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Is the Twice-Divorced Newt Gingrich Converting to Catholicism for a 2012 Run?

A leading Catholic conservative says Newt's sins -- including an affair with a congressional aid -- have magically been absolved.

When Catholic University announced in January 2005 that Newt Gingrich would deliver a speech on campus, a group of students rose up in protest, accusing the twice-divorced, admitted philanderer of violating the Catholic values that their school was founded upon. Four years later, just last week, on March 24, Gingrich blasted another hallowed institution of Catholic higher learning: “It is sad to see Notre Dame invite President Obama to give the commencement address since his policies are so anti-Catholic values,” Gingrich wrote on Twitter of the president’s scheduled May address. What happened?

During the George W. Bush era, Gingrich rose quietly from the ruins of his failed crusade to impeach President Bill Clinton, trying to transform himself from a Republican pariah into a voice of conscience for the badly demoralized conservative movement. The religious-right elements that helped orchestrate Gingrich’s downfall as Speaker of the House became the catalyst for his resurrection and may now propel him into contention for the GOP presidential nomination in 2012. But winning them over has not been easy. Before earning a seat at their table, Gingrich has had to confess his darkest sins and beg for redemption, first on the radio show of his former nemesis, James Dobson, and then before a priest at St. Joseph’s Rectory, a Catholic church on Capitol Hill.

Indeed, on Sunday, March 29, Gingrich converted to Catholicism, the faith of his third wife, Calista Bisek. Though the ceremony was announced without fanfare, leading Catholic conservatives like Deal Hudson are brimming with excitement. Hudson was the most important Catholic political adviser to President Bush and Karl Rove, founder of the seminal Catholic journal, Crisis magazine, and self-described “theocon.” He contends that Gingrich’s conversion represents more than a concession to his wife; it signals a dramatic break from the past, both personally and politically.

“From a Catholic point of view,” Hudson told me, “Newt’s sins no longer exist—they’ve been absolved. He’s made a fresh start in life. So Newt will continue to sin and confess but there aren’t going to be a lot of Catholics who will hold that against him. They understand why being a Catholic makes a difference.”

Hudson said that while many of his friends are “extremely close” to Gingrich, he and the former Speaker of the House are just friendly acquaintances. But Hudson explains that he relates to Gingrich’s experience on a deeply personal level. Like Gingrich, he is a convert and a thrice-married sinner engaged continually in confession and absolution.

Raised as a Southern Baptist, Hudson converted to Catholicism at age 34 after becoming enraptured by the writings of St. Thomas Aquinas. Upon receiving communion, Hudson received an annulment from his first wife, then divorced his second wife four years later. “It’s not unusual to do that in this day and age,” Hudson reflected, “so that sort of angle that Chris Buckley is taking to make fun of Newt is unfair.”

After entering the church, Hudson worked his way up the rungs of academia, eventually earning tenure as a philosophy professor at Fordham University. He was a charismatic figure in the classroom, casting a spell over his students with engaging lectures on natural law. But Hudson was not without his weaknesses. In 1994, after a night of drinking games at a West Village pub, during which he allegedly made out with two female students and took “body shots” with them, Hudson brought an extremely intoxicated 18-year-old student named Cara Poppas back to his office and compelled her to perform oral sex on him. When the student told school authorities about the incident, Hudson promptly resigned and moved to Washington to edit Crisis. Two years later, Hudson settled a sexual-harassment lawsuit out of court with Poppas for $30,000. The incident remained unknown to everyone except Poppas and Hudson’s closest confidants.

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