Santorum’s journey to committed Catholic
Religion & politics • But his traditional views turn off some members of his own faith.
Published: March 7, 2012 09:57AM
Updated: March 6, 2012 10:03AM

Great Falls, Va. • Rick Santorum was, in his own words, a “nominal Catholic” when he met Karen Garver, a neonatal nurse and law student, in 1988. As they made plans to marry and he decided to enter politics, she sent him to her father for advice.

Kenneth L. Garver was a Pittsburgh pediatrician who specialized in medical genetics. The patriarch of a large Roman Catholic family, he had treated patients considering abortion, but was strongly opposed to it.

“We sat across the table and the whole evening we talked about this issue,” Santorum told an anti-abortion group last October. He left, he said, convinced “that there was only one place to be, from the standpoint of science as well as from the standpoint of faith.”

For Santorum, a Republican candidate for president, that conversation was an early step on a path into a deeply conservative Catholic culture that has profoundly influenced his life as a husband, father and politician. During the past two decades, he has undergone a religious transformation that is now spurring a national conversation about faith in the public sphere.

On the campaign trail, he has attacked President Barack Obama for “phony theology,” warned of the “dangers of contraceptives,” and rejected John F. Kennedy’s call for strict separation of church and state. His bold expressions of faith could affect his support on Super Tuesday, possibly helping with conservative Christians, especially in the South, but scaring off voters uncomfortable mixing so much religion in politics.

Central to Santorum’s spiritual life is his wife, whom he calls “the rock which I stand upon.” Before marrying, the couple decided to recommit themselves to their Catholic faith — a turnabout for Karen Santorum, who had been romantically involved with a well-known abortion provider in Pittsburgh and openly supported abortion rights, according to several people who knew her then.

The Santorums went on to have eight children, including a son who died two hours after birth in 1996 and a daughter, now 3, who has a life-threatening genetic disorder. Unlike Catholics who believe that church doctrine should adapt to changing times and needs, the Santorums believe in a highly traditional Catholicism that adheres fully to what scholars call “the teaching authority” of the pope and his bishops.

“He has a strong sense of that,” said George Weigel, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, where Santorum had a fellowship after losing his bid for re-election to the Senate in 2006. “He’s the first national figure of some significance who’s on that side of the Catholic conversation.”

The Santorums’ beliefs are reflected in a succession lifestyle decisions, including eschewing birth control, home-schooling their younger children and sending the older boys to a private academy affiliated with Opus Dei, an influential Catholic movement that emphasizes spiritual holiness.

As members of St. Catherine of Siena, a parish here in the wealthy northern Virginia suburb of Great Falls, the Santorums are immersed in a community where large families are not uncommon, and many mothers leave behind careers to dedicate themselves to child-rearing, as Karen Santorum has. Rick Santorum has been on the church roster as a lector, reading Scripture from the pulpit.

The parish is known for its Washington luminaries — Justice Antonin Scalia of the Supreme Court is a member — as well as its spiritual ardor. Mass is offered in Latin every Sunday at noon — most parishes have Mass only in English — and each Wednesday, parishioners take turns praying nonstop for 24 hours before a consecrated communion wafer, a demanding practice known as Eucharistic adoration. The Santorum campaign did not respond to interview requests about the couple’s beliefs, and their pastors declined to comment. But friends say Santorum believes he is in a “moment of testing” and feels “a calling to be faithful,” regardless of whether he wins the nomination. One friend, Frank Schoeneman, sees Santorum as carrying out a vow he made to live a life that would make Gabriel, the child he lost, proud.

“Rick found himself in his faith and he found himself in Karen,” said Schoeneman, who has known Santorum for more than 20 years. “He isn’t like one of these born-again people where you get hit in the head by some televangelist and you suddenly see the light. It’s been an evolution. He’s always been a Catholic, and he’s always been faithful, but he’s never been at this level of faith.”

The family fold

Church on Sunday was a way of life in Butler, the western Pennsylvania town where Santorum grew up. But by the time he met his future wife, sports and politics were at the center of his world. He was working in Pittsburgh, at the prestigious law firm of Kirkpatrick & Lockhart, and recruited Garver, then a University of Pittsburgh law student, for a summer internship.

Fair-skinned and auburn-haired, she was from a Pittsburgh family of 11 children, some of whom followed their father’s path into medicine. Garver was well known in Pittsburgh for a practice that included prenatal testing.

But Garver, those who knew her say, had broken with her family, and her Catholic faith, over her relationship with Tom Allen, a doctor who founded Pittsburgh’s first abortion clinic.

Garver and Allen spent six years together, but she left him when she met Santorum. Her relationship with the politically conservative, aspiring politician brought the young woman back into the family fold — and seemed to change her political orientation.

“It’s a total 180,” Herbert Greenberg said. “Her change could not be more extreme.”

