The Audacity of Poping

The much-married Newt Gingrich converts to Catholicism this weekend—and I’d pay a year’s salary to have been a bug on the wall during his religious instruction.

Chris Hondros / Getty Images

Brace yourselves for a tsunami of punditry this weekend, when the much-married Newt Gingrich is received into the Catholic Church.

This would ordinarily be a private occasion, but Newt Gingrich is not ordinary. He is (I hedge) probably the most interesting putative candidate on the right at this point. Google “Gingrich” and “2012” and your hard drive will melt under a trillion hits. So attention to this event must and will be paid.

Click Here To View The Daily Beast's Gallery Of 12 Famous Converts.

BTW: “Poping” in the headline above, which—sorry—I couldn’t resist, is the traditional, British pejorative for “becoming a Catholic.” Did you hear the news? Bertie just Poped! There will be an undercurrent of anti-Catholic bias in the commentary about Mr. Gingrich’s embrace of Rome. As the saying goes, anti-Catholicism is the anti-Semitism of the intellectual class.

He and Mother Church—from whose tender embrace I myself have regrettably lapsed—will both be made out to be appalling hypocrites. Who among us should throw stones? But Mr. Gingrich’s marital history is a matter of public record, and it is not tidy. He first married at age 19, to his 26-year-old former high-school geometry teacher and then, so the story goes, presented her with divorce terms after she was wheeled out of cancer surgery.

Mrs. Gingrich #2 was dumped after her husband had carried on an extramarital affair with a fetching, blond congressional staffer named Callista Bisek, who went on to become the present Mrs. Gingrich #3. This Family Values paradigm was complicated by the fact that whilst Mr. Gingrich was filibustering Ms. Bisek over the Speaker’s desk, he was simultaneously leading the impeachment charge against a naughty president of the United States.

To be sure, Mr. Gingrich has since been at pains to emphasize that it was not Mr. Clinton’s naughtiness that he minded, but his perjury. Well, OK, but really, sir. As the noble Rochefoucauld taught us, “Hypocrisy is the homage that vice pays to virtue.”

As for Mother Church, she’ll come in for drubbing this weekend for seeming two-faced about the sanctity of marriage. As you know, divorce is still not allowed in the Catholic Church. But here insert a large “however”—she is liberal in the granting of annulments.

Mrs. Gingrich #2 publicly ventilated her displeasure back in 2000 after she received a letter from the Archdiocese of Atlanta informing her that her marriage was being annulled—that is, rendered ex post facto invalid—on the grounds of “ ligamen.” She had been married previously, so in the eyes of the church her marriage to Mr. Gingrich simply did not take place.

Mother Church can be rigid, but at times—bless her—she can think like a $700-an-hour K Street lawyer. Annulments are granted for a number of reasons: lack of discretion ( I didn’t realize the bum was a drunk at the time); defective consent ( The bum lied—he didn’t want kids all along); psychic incapacity ( The bum was a schizophrenic!); prior bond (see “ligamen,” above). As the Rev. John Catoir, a doctor of canon law, points out, “Forty years ago, people were told ‘You made your bed, now sleep in it.’” Thank God this is no longer the Church’s guiding philosophy. If the church had been this progressive in the matter of annulments back in the 1530s in merry olde England, the Archbishop of Canterbury would today be a Roman cardinal. But back to Newt….

His Web site’s motto—“Real Change Requires Real Change”—seems quite apt to the present occasion, even if it sounds like it was lifted from Peter Sellers’ Chance the Gardener in Being There. Gingrich is a protean fellow—continually evolving and re-inventing himself. He’s like another of his fellow Catholics—Madonna—only, well, different.

Mother Church can be rigid, but at times—bless her—she can think like a $700-an-hour K Street lawyer.

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Personally, I’m looking forward to the R.C. Newt. And I’d pay a year’s salary to have been a bug on the wall during his religious instruction. What an interesting catechumen he must have made! I think of Rex Mottram, Julia Flyte’s determined businessman suitor in Brideshead Revisited, and his obligatory religious instruction from a skeptical Father Mowbray.

Um, Mr. Mottram, how many natures would you say our Blessed Lord had?

Why, as many as you say, Father.

I see….

Mr. Gingrich’s brain is a 24/7 phenomenon: Half the time, you sit there just dazzled, the other half you want to stuff a baguette-end in his mouth to make him shut up. In the old days, the church would have assigned their best man to the case—a Fulton Sheen. When Clare Boothe Luce, one of the notable Catholic converts of her day, was asked whom she wanted to hear her first confession, she replied, “Bring me someone who has seen the rise and fall of empires!” They don’t make converts like that anymore. Or maybe they do.

Newt Gingrich has certainly seen his own empire rise, and fall. Whether it will rise again is probably doubtful, but it will be interesting to watch. As to the substance of the thing: To paraphrase St. Thomas More, who lost his head over the non-granting of an annulment, I have no window to look into another man’s soul. (Unlike, say, George W. Bush’s ability to plumb the numinous depths of Vladimir Putin’s by looking into his icy blues.) It would be churlish in this Lenten season to suppose that Mr. Gingrich’s conversion is anything but deeply felt and sincere.

The stated reason for it is that he wishes to worship alongside his wife, who is described on her husband’s Web site as “a devoted Catholic.” To the extent her devotedness is assessed alongside her early relationship with the then-married Mr. Gingrich, it should be borne in mind that to be “devoted” is not the same as being “perfect”: She is “a member of the choir of the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington.” She has sung for a pope. And, to judge from her photos of a Barry Manilow concert in Las Vegas—you can view the slideshow for yourself—is a capable amateur photographer.

Her singing, along with the prominence of her husband, the most high-level R.C. “catch” since Tony Blair, will doubtless bring her into continued contact with present and future vicars of Rome. I’d give another year’s salary—or ten thousand more years in Purgatory—to listen in on those audiences. Which puts one inevitably in mind of another Clare Boothe Luce vignette: At one point during one of her papal audiences, the exasperated pontiff is said to have thrown up his hands and said, “But Mrs. Luce—I too am Catholic!”

Christopher Buckley’s books include Supreme Courtship, The White House Mess, Thank You for Smoking, Little Green Men, and Florence of Arabia. He was chief speechwriter for Vice President George H.W. Bush, and is editor at large of ForbesLife.