.
Medicaid and Medicare, Social Security, food-stamps, school lunches, etc. constitute social justice issues. The church teaches that the wealthy ought to share with the needy, whether by taxes or by free-will donations. But it would be unfair to assume that opposing
funding of such programs is an automatic rejection of Catholic social teaching. The principle of subsidiarity limits a higher governmental program from replacing a local and/or voluntary one that is already working. Mr. Gingrich has invoked subsidiarity in pushing repeal of Obama’s Affordable Health Care Act (AFHCA). Subsidiarity, however, is operative only when the social need has already been satisfied. And this is not the case without AFHCA, because someone dies every 12 minutes from lack of health insurance. Ironically, the AFHCA exactly follows the subsidiarity principle by not changing the private insurance for 80 percent of people, invoking federal law only for those languishing without insurance. Gingrich’s pledge to cut spending on social programs, here as elsewhere, qualifies as implementation of Catholic subsidiarity only and until there is proof that needs are addressed at the local level. Gingrich fails this test because it is not enough to be against something imperfect, a Catholic president ought to stand for something better. Time for Rick Santorum?