The Crusaders

A powerful faction of religious and political conservatives is waging a latter-day counterreformation, battling widespread efforts to liberalize the American Catholic Church. And it has the clout and the connections to succeed.

The Boston Globe/November 2, 2003
By Charles P. Pierce

There is a glow to the priest when he talks. Something lights him up inside, and its intensity is increased by the mild way he says what he's saying. The words, harsh and unyielding, seem not so much a departure from the mainstream as they do a living refutation that there is any mainstream at all, not one to which the priest has to pay any mind, anyway.

He is talking about a futuristic essay he wrote that rosily describes the aftermath of a "relatively bloodless" civil war that resulted in a Catholic Church purified of all dissent and the religious dismemberment of the United States of America.

"There's two questions there," says the Rev. C. John McCloskey 3d, smiling. He's something of a ringer for Howard Dean -- a comparison he resists, also with a smile -- a little more slender than the presidential candidate, perhaps, but no less fervent. "One is, Do I think it would be better that way? No. Do I think it's possible? Do I think it's possible for someone who believes in the sanctity of marriage, the sanctity of life, the sanctity of family, over a period of time to choose to survive with people who think it's OK to kill women and children or for -- quote -- homosexual couples to exist and be recognized?

"No, I don't think that's possible," he says. "I don't know how it's going to work itself out, but I know it's not possible, and my hope and prayer is that it does not end in violence. But, unfortunately, in the past, these types of things have tended to end this way.

"If American Catholics feel that's troubling, let them. I don't feel it's troubling at all."

If it sounds like a call from an Old Testament desert, that's not where the 49-year-old McCloskey operates. He's the priest of the power corridor, right there on K Street in Washington, where you can look out the windows of his Catholic Information Center and see the sharpies flocking on the sidewalk, organizing the complicated subleasing of various parts of the national treasure.

In keeping with his surroundings, McCloskey has lobbied for his vision. He grew up in Washington, D.C., and until the late 1970s was a successful trader with Merrill Lynch. However, in 1981, he joined the priesthood through the ultraconservative Opus Dei Society. He was ordained by Cardinal Roger Etchegaray, an influential Vatican troubleshooter.

Ironically, while he defends traditional prerogatives of the institutional church, McCloskey has discomfited parts of it, including conservative Catholics, as surely as has any renegade Dutch theologian. In 1990, for example, after a stormy five-year tenure at Princeton University, McCloskey was dismissed as an associate chaplain after students and faculty petitioned for his removal. They claimed that McCloskey violated academic freedom by counseling against taking courses taught by professors whom McCloskey deemed "anti-Christian," which McCloskey argued was part of his pastoral role. Advising Catholic parents shopping for a college for their children, he later wrote, "If you encounter words and phrases like 'values,' 'openness,' 'just society,' 'search,' 'diversity,' and 'professional preparation,' move on."

Since returning to Washington to run the Catholic Information Center for Opus Dei, McCloskey has taken his mission onto Meet the Press and to CNN. He's preached it in USA Today and in The New York Times. More famously, he has brought into Catholicism several members of the conservative elite. McCloskey personally baptized Judge Robert Bork, political pundits Robert Novak and Lawrence Kudlow, publisher Alfred Regnery, financier Lewis Lehrman, and US Senator Sam Brownback of Kansas, whose baptismal sponsor was another senator, Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania. In 2000, McCloskey baptized Mark Belnick, the embattled top lawyer at Tyco International, who responded by donating $2 million to a Catholic college and to an antiabortion group.

McCloskey makes no apologies for his role as the apostle to the punditocracy. (One of the volunteers at the Catholic Information Center is Linda Poindexter, a former Episcopal priest and the wife of Iran-contra figure and Bush administration official John Poindexter.) He has written that the Gospel was most successfully preached not to the poor but rather to the educated middle and upper classes.

"I don't talk politics with them," he says. "It just so happens that they're Catholics, and I have to be informed about key issues in order to talk to them, because they're not just issues to these people -- they're a matter of natural law; they're a matter of divine revelation and things of that sort. I don't tell them how to vote on this issue or that issue. Ever. But if it seemed to me to be a moral question as to what the material cooperation with evil is on this bill or the other, I might be able to give them some guidance."

On so many of these issues, McCloskey seems already to have lost. In a March 2002 Gallup Poll, 75 percent of Catholics in the United States favored the possibility of married priests and of women priests. Since 1970, polls of US Catholic women have consistently shown that more than 60 percent reject the Vatican's teachings on artificial birth control. More recently, a Harris Poll found that only 24 percent of American Catholics were opposed to embryonic stem-cell research. Other recent polls indicate that support for legalized abortion among US Catholics tracks closely with that found in the general population. McCloskey has no use for the borrowed language of political polling: He thinks that 52 percent or that 80 percent or that 70 percent should just leave the church, because they've left already.

"There's a name for Catholics who dissent from church teachings," he says. "They're called Protestants.

