What should Catholics think about Newt Gingrich’s candidacy? Let me take a page from the former speaker’s own pedagogical style and consider this from history.
The Puritans, whom Alexis de Tocqueville credited for defining the American soul, thought that among sinful believers were some few saints predestined by Providence for salvation. Saints manifested their anointment by leading lives of rigid moral perfection. Given the corruption of this world, they thought that only saints should lead and govern.
Even a quick survey of Catholic political cultures reveals that Catholics are not Puritans. With one exception, our saints sinned. Nobody is predestined for salvation and even the worst serial sinners can seek and receive serial forgiveness seven times seventy times. From our perspective, the peccadilloes of Mr. Gingrich’s past in no way disqualify him for governance. His recent conversion to our faith is a poignant reaffirmation of what we believe.
That said, Catholic values are a hard fit for American political candidates—including for Gingrich.
Maybe this is also owing in part to America’s puritanical bent. Puritans thought that government was at best a necessary evil required primarily to combat a greater evil in the world. In this negative conception, the role of government is not that of expansively building civilization in hopes to fulfill the common good but instead the much more limited role of securing order for the private exercise of virtue.
On the other hand, Catholic political thinking aims for more. It advocates a positive view of government in light of what can be accomplished together amidst the richness of divine gifts. With this comes a wide array of responsibilities charged to government, these include: a responsibility to promote life, a responsibility to put the needs of the poor foremost in our measures of policy, a responsibility to steward God’s creation, a responsibility to enrich not merely purses but rather the whole of citizens’ lives, a responsibility to welcome the immigrant, to seek and promote peace, and so on. These responsibilities are not merely moral imperatives for individuals but also our collective responsibilities as a nation.
Mr. Gingrich’s long record in Congress, his many recent policy proposals, and especially the rhetorical “tea party” excesses of some of his remarks on the campaign trail hint at a worldview that is not wholly consonant with traditional Catholic thinking. We might praise his opposition to abortion, for example, but still ask if the government must not also work to reduce the incidence of capital punishment? Does he agree with Catholic teachings about the priority of the needs of the poor in policymaking? About government’s responsibility to promote peace? About the rights of workers to unionize? We might praise his support for marriage, but where is his support for policy efforts to guarantee the kind of living wages that are so necessary for families to thrive? Church leaders have insisted that governments are obliged to assure that all have health care, but Gingrich would turn back the clock on efforts to provide such comprehensive coverage. Unlike most Republicans, Gingrich at least endorses the American Catholic bishops’ insistence that the country provide some path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, but he would limit such amnesty only to those who have lived in America for more than twenty years, which does nothing to address the inhumanity of possibly deporting millions and millions of more recent immigrants. Here as in many other areas, the former speaker struggles.
Unlike the Puritans, Catholics don’t expect saints in politics. We measure good governance not by individual virtue, but by the common good. It’s not Newt Gingrich’s past that should be on Catholic minds.
Stephen Schneck is a board member of Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good.
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