Elections
Republican presidential candidate, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum speaks at the Maricopa County Lincoln Day Luncheon, Tuesday, Feb. 21, 2012, in Phoenix, Arizona.  (AP Photo/Eric Gay) Republican presidential candidate, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum speaks at the Maricopa County Lincoln Day Luncheon, Tuesday, Feb. 21, 2012, in Phoenix, Arizona. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)  

Santorum to attend Ash Wednesday services, Gingrich to skip

Photo of Caroline May
Caroline May
Political Reporter

The CNN Republican Presidential Debate in Mesa, Ariz., has fallen on Ash Wednesday. And with two Catholic candidates set to take the stage – former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum – many will be on the lookout to see whether the ash remnants from Mass remain on their foreheads.

Spokeswoman Alice Stewart told The Daily Caller that Santorum would be attending Ash Wednesday services. She did not elaborate about whether he would be wearing the ashes tonight.

Gingrich confirmed to NBC and CNN that he will not be attending Ash Wednesday services.

“It’s not a Holy Day of Obligation,” Gingrich explained, referencing the list of feast days when Catholics are required to attend Mass.

Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent. In observance, Catholics, Episcopalians and Lutherans attend services and leave with an ash cross on their forehead. Traditionally, the ashes used in Catholic churches are the burnt remains of palm fronds used during the previous year’s Palm Sunday Mass.

With Gingrich definitely not attending Mass, it will remain to be seen whether Santorum will arrive at the debate wearing the day’s ashes.

Sister Mary Ann Walsh, a spokesperson for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, told The Daily Caller that there is no rule regarding how long Catholics should wear ashes after Ash Wednesday services. (RELATED: Full coverage of the 2012 elections)

“People get them and wear them until, I suppose, they wash their face,” she said. “There is no rule regarding that.”

There is also no obligation that Catholics get ashes to begin with, but savvy observers will notice if Santorum arrives Wednesday night with an ash-blackened forehead.

Republican strategist Greg Mueller noted that while faith is a very personal issue, a visible display of devotion would be a significant symbol, especially in the wake of the recent Catholic uproar over the Obama administration’s contraception mandate.

“Having a candidate that is very willing to demonstrate his or her Christian or Jewish faith in the public square is refreshing. I think it would say something unabashedly about a candidate,” Mueller, a Catholic himself, told TheDC. “There is nothing wrong [with faith]: The founding fathers prayed in Congress. We are losing touch with the idea that we are a country founded in Judeo-Christian values and natural law.”

Mueller added, however, that during a busy day of campaigning, ashes received in the morning could easily wear off by debate time.

Both Santorum and Gingrich are Catholic and vocal about their faith. The pair, however, came to Catholicism differently. Santorum was born into the Roman Catholic Church; Gingrich converted in 2009.

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney is a Mormon. Texas Rep. Ron Paul is a Baptist.

Media Research Center founding president Brent Bozell told TheDC that if either Catholic candidate were to debate while wearing ashes, the optics should not be seen in a political light — but rather as a statement of faith.

“People get ashes not for a political statement, and people keep ashes on their face not as a political statement,” Bozell said. “Most people do it and proudly keep it on all day long and don’t think twice about it. I think it would be a terrible indictment on our culture if we went around saying there is something inappropriate with somebody doing that.”

Bozell added that he enjoys seen people of faith be proud of their religion.

“No Catholic should ever feel pressured not to [wear ashes],” Bozell said.

Vice president Joe Biden, the nation’s first Catholic vice-president, has worn his ashes publicly in recent years.

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