Newt Gingrich’s political opponents criticize him for his three marriages and his two religious conversions. Newt was first a Lutheran, then a Baptist, and converted to Catholicism in 2009. Newt’s detractors imply these biographical facts are signs of instability and lack of moral conviction. Perhaps they think they can undermine Newt’s political support among conservative Protestants and Catholics by highlighting these details of his life. If so, their tactics could backfire--especially among Catholics.
Almost all Catholics know at least one adult convert whose life was spiritually transformed after entering the Church. In fact, Catholic history is replete with stories of people who led self-indulgent, dissolute lives but who changed dramatically after some sort of religious conversion. St. Augustine, for example, was a bit of rogue with women; but he had a radical change of heart and went on to become not only a saint but one of the greatest theologians of the Catholic Church. Francis of Assisi, founder of the original Franciscan religious order, and Ignatius Loyola, founder of the Jesuits, were completely absorbed by the quest for pleasure when they were young men; but both men experienced radical conversions and became saints.
Indeed, over the last two centuries, adult converts have provided the Catholic Church with a great deal of its intellectual and spiritual vigor, especially in England and the United States. In England, Cardinal John Henry Newman, G. K. Chesterton, and Ronald Knox converted to Catholicism and became famous apologists for the Catholic Church. In the United States, Orestes Brownson, a former Unitarian minister and a member of the Transcendentalists, converted to Catholicism in 1844, an event so shocking that a Boston Protestant pastor attributed it to an “unbalanced mind”. And in the twentieth century, Dorothy Day turned her back on a Bohemian lifestyle to become a Catholic. She founded the Catholic Worker movement and devoted the rest of her life to the poor. Dorothy Day has been named a Servant of God by the Vatican, the first step toward canonization.
Some of Newt’s critics describe him scornfully as a “cafeteria” Catholic, a person who embraces some elements of Catholicism while rejecting others. Newt opposes abortion and same-sex marriage, for example; but he supports the death penalty, which is contrary to Catholic doctrine. And Newt has not endorsed the humane views of the American Catholic bishops toward our nation’s undocumented immigrants.
But many Catholics will affirm that conversion is a lifelong process for most people. Anyone--Catholic or non-Catholic--whose life is a spiritual journey, goes through a process of discernment that can lasts many years, with some religious truths revealing themselves only after a long period of time. Would New Gingrich be a better Catholic if he opposed the death penalty and was more compassionate toward undocumented immigrants? Probably--but who knows how his beliefs might change as his faith matures? After all, Newt has only been a Catholic for about two years.
In short, Newt’s three marriages and two religious conversions might actually strengthen his appeal among Catholics. And who knows? Newt might someday become the first American president to be canonized. If so, he would join a list of people that includes Ignatius Loyola, Francis of Assisi, St. Augustine, and Dorothy Day--people who radically changed after becoming Catholic and went on to lead saintly lives.