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Gingrich’s Religion

The New York Times tells us about Newt Gingrich’s conversion to Catholicism. It tells us Gingrich is a “culture wars Catholic”, one who thinks that the defining struggle is against abortion, same-sex marriage and secularism. Or, put another way, he is a John Paul II Catholic, described by Michael Novak as

…those inspired by that pope to embrace traditional church teaching, eschewing calls to liberalize or modernize the faith…

Gingrich chose the Southern Baptist Church in college. His conversion to Catholicism began with a Vespers Service for Pope Benedict XVI at church in DC in which his wife sang. As Novak tells the NYT,

“He was just attracted by the stateliness and the beauty of the church, and the antiquity, and that’s what prodded his historical interest,” Mr. Novak said. “As he got involved with the history, it blew his mind. There was just so much of it and I don’t think he had understood that before, that he really had a sense of the intellectual tradition behind it.”

The Times says that Gingrich believes that western civilization is threatened by secularism, and by Islam, and that Catholicism is a bulwark against these foreign influences. It would be mean-spirited to point out that these reasons for changing religions are childish: it gives one peace, and it provides a convenient solution to a problem specific to conservatives, the fear of other intellectual and religious traditions. It’s better to consider an alternative view of the Church (as all Catholics and ex-Catholics refer to Catholicism).

There are three important strains in the Church: authority, mysticism, and intellectualism. My first contact with the authority of the Church was through discipline. Beginning in third grade, I went to parochial schools run by the Holy Cross. We were taught from the Baltimore Catechism, and we memorized the answers to hundreds of questions about the faith. I learned the cardinal virtues, the corporal and spiritual works of mercy, and the sins that cry out to heaven for vengeance. I was an altar boy, and a member of the choir until my voice changed. The boys served Mass, participated in 24-hour benedictions and novenas, got up at the crack of dawn in summer to go out to Notre Dame and serve Mass for visiting priests. These things were part of the discipline of the Church. Speaking for myself, I didn’t do them out of fear, or desire for inner peace, but because we all were expected to by our parents and by the nuns and priests, people who did the same things in their own lives, leading by example.

In my high school religious history classes, I learned about the dark side of the Church, the Borgia and Medici popes, the Inquisition, and wars of religion. I began to realize that discipline was part of the authority structure of the Church. One purpose was to make you amenable to the idea that some people knew more about faith than you did, and you knew who they were because of their titles. It wasn’t about them living the discipline, it was about their power.

Fortunately for me, my mother introduced me to the mystical side of the Church, through Thomas Merton; the formal side of discipline with The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius; and the intellectual side of the Church with an introductory volume on the works of Thomas Aquinas.

At Notre Dame, the text for my introductory Theology class was the documents of Vatican II. They made perfect sense to me. They were the natural outgrowth of a) the positive side of self-discipline and the authority that it earned for its practitioners, b) an intellectual tradition that could reconcile Aquinas with Kierkegaard and Camus, and c) a mysticism for a scientific culture, which informed the effort to make the rituals of the Church speak to us as individuals.

The hierarchy directed by the pope was transmuted to an understanding of the pope as Servant of the Servants of God. The idea papal infallibility controlling the laity gave way to the idea that the laity, the people who live their religion, through their experience and their collective understanding, lead the Church into a future that resonates with life as we actually live it with the help of priests and bishops, acting as the servants of the People of God.

None of this has anything to do with satisfying me or meeting any of my needs. The Church I grew up in taught me that words and feelings weren’t relevant. Acts, and only acts, counted. It isn’t whether I feel good about singing in the choir; instead, as Augustine says, those who sing pray twice. It doesn’t matter if I confess my sins and say penance, it matters if I struggle with myself to stop sinning. I can meditate on the Sacred Heart all I want to, but what matters is whether I feed the hungry.

The NYT article describes a different faith, one based on authority struggling with enemies. Secularism? But we have to take care of the sick and counsel the doubtful. Gay marriage? But we have to visit the imprisoned and forgive offenses willingly. Abortion? But we have to shelter the homeless and comfort the afflicted. It isn’t about us as individuals. It isn’t about the infallibility of the Pope, or the ability of a Bishop to punish through denial of the sacraments.

Novak, and apparently Gingrich, reject the Church envisioned by Vatican II. Their Church vests final authority in men, and I mean males, and the laity are their sheep. Gingrich and Novak may rejoice in Gregorian Chants infused with incense, and Papal Bulls and Tridentine Masses; that Church meets their needs. Vatican II taught us to serve the needs of others, and to approach the world with a loving and open mind. That Church doesn’t exist for Gingrich and a whole bunch of other Catholics in government.

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