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Newt Gingrich and the Soul of Conservative Catholicism

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In late November, Newt Gingrich, the former Republican Speaker of the House of Representatives, surged in the polls to become the frontrunner in the race for the Republican nomination in the 2012 presidential election. In recent days Gingrich’s poll numbers have faltered, but he retains a slight lead over former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney in national polls.

Having converted to Catholicism in 2009, Gingrich is one of two Catholics running for the nomination. He has not made his Catholicism an important part of his campaign rhetoric, although he has not hidden it, either. At many of his campaign stops, he shows the film Nine Days that Changed the World, a documentary on the role of Pope John Paul II in the fall of communism in Eastern Europe produced by Gingrich and his wife Callista.

So far, discussions of Gingrich’s faith have focused on his personal character, but less attention has been given to the influence of Catholicism on his political views. Although Gingrich’s basic political outlook was established long before his conversion, it has many resonances with recent Catholic social teaching. Gingrich’s views are perhaps best identified with the strand of American conservatism known as “compassionate conservatism.” Compassionate conservatism can be summarized as the belief that the traditionally liberal goals of justice and equality for all, including the poor and racial minorities, can be effectively pursued through traditionally conservative means, such as market mechanisms, families, and local communities. Compassionate conservatism, however, does see a more positive role for government in expanding opportunity than do other strands of conservatism. Compassionate conservatism was the governing philosophy of President George W. Bush on domestic policy, influencing such initiatives as faith-based initiatives, the No Child Left Behind Act, and the reform of Medicare, as well as the failed drives for comprehensive immigration reform and the privatization of Social Security.

Compassionate conservatism has many resonances with Catholic social teaching, particularly Pope John Paul II’s 1991 encyclical Centesimus Annus. For example, John Paul criticizes the modern welfare state that “leads to a loss of human energies and an inordinate increase of public agencies, which are dominated more by bureaucratic ways of thinking than by concern for serving their clients, and which are accompanied by an enormous increase in spending” (#48). His criticism is not aimed at the solidarity behind the welfare state, however, as government and private “intermediate communities” must together embody solidarity and provide for those in need. John Paul also writes that poverty is best defined as exclusion from full participation in the market (#33), echoing the compassionate conservative argument that government activism is necessary, not to counteract the market, but to provide the marginalized the same opportunities as others.

Many of the distinctive proposals put forward by Gingrich in the 2012 campaign also fit the mold of compassionate conservatism. He seeks to further reform welfare and unemployment programs along the lines of the welfare reform of 1996 by creating greater opportunities for re-entering the workplace, such as job re-training programs and health care and housing benefits to those who successfully find work. Gingrich has also long identified the need for extending health coverage to all through some form of individual mandate, but more recently has criticized aspects of Obama’s health care reform.

It is Gingrich’s compassionate conservatism which has led to attacks from his opponents and to his recent decline in the polls. Gingrich has been hammered on his receipt of $1.6 million in consulting fees from Freddie Mac, one of the two government-sponsored enterprises (GSEs) responsible for the purchase of mortgages and sale of mortgage-backed securities, which Gingrich has defended as a way of promoting home ownership. Opponents also criticize Gingrich for appearing in a 2008 advertisement with then-Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi advocating for solutions to climate change. Finally, like Texas governor Rick Perry, Gingrich has been criticized for his support of comprehensive immigration reform.

Since the election of President Obama in 2008, American conservatism has swung in a more libertarian direction, embodied by the Tea Party movement. Many conservatives were already uneasy with President Bush’s more moderate policies and the level of government spending during his tenure. This shift has affected conservative Catholics, which is evident when looking at the other Catholic Republican candidate, former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum. Santorum is identified as a social conservative, focusing on issues like abortion and same-sex marriage. Like Gingrich he supports lowering taxes and the reform of entitlement programs, but Santorum believes that immigration policy should be limited to securing the borders, and other signature issues of compassionate conservatism dealing with poverty and the environment are missing from his platform. Santorum represents the brand of conservative American Catholicism that in recent years has emphasized the “five non-negotiables”—abortion, euthanasia, embryonic stem cell research, human cloning, and same-sex marriage—at the expense of other aspects of Catholic social teaching.

Compassionate conservatism has the potential to appeal to the general public in a way that Tea Party conservatism does not. This is particularly true at a time when people are continuing to suffer from the unemployment and poverty caused by the economic crisis that require some form of governmental outreach, yet are also anxious about the increasing size and reach of government. The compassionate conservatism endorsed by Gingrich has the potential to bring the values of Catholic social teaching to government policy in a way suited to the issues faced by America today.

Matthew A. Shadle is Assistant Professor of Moral Theology at Loras College, in Dubuque, Iowa. He is the author of The Origins of War: A Catholic Perspective (Georgetown, 2011).

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Matthew A. Shadle is Associate Professor of Theology and Religious Studies at Marymount University in Arlington, Virginia. He is the author of The Origins of War: A Catholic Perspective (Georgetown, 2011) and has published articles in Political Theology, the Journal of Catholic Social Thought, Horizons, and the Journal of the Society of Christian Ethics. He is the section editor of Catholic Social Ethics at Political Theology Today.

