To many, who view the Republican Party as merely a Protestant/Southern party -- see Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson as the embodiment of conservatism -- this was probably shocking news.
To the rest of us, the announcement resulted in a collective yawn.
Though never monolithic, having nominated both Al Smith in 1928 and JFK in 1960, Catholics were once a reliable Democratic constituency. Today, however, Catholics are arguably the swing vote (for example, George W. Bush won the Catholic vote -- and so did Barack Obama).
To be sure, there were always exceptions. William F. Buckley -- whose contribution to conservative thought cannot be overstated -- was a proud practicing Catholic (in fact, National Review remains largely a voice of Catholic conservatism), and Republican speech-writer, turned pundit, turned politician, turned pundit, Pat Buchanan is, as well.
But it was actually Ronald Reagan, whose father, Jack, was Catholic, who helped bring Catholics into the mainstream of the conservative movement by welcoming such Neoconservative intellectuals as Jeanne Kirkpatrick and Bill Bennett into his administration. (Of course, you also cannot overstate the impact of the 1973 Roe vs. Wade decision in moving many Catholics away from the radicalized Democratic Party. It is also important to note that Catholics were the first to defend the Right to Life, while too many Protestants, sadly, sat on the sidelines.)
In recent years, Catholic conservatives and Republicans (there is a difference) have grown in numbers and gained in prominence. Perhaps because Catholics are a huge swing vote, many of George W. Bush's most prominent speech-writers were Catholic. Bush also cleverly adopted Catholic rhetoric, such as the term "culture of life", as a way to appeal to this demographic in his speeches (a Politico writer recently got this one wrong, writing that the term "culture of life" was "code language'"meant to appeal to Evangelicals).
While much has been written about predominantly Protestant conservative groups such as the Christian Coalition and The Moral Majority, these groups seem to rise and fall in numbers based on the level of outrage at a given time. What has not been widely discussed, however, is how Catholic conservatives have become a tremendously powerful force within the GOP and the conservative movement.
While this phenomenon has been developing for a quarter of a century, the impact of Catholic conservatism became increasingly apparent during the 2008 GOP Primary, where the vast majority of Catholic conservative money and support (think Laura Ingraham, Kathryn Lopez, Kathleen Parker, Peggy Noonan, et al.) went to former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney -- a Mormon.
Romney benefitted greatly from having networked effectively within the Catholic conservative community -- and was aided tremendously by my good friend Peter Flaherty -- who is well-connected that community. This, of course, greatly angered Kansas Senator Sam Brownback (a Catholic convert), who was also running for president in 2008, and hoped to gain the support of this constituency (as anyone will tell you, the Brownback vs. Romney feud was fierce).
There are also interesting crosscurrents at play in Congress. For example, liberal Democrat Bob Casey's Catholicism and Pro-Life positions helped elect him to the U.S. Senate in Pennsylvania. Meanwhile, Republican Congressman Chris Smith of New Jersey -- who is a squishy liberal RINO on the vast majority of issues -- enjoys conservative support due to his strong Pro-Life positions and his efforts on behalf of compassionate conservative issues such as human trafficking.
Though not widely reported by the media, it is clear that Catholics have become an increasingly powerful force in the conservative coalition. And while I have no reason to doubt the sincerity of Speaker Gingrich's spiritual conversion, to those who ascribe political motives to every decision made by a politician, it is safe to say that Gingrich's decision was also not a bad political move.
Update: In the first draft, I wrote that Michael Gerson was a Catholic speech-writer for George W. Bush. Though Bush did have many Catholic speech-writers, it has been pointed out to me that Mr. Gerson is, in fact, not Catholic. My apologies for the mistake.