Time Magazine recently featured a story by Amy Sullivan on the Conversion of Newt Gingrich to Catholicism along with references to the conversion of other well-known individuals. I thought I might present excerpts for the article along with my own commentary in RED. By the way, I am aware that a figure like Newt Gingrich arouses strong feelings from both sides of the political spectrum. The focus in this post is not on politics, but on the path to Catholicism of several prominent individuals and what we can learn from their stories. Here then follows the Time article and my comments.
Visitors to the Basilica of the National Shrine in northeast Washington often do a double take when they see Newt Gingrich and his familiar shock of white hair slip into a pew for the noon Mass on Sundays. The former Speaker of the House is known for many things, but religious zeal is not one of them. In fact, the social conservatives who fueled his Republican revolution in 1994 often complained about Gingrich’s lack of interest in issues like abortion or school prayer. (I remember these concerns well).
This past spring, however, after several decades as a nominal Southern Baptist, Gingrich converted to Catholicism. With the fervor of a convert, he has embraced the role of defending both his new faith and religious liberty. In his 2006 book Rediscovering God in America, Gingrich lambasted what he calls the “secular effort to reject any sense of a spiritual life as mattering.” …
American Catholicism has been losing members at a remarkable rate; an April 2009 Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life report found that for every person who joins the Catholic Church, four others leave. (I do not agree with this characterization of the Pew data. It is true that last year for the first time there were fewer Catholic in this country than the year before. But that is the first year that the number ever went negative. The number of Catholics has actually increased in every year prior to last year. What HAS decreased is the number of Catholics who practice their faith by attending Mass each Sunday. That number has dropped from over 80% in the 1950s to 27% this past year. I read the Pew Study and saw no data that support the statement that 4 Catholics leave the Church for every one who enters it. That seems a great exaggeration and, even if true, would only apply to last year. It is true that there are A LOT of former Catholics in this country but that is because we are so big in the first place (ca 70 million). Thus, even if a small percentage of Catholics leave it still a large number)
But a steady stream of high-profile political conservatives have bucked this trend by converting in the past decade, including columnist Robert Novak, Kansas Senator Sam Brownback and CNBC host Larry Kudlow. Unlike Evangelicals, for whom conversion is often an emotional, born-again experience, Catholic converts tend to make more of a considered decision to join a theological and intellectual tradition. “Conservatives are especially receptive to the promise of there being some capital-T truth that one can embed one’s convictions in,” says Damon Linker, a former editor of the Catholic journal First Things. Gingrich describes the appeal of Catholicism for him in just these terms. “When you have 2,000 years of intellectual depth surrounding you,” he told me on a recent summer morning, “it’s comforting…. (It is true, Catholicism is a thoughtful faith. We have a long and varied intellectual tradition that stretches back right to the time of Jesus himself. Futher, we exist in every part of the world. This combination of space and time have permitted the Church to develop a very sophisticated and thoughtful intellectual tradition. This ALSO presents challenges for the Church however. In an age that favors sound-bytes, quick answers, and simple solutions, the often nuanced and thoughtful Catholic tradition is sometimes hard to proclaim and the modern media age tunes out quickly. For a faith that makes careful distinctions like ours, it is a special challenge to present simple answers to complex questions in a way that respects our thoughtfulness but does not seem remote and technical. It can be done but it is difficult in the current age of the sound byte).
Catholicism offers Gingrich not just a strong religious tradition and community. It also gives him peace at home. His wife Callista is a lifelong Catholic who sings in the basilica’s professional choir. After the two married in 2000, Gingrich found himself dragged to church whenever they traveled–“she’s adamant that we go to Mass”–and started attending services at the basilica to hear Callista sing. (Pay attention folks. It is usually a connection to the faith via family or friends that brings people to Church. Perhaps the most fruitful field for evangelization is in our own family. With 70% of Catholics having fallen away, we have a bumper crop sitting at our own dinner tables. Further, over 40% of Catholics marry a non-Catholic. This too provides the basis for a lot of conversions. Are you evangelizing your own family?)
It’s not surprising that a man of Gingrich’s ambitions would be drawn to the grandeur of worship at the basilica. Incense hangs in the air as the choir’s descant reverberates off the highly polished walls of the Greek-style interior. “Isn’t it just beautiful?” Gingrich asks. “That’s part of what happened to me.” (Her husband, Callista says, is an enthusiastic but limited singer: “He makes a joyful noise.”) (Pay attention again. Beauty is in service of the truth. Our liturgies should inspire faith and reflect its beauty. Liturgy well and enthusiastically celebrated is also a powerful way to evangelize. How are the liturgies in your parish. Do they show forth beauty and faith? This goes a long way to inspire conversion).
Gingrich prepared for his conversion with Monsignor Walter Rossi, the basilica’s rector. Because the institution is not a parish church, Gingrich’s baptism took place at St. Joseph’s on Capitol Hill, where Robert Kennedy attended morning Mass when he served in the Senate. Washington Archbishop Donald Wuerl performed the ceremony, with his predecessor Cardinal Theodore McCarrick in attendance.
He may march to the beat of St. Peter these days, but Newt is still Newt. “I don’t think of myself as intensely religious,” he says. Asked about Pope Benedict XVI’s latest encyclical, Caritas in Veritate, the first economic and social statement of his papacy, Gingrich admits he hasn’t yet read the whole thing but opines that the parts he has examined are “largely correct.” And before Mass one July Sunday, Gingrich took a seat near the aisle and bowed his head. But he wasn’t praying. Instead, the famously voracious reader was sneaking in a few pages of a novel until the service began.( 🙂 Well OK, there is still room for improvement! But isn’t that our own story as well. Conversion is not so much an event, it is a process. We make a beginning with the Lord. Through the sacraments and the liturgy the Lord continues to minister to us and, if we are faithful, little by little we are transformed, we become more intense, more trusting, more faithful, more loving and so forth. An old gospel song says, “I’m not what I want be but I’m not what I used to be!” May God bring to completion the good work he has begun in us! Remember: we never stop evangelizing others and we never stop being evangelized. Keep your hand on the plow – Hold on!)