Saturday, May 23, 2009

Conversion: Newt Gingrich Opens Up

G.K. Chesterton once said: “Marriage is an adventure, like going to war.” Conversion, however, is in itself the act by which one enters into a marriage to God and afterwards a life of constant spiritual warfare against sin in its many forms. In the world, man is tempted towards the sins of greed and anger while easily tempted by pride and envy, the sins of the devil. Lastly, the weakness of flesh can lead one to a life of gluttony and lust.

Newt Gingrich has faced the temptations of these kinds during his many years of public office but has found new strength in the Catholic Church.

Oddly enough, his entry into the Church only began to happen after he left public office ten years ago when he served as House Speaker. His wife, Callista, said it was “ten years in the making.” While Gingrich said that the “whole effort to create a ruthless, amoral, situational ethics culture has probably driven me toward a more overt Christianity,” it was “over the course of the last decade, attending the basilica ... reading the literature, that there was a peace in my soul and a sense of wellbeing in the Catholic Church…”

Some may not know this, but Newt Gingrich is a professor of history and I had a suspicion that the history of the Catholic Church played some role in his entry into the Church. He went on to say that his initial move towards Catholicism occurred “the first time we [he and his wife] went to St. Peter’s [Basilica] together. It’s St. Peter’s. I mean, you stand there and you think this is where St. Peter was crucified. This is where Paul preached. You think to yourself, two thousand years ago the apostles set out to create a worldwide movement by witnessing to the historic truth they had experienced. And there it is. The last time we were there we were allowed to walk in the papal gardens and you get this sense that is almost mystical.”

And that’s the thing about Catholicism. Its roots are tied in history to the first century and beyond – to Jesus and the apostles, to the first martyrs, and the great saints and theologians like St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Augustine, and St. Athanasius. So many Christians today have missed the continuity of their faith and can look back only so far as the 16th Century to protesters from Luther to Zwingly, from Calvin to Wesley.

Very few can give a solid reason for their faith.

Not surprisingly Gingrich said: “…part of me is inherently medieval. I resonate to Gothic churches and the sense of the cross in a way that is really pre-modern.” Okay, so one doesn’t have to be “medieval” to be a Catholic, but that period is the period in which the Catholic Church invented the university system, laid one of the oldest legal codes known to man, and literally rebuilt civilization on God and faith after the collapse of the Roman Empire in 476 AD. Not bad.

That being said, while the media and Gingrich himself have described his joining the Catholic Church a “conversion” he has, however, lost nothing of his Christianity in becoming Catholic. It seems to me that each Protestant denomination took an element of the Catholic Faith and ran with it. In Newt’s case, his Baptist background is quite Jesus-centered and Bible-based. In joining the Catholic Church, however, he has found the Christo-centric nature of the sacraments (especially the Eucharist) and even in Marian dogmas (Mary is, after all, only so important because she is the mother of Jesus, the God-Man). As to the Bible, the Catholic Church is the one that wrote it, compiled it, and declared which books belonged in it.

There is, however, a constant conversion that one experiences throughout life. To this I would say Newt did make a large conversion in his joining the Catholic Church. He lost nothing but gained so much and become much more Christ-like in the process. And if becoming more Christ-like is the definition of furthering conversion, he experienced quite a conversion.

In conclusion, Newt Gingrich only discovered faith in a loose sense during the late 1960’s. Prior to this he found himself leaning towards a more liberal agenda. In one anecdote, he said: “As a college student at Emory when the Supreme Court ruled that school prayer was unconstitutional [in 1963] after 170 years of American history, I didn’t notice it. As a graduate student at Tulane I probably would have said it’s a good decision. I’ve now had an additional 40 years to think about it. And I think about the world of my grandchildren. I don’t think American children are healthier, safer, and better off today than they were in 1963. So I have actually become more conservative in response to the failure of the liberal ethos to solve problems.”

During forty years as a Christian with many ups and downs, I can only wonder what his life and political decisions will be like as a new Catholic. Good luck Newt.

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