Before the rise of Citizen Donald Trump, it was hard to name a more complex and even bizarre character on the modern GOP stage than the thrice-married and pugnacious former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich.
Where to start? How about the popular political myth that, long ago, he asked his first wife to sign divorce papers on her deathbed.
You've head that one? Here is how the gang at FactCheck.org parses that:
No. Jackie Battley is still alive, and the couple was already in divorce proceedings at the time of the 1980 hospital visit. But she was recovering from surgery to remove a tumor, and the former House speaker admits that they “got into an argument.”
Actually, the fine details of that first marriage are, sort of, in the news -- linked to the reports that this third wife, Callista Gingrich, is set to be nominated by Trump (if he has a few spare minutes) as the U.S. Ambassador to the Vatican.
In case you haven't heard, divorce -- specifically the issue of divorced Catholics receiving Holy Communion -- is a hot topic in Catholic circles right now. The Gingrich situation, to be blunt, could be complex. Here is how the conservative Catholic News Agency states the basics:
Newt and Callista married in 2000, after having a six-year affair while Newt was married to his previous wife. Newt converted to Catholicism in 2009 and explained, in an interview that year with Deal Hudson at InsideCatholic.com, how Callista’s witness as a Catholic brought him towards the faith.
He noted that he had attended Masses at the National Shrine [note: the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C.] where Callista sang in the choir, and she “created an environment where I could gradually think and evolve on the issue of faith.”
At the National Catholic Prayer Breakfast in 2011, he also cited Pope Benedict XVI’s 2008 visit to the U.S. as a “moment of confirmation” for him. At vespers with the Pope, where Callista sang in the Shrine choir, Newt recalled thinking that “here is where I belong.”
The key question here: What is the status, in the eye of Catholic officials, of Newt Gingrich's first marriage, long ago in Georgia?
You see, I am sure that there are Catholics, liberal and conservative, who think that it would be good for journalists to find out the status of the Callista-Newt marriage (and their status at the Communion rail) -- since she is about to be America's voice inside the Vatican.
The New York Times has updated its version of the ambassador-nod story several times. Here is some blunt material from an early version, which went everywhere online:
Ms. Gingrich, a member of the choir at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, played a critical role in Mr. Gingrich’s conversion to Catholicism. But she also played a role in breaking up his second marriage, according to Mr. Gingrich’s ex-wife and former adviser, Marianne Gingrich. The couple divorced in 1999.
She told ABC News, during Mr. Gingrich’s run for president in 2012, that her husband had sought an open marriage so that he could keep seeing Callista Bisek, then a congressional aide. (Mr. Gingrich denied the accusation at the time.)
Divorce has emerged as a fault line in the Vatican in recent months. Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation on the family, “Amoris Laetitia,” seemed open to the idea of making communion available to Catholics remarried without receiving church annulments.
Ah, but there is that question again: What is the status of this marriage, which is the same thing as asking what happened to Gingrich's first marriage -- in the eyes of the Church of Rome.
Here is a thought, based in insights from a veteran Catholic journalist: Might the racy circumstances in Newt Gingrich's marital history actually be strong evidence that, during his life pre-Catholic conversion (as a Southern Baptist), he simply was not able to restrain himself sexually and, therefore, was incapable of giving valid consent to mutual fidelity?
If that was the case, there may have been a Catholic annulment that would allow Newt Gingrich to marry. If Callista was unmarried at the time of the affair, but is now OK in the eyes of the church, one can assume that she went to Confession.
This is all very, very private stuff in the eyes of Catholic law (especially the Confession part).
But here is my journalism question: Since we are talking about Callista Gingrich becoming America's face in the Vatican, is her status with the church relevant? Should journalists ask how that all went down in terms of church law? Is her status with the church fair game for questions on The Hill, when she is or is not confirmed as ambassador?
As Pope Francis would be quick to note, mercy and absolution can and should follow repentance. The press has noted this frequently (without mentioning the repentance part). Perhaps Newt and Callista Gingrich are "Pope Francis" Catholics, in their own unique way?