(3) Comments

  1. Matt,
    Thank you for your post. The argument made in your post is precisely the narrative Newt and other “compassionate conservatives,” particularly those who are Catholic tell. While I agree that we are seeing an intense debate about the dominant conservative or republican identity – the conservatism of Gingrich and Romney or the libertarianism of Paul and Bachmann (or the Tea Party vs. Mainstream/Traditional Republicanism). However, I disagree quite strongly with your evaluation of Gingrich’s compassionate conservatism via Catholic Social Teaching. There are 2 key points that I would like to challenge.

    First, the integration of CST and compassionate conservatism is predicated upon an understanding of principle of subsidiarity as “smaller is always better.” This one-sided interpretation of subsidiarity is employed often within the Catholic conservative movement – most notably perhaps by the Acton Institute; however, this is neither an obvious or universally accepted version of subsidiarity. As Mater et Magistra 52-57 and 116-118 all indicate, subsidiarity is far more complicated and does not at all assume that smaller government is better or desired. The crux of Catholic social teaching’s subsidiarity is that government should be as small as possible and as large as necessary for the common good properly understood. Mater et Magistra makes quite clear that in the modern period it is assuming and supporting significant government intervention in the economy, regulation, and distribution of resources. Paragraphs 54 and 55 quite clearly stand in opposition to the conservative appropriation of subsidiarity in the contemporary world:

    “54. The present advance in scientific knowledge and productive technology clearly puts it within the power of the public authority to a much greater degree than ever before to reduce imbalances which may exist between different branches of the economy or between different regions within the same country or even between the different peoples of the world. It also puts into the hands of public authority a greater means for limiting fluctuations in the economy and for providing effective measures to prevent the recurrence of mass unemployment. Hence the insistent demands on those in authority—since they are responsible for the common good—to increase the degree and scope of their activities in the economic sphere, and to devise ways and means and set the necessary machinery in motion for the attainment of this end.
    55. But however extensive and far-reaching the influence of the State on the economy may be, it must never be exerted to the extent of depriving the individual citizen of his freedom of action. It must rather augment his freedom while effectively guaranteeing the protection of his essential personal rights. Among these is a man’s right and duty to be primarily responsible for his own upkeep and that of his family. Hence every economic system must permit and facilitate the free development of productive activity. ”

    In particular, this challenges any claim that the privatization of social security is supported within Catholic Social teaching – and Newt (and others) claims about welfare reform in 96 is far more ambiguous an “accomplishment” then being discussed.

    Second, you reference John Paul II on participation in Centesimus Annus 33. In particular, you state:

    “John Paul also writes that poverty is best defined as exclusion from full participation in the market (#33), echoing the compassionate conservative argument that government activism is necessary, not to counteract the market, but to provide the marginalized the same opportunities as others.”

    While this is the interpretation some hold (and Newt certainly among them), I contend this is a gross oversimplification and misrepresentation of John Paul II’s theology of participation, society and economics. In paragraph 33, John Paul II’s concern is with the gross inequality and distribution within an interconnected global market. In particular, he states:

    “It seems therefore that the chief problem is that of gaining fair access to the international market, based not on the unilateral principle of the exploitation of the natural resources of these countries but on the proper use of human resources.”

    Part of the point he is making here, and elsewhere in the encyclical, is that the “logic of the market” (to use the language of Benedict XVI) is part of the problem. Market mechanisms devised soley by capitalism are exploitative – to claim that he’s not arguing that government action is needed to counteract the market is simply inaccurate. He is building on the work done by Paul VI and his own previous two social encyclicals, all of which explicitly focus on broadening our understanding of poverty and development beyond purely market or economic concerns. In that paragraph particular, John Paul II is directly arguing for full market participation involving not only legal access but social supports – beginning with education, training (and access to healthcare mentioned elsewhere) required preconditions for an individual or less developed country’s ability to participate in the global market. John Paul II is not endorsing market mechanisms and often does talk about the need for counteracting the market (this critique gets stronger in CA now that he no longer is focusing as heavily on communism and certainly has been expanded by Benedict XVI in Caritas in Veritate).
    While the narrative in your post concerning CST and “compassionate conservatism” is the narrative Newt is pushing – I simply don’t the compatibility Newt and others wish to see there exists. There are some major contortions being done with subsidiarity and John Paul II himself.

    • Megan, thank you for your detailed reply to my post.

      However, I am not sure why you put so much focus on combating the “smaller is better” interpretation of the principle of subsidiarity when the main thrust of my post is to point out that what distinguishes Gingrich from the other Republican candidates is precisely his willingness to see a more positive role for the state in promoting the common good, and that this is one of the main things that has been causing him problems at the polls lately (including his drop from first place in Iowa opinion polls to fourth in the Iowa caucuses earlier this week). My point was to affirm compassionate conservatism as a way of recognizing this positive role for the state while also taking into consideration Pope John Paul II’s warnings about “the social assistance state” and his emphasis on “intermediate communities.”

      Also, on the matter of economic participation, I can see now that my wording was a bit unclear, but I actually agree with you that providing opportunities for the poor to participate in the economy includes providing education, health care, etc., which I think is consistent with a compassionate conservative viewpoint.

      I do dispute your interpretation of John Paul II and Benedict XVI’s views on the “logic of the market” however. I do not think they would say that the problem is the market as such, but rather when the logic of the market begins creeping out of its proper boundaries.

  2. Pingback: There is Power in the Blog » Gingrich’s Incomplete Catholic Makeover

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