Newt Gingrich, the ebullient former Speaker of the House of Representatives, is enjoying an unanticipated rise in the Republican presidential candidates race. As a consequence of his quick ascendency, Mr. Gingrich is subject to the U.S. media’s obsessive attention to the minutiae of each candidate’s public and private life. Given that he is not an unknown to the American electorate – he has been media fodder for decades because of his ferocious attack mode as Speaker, his puritanical vilification of president Bill Clinton’s infidelities (at the same time he was romancing without restraint), and his involvement with that monster of Byzantine intrigue Freddie Mac – Mr. Gingrich is among the best prepared to weather this kind of media scrutiny.
And so we have historians poring over his every allusion to the Constitution, the Founding Fathers, the Civil War and his personal identification with the mighty shapers of political record, such as French president Charles de Gaulle.
But what we don’t have is any discussion of his Catholicism. Mitt Romney’s Mormon faith, by contrast, surfaces regularly as an election hurdle and has prompted no end of commentary in both religious and secular circles. What gives?
Although Canada’s two Speakers, Nöel Kinsella of the Senate and Andrew Scheer of the House of Commons, are practising Catholics, such knowledge is seen as irrelevant to the exercise of their respective duties, whereas in the U.S., the faith of the Leaders in the House and Senate is seen as a matter of public interest. The Majority Leader in the Senate, Harry Reid, is a Mormon ; the Speaker of the House, John Boehner, is a Catholic. Their religious affiliation surfaces as a matter of inquiry and comment in areas outside the ecclesial domain.
But Mr. Gingrich has yet to have his faith – his conversion to Catholicism is of recent vintage – appear at all in the numerous presidential debates, political profiles and fundraising events that now constitute the rhythm of his life. And this is most especially interesting because of the ideological iteration he brings to his new-found spiritual fervour.
Two years ago, as I was stepping down from a stint on the board of the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities in Washington, I was invited to a private luncheon with Mr. Gingrich, his wife Callista and an executive assistant, the purpose of which was to solicit my endorsement for his new film on Pope John Paul II. Having worked as a consultant for John McGreevy’s Inside the Vatican with Sir Peter Ustinov, they wanted me to give the film some stamp of quasi-approval. I said that I would be delighted to review the rushes and all conversation froze.
“The film is in the can,” observed a slightly flustered Mr. Gingrich. “I can’t endorse what I have not seen,” I replied, emboldened by the brazenness of the request. “I will send you a copy of the film but you must respond promptly as it is scheduled for release in several of the papal nunciatures [embassies] including the U.S. Embassy to the Holy See, and we would like it to be part of a push for use in Catholic institutions of higher education,” said Mr. Gingrich. Now, I froze.
I saw the film, Nine Days that Changed the World – a highly romanticized and selective reading of John Paul’s first visit to Poland following his election as Pope in 1978. Its partisan interpretation of the papal contribution to the unwinding of the Soviet empire was as tendentious as it was pious. No endorsement was forthcoming, but it didn’t matter; there were enough conservative Catholic think-tanks and strategically positioned high-fliers to make my paltry non-compliance insignificant.
But it wasn’t all bad news. Callista paid for the breakfast.
Michael W. Higgins is an author and vice-president of Mission and Catholic Identity at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Conn.