God and the Senate

Rick Santorum often says that before he and Karen Santorum married in 1990, they had long talks about the life they wanted to build: a large family, a relationship with God. Their views were so close that one former aide likened them to “two halves of a circle coming together.”

Santorum’s religious beliefs would come to infuse every aspect of his political life — not just his views on social issues such as abortion, but also his work to overhaul the welfare system, increase financing to fight AIDS in Africa and promote religious freedom. “He is passionate about all of these issues, which all come from a deep faith,” said Mike DeWine, the Ohio attorney general who served with Santorum in the Senate.

But at the outset of his career, Santorum was not particularly guided by the tenets of the church. A former law school classmate, Charlene Bashore, recalls him saying when he ran for the U.S. House in 1990 that while he opposed abortion, “he didn’t see himself as a leader in the cause.”

Santorum was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1994. He likes to say he found God there.

In the speech to the Pennsylvania Pro-Life Federation last October, he described himself as having arrived “almost exhausted, just having poured it all out to get where I thought wanted to go.” Faith, he said, “was sort of a part of me; I went to church, I could check all the boxes, but it wasn’t at the center of my life.”

His more spiritual path, he said, was prompted in part by a hallway encounter with Don Nickles, then a Republican senator from Oklahoma, who urged Santorum to attend a Bible study with fellow senators. And the Santorums moved to northern Virginia, where they ultimately found a spiritual home at St. Catherine of Siena.

“We ended up moving into a neighborhood and joining a parish where the priest was just amazing — an absolutely amazing pastor who just energized us and filled us with the Holy Spirit,” Santorum told the anti-abortion group. “Over the course of that time, I just saw changes in me and changes in Karen.”

The loss of the Santorums’ son Gabriel, in 1996 — just as the senator was leading the fight in Congress to ban the procedure that opponents call partial-birth abortion — was devastating for the couple. Karen Santorum was nearly 20 weeks pregnant; doctors discovered a fetal anomaly. After a risky operation, she developed an infection and took antibiotics, which the couple knew would result in the birth of a baby who would not survive.

Critics likened it to an abortion, but in a 1997 interview with The Philadelphia Inquirer, Rick Santorum said that was not the case. Schoeneman, the couple’s friend, said the death convinced them that “God had a purpose in Gabriel’s life, and they were going to live out that purpose in their lives.” Both Santorums began speaking out more strongly against abortion; Karen Santorum became prominent in her own right after publishing a 1998 book, Letters to Gabriel.

In the Senate, Santorum started a prayer group and would go on to help convert a fellow senator, Sam Brownback, now the governor of Kansas, to Catholicism.

After Santorum’s re-election in 2000, the family traveled to Rome, where they had a private audience with Pope John Paul II.

“He said to the pope, ‘Father, you’re a great man,’ ” Schoeneman said, recounting the session as Santorum told it to him. “And the pope turned to him, because Rick at this point had all six children sitting there, and he said, ‘No, you’re a great man.’

“And it was like a message from God,” Schoeneman said, “that he was living his life in the right way, that his path was correct.”

‘For the sake of our souls’

Santorum made another trip to Rome in 2002, this time to speak at a centenary celebration of the birth of St. Josemaria Escriva, the founder of Opus Dei. In a little-noticed interview there with The National Catholic Reporter, he said that John F. Kennedy had caused “much harm to America” with his 1960 speech calling for strict separation of church and state.

That remark foreshadowed the candidate’s recent comment — he said the Kennedy speech “makes me throw up” — which set off controversy and made some Catholics wince. It grew out of Santorum’s view that libertine culture has put the United States and American Catholics on a path toward moral decline.

In a 2002 essay, Santorum wrote that too many Catholics had been exposed to “uninspired, watered-down versions of our faith” and that it was time for more committed Catholics to reclaim religious institutions, including colleges, schools and hospitals, “for the sake of our souls.”

Many Catholics take strong issue with Santorum’s approach to their faith. Santorum, polls show, has lost the Catholic vote in every primary contest so far, some by wide margins.

Garry Wills, a cultural historian and professor emeritus at Northwestern University, is among many Catholics whose touchstone is the Second Vatican Council from 1962-1965, which opened up Catholicism to the modern era and proclaimed that the church is its people, not just the pope and his bishops.

“Santorum is not a Catholic, but a papist,” Wills wrote in an email.

Santorum’s defenders say there is nothing troubling about his approach to faith and politics. “What he is saying is something very simple: I should not shed my moral beliefs when I walk in the Oval Office,” said DeWine, who is also Catholic.

To listen to Santorum speak to an audience of the faithful is to hear a man for whom God is at the center of everything. In his talk to the anti-abortion group last October, as his presidential campaign was just beginning to heat up, he likened himself to his special-needs daughter, Bella — a child capable, he said, of nothing but love.

“I think, ‘That’s me with the Father,’ ” Santorum said then. “I am profoundly disabled in his eyes. I can do nothing for Him, except love Him.”