Mirror of Justice

A blog dedicated to the development of Catholic legal theory.
Affiliated with the Program on Church, State & Society at Notre Dame Law School.

Monday, February 28, 2011

Should Newt Gingrich's marital history be relevant to Catholic voters?

Newt Gingrich is apparently on the verge of launching his presidential bid, and he is making an effort to connect with religious conservatives.  A recent convert to Catholicism, Gingrich is outspoken about the need to make space for religion in public life, even comparing the U.S. today to 1979 Poland, with a "cultural elite" trying to create a secularized country.  Gingrich also has a checkered past on the marital front, of course.  As such, there is some skepticism that religious conservatives will embrace him.  (There also is quite a bit of glee, I'm sure, among reporters who will get lots of opportunities to skewer a "family values" candidate for hypocrisy.)  My question is this: to what extent should Catholics consider Gingrich's history of divorce and infidelity in evaluating his candidacy?  Is it enough that he expresses regret for his actions, or is even that unnecessary without a nexus between the misconduct and his ability to govern?  Any Thomists want to chime in?


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I am not, of course, a Thomist (at least not that I know of), but I am going to take the liberty of responding anyway. By way of a warning, my thoughts are not focused on Catholicism, because I believe that the concerns raised in the original post are matters that should be of general concern to all Americans.

In my view, Newt Gingrich's marital history does not matter in itself. What matters far more to me are the following: (1) his hypocrisy to the extent that he purports to embrace a family values platform while living in a manner that calls the sincerity of that embrace into question, and (2) concerns about his capacity (or lack thereof) for the crucial human values of honesty, loyalty and commitment. In my opinion, everyone considering supporting any candidate should examine not just what they say, but also what they do. Is someone capable of the massive disloyalty and deception in his private life that Mr. Gingrich seems to have exhibited someone we want running the country? Mr. Gingrich spent many years engaged in various betrayals of and deceptions against various spouses. Surely a short-term expression of repentance is inadequate to enable the public to trust him, whatever the religious significance of any acts of contrition he has performed.

Posted by: Ellen Wertheimer | Feb 28, 2011 12:19:39 PM

With respect to whether someone capable of massive disloyalty and deception is someone we want running the country, I guess that depends on whether the person's disloyalty and deception would be practiced in his public duties. We don't want a president who is disloyal and deceiving in his public duties, but we might not care much if the person is disloyal and deceiving in private affairs but a stand-up guy as to the public duties. Judge Posner in his book on the Clinton impeachment makes the private/public distinction.

If a short-term expression of repentance is inadequate for the public to trust him, that may be because of the public's decision-making methods, not necessarily Gingrich's failings. That is to say, suppose the repentance is real ... and it should be accepted by all rights b/c it is genuine and will be long-lasting ... but the public would still be leery, it seems to me.

Posted by: DFoley | Feb 28, 2011 1:09:14 PM

It has happened to me a number of times that I have been browsing in a bookstore, picked up a book that looked interesting, found a blurb on the back by Newt Gingrich, and hastily put the book back on the shelf.

Posted by: David Nickol | Feb 28, 2011 1:47:20 PM

I'll google later, but do you have a link to a good summary of how contrite he's been? I find that many purported apologies, if by politicos, turn out to be watered-down, conditional, mush. "If anyone took offense, I regret that." In other words, I regret their decision to be so easily offended! Or "I regret getting caught." Not a flat "I was wrong. I hurt people. I am sorry."

So how does Newt fare? I think adultery usually requires apologies to family, not the general public, but here, the public/hypocritical aspects requires that we all get the mea culpa. That's especially so given the Clinton impeachment, and that Newt was simultaneously driving the House train and cheating himself.

Posted by: curious | Feb 28, 2011 2:03:07 PM

David, you can't judge a book by its front cover, but you can judge it by the blurbs on the back! :-)

Posted by: passing by | Feb 28, 2011 2:43:57 PM

I'd just like to take a moment to say that, as far as Church teaching is concerned, both divorce and things like chronic masturbation or homosexuality are the same kind of sin: they separate the gift of sexuality from the sanctity of marriage, which is supposed to mirror the nature of the Trinity in being both unitive and generative.

The difference is that a man who has divorced his wife and remarried can continue to live with his sin with impunity as long as he publicly apologizes. Nobody will fault him. If we were discussing a lesbian presidential candidate, however, I find it unlikely that there would even be a question, among Catholic political bloggers, about whether her relationship history should be relevant to Catholic voters.

Posted by: Michael Aletheias | Feb 28, 2011 3:10:13 PM

According to the following article, Mr. Gingrich submitted himself to the Church's juridical process regarding his previous marriages when he converted. Every evidence suggests Mr. Gingrich's conversion was sincere and he has done everything the Church asked of him regarding his prior marriages. One notices the stark contrast to the "cafeteria Catholic" politicians (mostly) on the Democrat side .. too many to seat in one cafeteria ..

Are we prepared to give Bernard Nathanson a pass on 70,000 abortions committed prior to his "epiphany" and yet question the sincerity of Newt Gingrich's conversion?!


Posted by: MarkC | Feb 28, 2011 3:38:10 PM

Please Note: I meant no disrespect to Mr. Nathansen or to the sincerity of his conversion (I was not aware until just now that he was a convert to Catholicism) .. He has more than demonstrated a sincere conversion and an heroic figure in the Pro-life movement.

