When Rep. Michael P. Forbes first came to Congress as part of the Republican Revolution in 1995, he was a self-described “loyal lieutenant,” of then-Speaker Newt Gingrich, whom he quoted 11 times in an hour-long interview with The New York Times early that year.
His true-believing soon turned to disillusionment, though. When Gingrich was found to have violated House ethics, Forbes became the first Republican in Congress to call for him to step down . And over time, the New Yorker’s growing disagreement with what he came to see as his party’s immoderate positions, particularly on health care and gun control, led him to switch parties.
“I was too miserable; I didn’t want to be part of it anymore,” he said at the time — the “it” in question being membership in a party whose leadership he’d come to see as a bunch of “tone-deaf extremists, obsessed with litmus tests and out of touch.”
Knowing he might well lose his formerly secure seat in a Long Island district, he gave up not only majority rule but a plum assignment on Appropriations to become a Democrat. And President Bill Clinton’s hearty encouragement in making the leap didn’t save him from narrowly losing his first primary in his new party. Since leaving public life, Forbes has followed a very different path, leaving partisanship behind altogether and to be ordained as a deacon in the Catholic Church. This week, he’s taking final exams at Saint Paul University in Ottawa, Canada, where he’s working toward a master’s in canon law that will qualify him to become a judge in a church court that decides annulment cases, among other matters.
A winding road? Perhaps, but it’s very much a “natural progression” to Forbes, he said in a phone interview.
The lifelong Roman Catholic said he worked to nurture his faith while here in D.C., attending Bible study with other members in the Capitol and participating in semi-regular prayer breakfasts.
Once out of office, he looked to the church as a possible beneficiary of his desire to “find opportunities to help people in daily life.” Forbes said he read up on the permanent diaconate, attended some informational meetings and elected to pursue a five-year course of study that culminated in his being ordained in 2013 as a permanent deacon in the Diocese of Austin. (He lives in neighboring Round Rock, Texas, with his wife, Barbara, and their two young sons.)
Forbes pointed out that he’s not the first former lawmaker to undergo this type of spiritual transformation; he learned after enrolling in the program that former Rep. Michael Blouin, D-Iowa, had made the same journey decades earlier. (Blouin was ordained as a permanent deacon in the Archdiocese of Dubuque in 1986.)
Prior to moving in with the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate, he worked in the Office of the Canonical and Tribunal Services in Austin, “dealing with the administrative and judicial side of the church.”
“I took canon law and just kind of fell in love with it,” he said, and joined a master’s class of 12, including ordained clergy from Papua New Guinea and Thailand and several women.
Once he wraps his graduate studies, Forbes will rejoin his family in Austin and become a judge in the diocesan tribunal.
In the meantime, he’s looking forward to delving into the motu proprio Pope Francis penned on annulment practices that went into effect this week.
Congress still crosses his mind from time to time, of course, but “I’m not at all engaged in politics — nor would I be, working for the church.”
He does, however, maintain a soft spot for Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, whom he called “a very, very good friend of mine,” and former delegation mate Rep. Eliot L. Engel, D-N.Y.
“I definitely miss my colleagues,” he said. “They’re out to do the right things for the country.”
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