Many folks–including Rod and the guys at Plumb Lines, just to cite two from our own blogroll–have taken notice of Newt Gingrich’s impending conversion to Catholicism. For several months, I’ve encountered various people in social situations, conservative Catholic types, who have excitedly retailed the news (or rumors). The general idea conveyed implicitly in these conversations is that this conversion is of great importance–I mean, important for reasons beyond what it ostensibly means for Mr. Gingrich’s personal life and postmortal fortunes.
The idea seems to be that Gingrich’s becoming Catholic will make some kind of significant difference, somehow. The details are hazy. Some of it is just “chalk another one up for our team!” enthusiasm, which is perfectly fine and understandable. I want to win as much as the next guy. But clearly there is an underlying notion that a fellow considered to be potentially electable in a presidential contest will now undoubtedly carry the flag for orthodox Catholics, representing their interests and convictions with high principle and pure devotion.
The only problem is that there is no reason whatsoever to believe this. I mean, there is no reason to believe that future Newt will be anything but past Newt, considered publicly. It is unwarranted in the first place to think that serious, practicing Catholics will automatically agree on matters of social, economic, and political philosophy and policy. To state the thesis in a more moderate form, it is unwarranted to believe that they would agree if they were all pious enough or smart enough or understood the faith enough. That’s not how it works. The church doesn’t declaim authoritatively on anything that isn’t a matter of faith or morals because it can’t. Outside the quite small realm of faith and morals, there’s ample room for disagreement and debate even among Catholics of good will and well-formed consciences. (I am not claiming to be a Catholic of good will, and certainly not one with a well-formed conscience; I’m just laying out the theory here, as well as I understand it.)
But let me come to the interesting and in some ways opposite point. Gingrich is the latest in a steadily lengthening string of high-profile converts to Rome among political conservatives and neoconservatives. In the last few years, that list includes Sam Brownback and Robert Novak and Robert Bork and Larry Kudlow and a number of others.
Now, reflect, and let me know if I’m wrong. Did any of these men (or any other high-profile politician/journalist/muckety-muck convert not listed here) change his public opinions about any idea, policy, or other matter of public significance after his conversion? You might argue that Brownback has become more of an international crusader since becoming a Catholic, but I’m not sure that this is a departure from his previous stance; in any case, he supports Obama’s appointment of the deeply pro-abortion Kansas Governor Kathleen Sebelius, a Catholic, for the HHS secretary post (see Caleb’s post), a bit of realpolitik that one supposes wouldn’t impress the saints. I don’t recall Judge Bork altering or suppressing his views on the death penalty or the Iraq War out of deference to the Holy See’s articulation of its deep and weightily considered rejection of those positions. Not that he had to. My point here is simply that high-profile politico conversions such as Newt’s seldom if ever lead to . . . well, any change of public import whatsoever. They’re simply utterly irrelevant. The proper response should be: “Good for him. I hope that he’s a better Catholic than I am. Honey, can you pick up some milk on your way home tomorrow?”
A second point: Many of these men have come into the church having been in connection with Opus Dei. I wonder, do the Opus Dei sponsors challenge their catechumens to consider, or reconsider, the full teachings and doctrines of the church in light of their new status as Catholics? Do they review their policy convictions and public pronouncements and point out how some of them might be at odds or at least in tension with the faith?
Or, on the other hand, and as seems to the far-off casual observer might be the case, are they told that Catholicism is simply the religious expression of the conventionally conservative Republican political views that they now hold, and that thus the church offers no problem for the public profiles they have crafted? That it’s a perfect marriage, and no need to delve further? It’s hard not to notice that new Catholic converts of the Gingrich type seem never to change a single political opinion because they have converted. They do not begin quoting, favorably and honestly, the great social encyclicals of the last hundred years in ways that challenge the party line or might get them in trouble with the Club for Growth. That’s a matter of some curiosity to me. Whatever the reasons–and I am sure that they range from simple ignorance to callowness to a lust for power to the determined, heartfelt belief that they are right–they add up to this fact: these conversions don’t matter, politically. If you’re staking anything on them, you’re going to be disappointed–or misled.