When Catholic University announced in January 2005 that Newt Gingrich would deliver a speech on campus, a group of students rose up in protest, accusing the twice-divorced, admitted philanderer of violating the Catholic values that their school was founded upon. Four years later, just last week, on March 24, Gingrich blasted another hallowed institution of Catholic higher learning: “It is sad to see Notre Dame invite President Obama to give the commencement address since his policies are so anti-Catholic values,” Gingrich wrote on Twitter of the president’s scheduled May address. What happened?
During the George W. Bush era, Gingrich rose quietly from the ruins of his failed crusade to impeach President Bill Clinton, trying to transform himself from a Republican pariah into a voice of conscience for the badly demoralized conservative movement. The religious-right elements that helped orchestrate Gingrich’s downfall as Speaker of the House became the catalyst for his resurrection and may now propel him into contention for the GOP presidential nomination in 2012. But winning them over has not been easy. Before earning a seat at their table, Gingrich has had to confess his darkest sins and beg for redemption, first on the radio show of his former nemesis, James Dobson, and then before a priest at St. Joseph’s Rectory, a Catholic church on Capitol Hill.
Indeed, on Sunday, March 29, Gingrich converted to Catholicism, the faith of his third wife, Calista Bisek. Though the ceremony was announced without fanfare, leading Catholic conservatives like Deal Hudson are brimming with excitement. Hudson was the most important Catholic political adviser to President Bush and Karl Rove, founder of the seminal Catholic journal, Crisis magazine, and self-described “theocon.” He contends that Gingrich’s conversion represents more than a concession to his wife; it signals a dramatic break from the past, both personally and politically.
“From a Catholic point of view,” Hudson told me, “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.”