"As someone who's really a Catholic -- and if you asked me, I'd say I consider myself a Catholic -- it's something that you hope doesn't interfere with your citizenship, but that's reality. What I'm saying is, a lot of Catholics who were totally faithful to the church started to assimilate, but the assimilation was not simply in terms of 'I'm a Catholic, and I'm also an American.' It was also giving in to the Protestant secular ethos of the United States of America."

McCloskey says he speaks to a dwindling band of "the faithful" -- a "righteous remnant," as the theologians call it. If some of that remnant happen to be judges and newspaper columnists and senators and corporate lawyers, McCloskey doesn't judge them for that, not even when he discusses a famous 1996 issue of the conservative Catholic magazine First Things -- one to which Bork, among others, contributed his thoughts. That issue examined, as it said, "possible responses to laws that cannot be obeyed by conscientious citizens ranging from non-compliance . . . to morally justified revolution."

"It embraced," McCloskey says, brighter than the afternoon, "the whole question of the legitimacy of the regime. As a Catholic, what do you obey? What do you not obey? For a serious Catholic who believes in things according to faith, these are serious questions." And he's sure about them, so sure that he sits there and shines, brighter than the day, talking about the godly way things can fall all apart.

In his unobtrusive little bookstore in the nation's capital, John McCloskey is the hot, unyielding eye of a gathering storm. He is not the mainstream, not even among the conservative Catholics who are waging their secular influence in a way they never have before, but he's the logical end to what they all believe. During the almost two years since the clergy sexual abuse scandal broke in Boston, most of the attention has been drawn to groups like Boston-based Voice of the Faithful that sprang up in response to the grim stories that seemed to be breaking almost daily. Outraged laity took to the streets and rose up in the pews, withholding contributions, demanding meetings with bishops whose authority seemed to be evaporating by the hour.

Obscured by all of this was the presence of an influential, deeply connected, and well-financed faction -- a counterreformation, to borrow a useful term from Roman Catholic history -- that was determined not only to prevent the scandal from being used as a Trojan horse for all manner of church reform but also to use its efforts within the church to affect the politics and culture outside of it.

The conservative opposition is tied in to the elites of Washington, D.C. -- McCloskey's high-profile catechumens are hardly the only example -- and its magazines and think tanks are funded by the same foundations that have been the fountainhead of movement conservatism over the past three decades. And just as the clergy sexual abuse scandal energized the reformers, it energized the traditionalists.

"That's where the leadership and the power of the church are right now, no question," says the Rev. Richard McBrien, a theologian at the University of Notre Dame. "These people have direct access to the papacy."

When discussing the Roman Catholic Church, it always helps to take the long view. To almost any debate about almost anything within the institution, there is a whiff of incense, a distant chant in the old Latin. The history of American Catholicism has been one of a constant tension concerning the degree to which Americans can be Catholics and Catholics can be Americans. (In 1899, Pope Leo XIII even warned vaguely of a new heresy called "Americanism.") In 1960, when John F. Kennedy broke down the barriers that long had prevented a Catholic from becoming president, he was running against more than entrenched bigotry and Richard M. Nixon.

Two years after Kennedy's election, Pope John XXIII called the Second Vatican Council. Vatican II is now a towering historical event, representing for some the ongoing spirit of reform in the church and for others a kind of theological breeder reactor, constantly on the edge of going out of control. While favoring the latter view, Pope John Paul II, who has led the Catholic Church since 1978, also has reinterpreted the events of the council in such a way that they support his traditionalist view of the church. And conservative Catholics, for whom this pope is as big an icon as Vatican II was for an earlier generation, moved from having been opposed to the council and wary of the changes it had wrought to arguing that they were its truest heirs.

Over his lengthy pontificate, John Paul II has allied himself with the traditionalist side of every ongoing dispute within the church. He's done so in his 2,400 public speeches and in his 14 encyclicals and in the fact that he has named 130 of the 135 cardinals who will vote on his eventual successor. He's even done so in the 477 saints he's canonized, more than the combined total of his 17 immediate predecessors. These latter-day saints include Jose Maria Escriva de Balaguer, the Spanish founder of the Opus Dei movement.

Opus Dei, an influential lay order with an estimated 80,000 members in 80 countries, is both a particular favorite of the pope's and an example of another way in which he has managed to put his personal stamp on every part of the church -- in this case, the laity. The society has been controversial, and its secretive nature and its ability to ally itself with centers of power both inside and outside the church have turned Opus Dei into a potent force.

In 1982, the pope raised the stature of Opus Dei by declaring it to be a personal prelature, which placed the society outside the episcopal hierarchy of the church and made it accountable only to the Vatican itself. He's also lent his support to similar if less well-known organizations, including the liturgically traditionalist Neocatechumenate movement and the Comunione y Liberazione, an Italian traditionalist movement with close ties to that country's political right.

In the United States, Catholic laymen like Tom Monaghan, the millionaire founder of Domino's Pizza, have taken active roles in promoting conservative Catholicism both within and without the church. Monaghan has bankrolled institutions of traditionalist Catholicism for more than a decade.