Posted by: MarkC | Feb 28, 2011 3:48:57 PM

passing by,

I will also not by a book with a blurb by John Shelby Spong.

Part of the pleasure of browsing is judging books by their covers.

Posted by: David Nickol | Feb 28, 2011 4:09:12 PM

Mark C’s cafeteria comment is interesting (though I’m not sure “Democrat” politicians are the only folks in the cafeteria, since I’m sure I’ve seen some “Republic” ones eating there too on occasion).

I’m actually wondering that if in converting to Catholicism, which after all has a very rich social teaching tradition that fits rather poorly into our often impoverished political landscape, a tradition that should really challenge all of use but especially those seeking public office, Mr. Gingrich actually changed any of his previous political positions. In other words, did his conversion to Catholicism make any real difference to his political orientation (as I have no doubt it likely did in other areas of his life)? If not, what does that tell us about the weakness of our Church’s social witness?

Of course, it could be that Mr. Gingrich’s positions have all been in accord with the teachings of our tradition’s great encyclicals all along so the conversion was a politically easy one, but I suspect that if he began running for president on the moral commitments and policy implications articulated in, say, BXVI’s Caritas in Veritate, he wouldn’t have a shot getting the nomination of either party.

To be fair, this is a problem for any Catholic politician, not just Gingrich. If their being Catholic makes them no different than other politicians—left, right, or center—then what’s the point of their being Catholic at all?

Posted by: Dave Cochran | Feb 28, 2011 4:22:56 PM

To paraphrase the Gospel, if we can't trust Newt in small important matters, how can we trust him in large important matters.

Posted by: CK | Feb 28, 2011 5:56:56 PM

"even comparing the U.S. today to 1979 Poland..."

Shouldn't this alone be enough to indicate that Gingrich is either too dumb or too dishonest to be president?

Posted by: Matt | Feb 28, 2011 6:48:10 PM

Am I the only reader of Mirror of Justice disappointed to see this post inviting comment on Newt Gingrich's marital history?
I expect to see comments denigrating Gingrich posted on blogs for liberals who happen to be Catholics like America’s “In All Things” and dot Commonweal - followed by numerous knee-jerk affirmations by everyday posters from within their parochial bubble of readers. But I read Mirror of Justice for the quality of the comments by the law professors and other lawyers who write for the blog. Of course when comments are permitted to be posted they usually are intelligent, but even so they often do not contribute very much. And in any event, inviting comments on subjects such as the relevance of Gingrich’s pre-conversion marital history to Catholic voters ostensibly as mini-survey or sampling of Catholic opinion on the subject invites mere partisan or even pointless commentary and is inconsistent with the purpose of Mirror of Justice – “a blog dedicated to the development of Catholic legal theory”.

Posted by: Michael J. Kelly | Feb 28, 2011 9:03:02 PM

Michael Kelly: Ouch! =-)

That said -- Rob's question ("Is his marital history relevant . . . ") strikes me as entirely appropriate; after all, close to the heart of any Catholic "legal theory" will be an account of the virtues, the role of law in forming them, and their relevance to the crafting of laws. Whether our / my comments measure up to the question is, of course, not always clear!

Posted by: Rick Garnett | Feb 28, 2011 9:19:27 PM

Michael J. Kelly: The comments on this thread are (4) arguably snarky/joke-y, and (8) substantive, and (2) complaining or responding to complaint about the thread itself, with numbered points, reference to popular press books written by sitting judges about analogous politicians, and comments on readers' understanding of Catholic doctrine. MOJ is a high-quality blog; the topic is appropriate; and the comments are, for the most part, furthering a substantive discussion responsibly, albeit with a side-track for complaining about the thread itself.

Posted by: DFoley | Feb 28, 2011 11:19:21 PM

Michael Kelly: fortunately I was able to see your comment just in time to abandon my plans for a post soliciting views about how Catholics should respond to James Franco's lackluster Oscars performance.

Posted by: rob vischer | Mar 1, 2011 11:56:08 AM

If Gingrich isn't fit to be elected, it's not because of his marital history, but rather because running for national office in America is itself a sign that you are not fit to govern. "Oh for the days of quattrocento republicanism!" he nostalgically pined, then fell into a swoon. :)

Posted by: WJ | Mar 1, 2011 3:19:14 PM

Gingrich's previous really immoral behaviour has been publicized to the point that, no matter how sincere his fairly recent conversion may be, it is an occasion for grave scandal when he seems to use his new religion and highly placed Catholics, including clerics, to support his political aspirations. He should be wearing sackcloth, ashes and a hairshirt. Whatever happened to penance and remorse?

Posted by: Brigid Elson | Mar 4, 2011 8:13:26 AM

It is quite easy to sink into the moralistic morass of pointing to politicians personal lives and point out the sin. Those on either side of the political spectrum are quick to point out the hypocrisy of such and such politician, and fail to remember the point in the bible about seeing the speck in your neighbor's eye and not the log in one's own. Mr. Gingrich, in his conversion to Catholicism will have had to go to confession. Am I more knowledgeable than God as to whether he is a liar and a hypocrite? I'll base any potential vote on his stand on the issues, and not on his past. Lord knows, my own past is filled with sin.

Posted by: brian martin | Mar 28, 2011 2:02:24 PM