Distressed by what he saw as doctrinal deviation at the larger Catholic colleges, Monaghan founded his own -- Ave Maria University in Naples, Florida, which joined Magdalen College in New Hampshire and Christendom College in Virginia as new traditionalist Catholic colleges. Monaghan also founded Legatus, a national network of traditionalist Catholics that is open only to top business leaders.

The activity on the American Catholic right has been so vigorous that it has come to the attention of the various foundations that fund conservative causes generally in this country and to politicians as well. For example, papal biographer George Weigel works as a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, a think tank where Elliot Abrams once worked between his involvement in the Iran-contra scandal and his current employment in the Bush administration.

According to the records compiled by, a website that tracks the activities of conservative foundations, the center has received almost $9.5 million since 1985 from sources such as the Olin, Scaife, and Bradley foundations. Among Weigel's projects was a series of seminars that he held in various eastern European countries.

So when Weigel tells a Legatus gathering near Boston that "liberal Catholicism is out of gas intellectually. They haven't had a new idea in 20 or 30 years," it is not an accident that he sounds much like Ronald Reagan talking about the death of the New Deal or Newt Gingrich discussing the exhaustion of the cultural revolution of the 1960s.

Within the hierarchical church, at least, the reformist view of Vatican II seemed to be effectively marginalized. The American laity, however, had long seen Vatican II as a refutation of the anti-democratic pronouncements of all the old popes. They were liberated. They dissented, never more loudly than in the past two years, when they demanded accountability from their bishops over the issues of the sexual abuse scandal.

These were not arcane doctrinal disputes. They were grotesque secular crimes. As the dust settled, some groups began talking about the "opportunity" that the scandal presented to reform within the church. But when the organizations began to move, they found a shrewd and highly organized conservative front waiting for them, one long established within the church and wired into the centers of power not only in Rome but in Washington, too.

There's an old Washington joke about various clubs around town: At the University Club, you need money and no brains, at the Cosmos Club, you need brains and no money, and at the Metropolitan Club, you don't need either one. The Cosmos Club is a fusty relic of a Washington straight out of an Allen Drury novel, with black-and-white photos of Nobel Prize winners smiling down off its walls. Up the broad staircases, in a room with great wooden doors, the bishops have come to listen at a private meeting of conservative Catholics. Just as former Reagan speechwriter Peggy Noonan is finishing a stemwinder on openness in the church, the skulking press is asked to leave the club.

How this meeting came about is significant. Back in July, Bishop Wilton Gregory, the president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, had attended a meeting in Washington with several influential lay people who voiced their concerns to him and a handful of other bishops regarding lingering issues of the clergy sexual abuse scandal. Almost immediately, the conservative network reacted strongly to what it termed a "secret meeting" between the bishops and "dissenters" and organized its own meeting at the Cosmos Club in September, which Gregory and the other bishops could hardly refuse to attend. Ironically, the conservatives were being more forceful in their invitation than deference to episcopal authority might previously have allowed.

"Bishop Gregory has decided not to comment about either meeting," Monsignor Francis Maniscalco, the spokesman for the conference of bishops, said later. "He's not sure if he could remain as judicious as he should be."

The meeting at the Cosmos Club was a perfect amalgam of conservative Catholicism and conservative politics, both being addressed on parallel tracks. Besides Noonan, the gathering included Frank Hanna 3d, an Atlanta millionaire who was one of the founders of Newt Gingrich's GOPAC political operation and who, according to the Federal Election Commission, also has contributed heavily to Republican candidates all over the country. Robert George, a member of the President's Council on Bioethics and a leading opponent of stem-cell research, also was at the meeting. George had been appointed to the council at the last minute by the first President Bush, and he served as a conservative gadfly on the panel throughout the Clinton years. Among other things, George regularly compares the abortion pill RU-486 to the Zyklon B gas used by the Nazis in concentration camps during World War II.

Central to the September meeting was Deal Hudson, the publisher of Crisis magazine, a journal of conservative Catholic thought. Hudson is a former Baptist minister who says he left that faith "because I was too liberal. That's what they told me. Because I loved music and the movies and I asked philosophical questions." Hudson converted to Catholicism in 1984, when he was 32. In 1995, he took over at Crisis.

In one of his first issues, Hudson wrote a prescient piece about a possible alliance between evangelical Protestants and conservative Catholics. That same year, however, an outreach attempt by the largely Protestant Christian Coalition failed famously when, among other things, Catholic bishops raised, well, hell about political literature that the coalition had distributed outside Catholic churches. By 1999, however, the Christian Coalition had fallen into disarray, and, looking elsewhere for religious conservatives, the George W. Bush campaign hired Hudson to help peel off some of the Catholic vote.

"Evangelicals like a little edge on their message, while Catholics also want to hear the issues of moral decline addressed, but in a more compassionate way," explains Hudson.

There are nearly 65 million Catholics in the United States, and 45 percent of them are registered voters. For years, as Republicans gained the overwhelming support of fundamentalist Protestants, Catholic voters remained evenly divided. According to a recent Gallup Poll, Catholic voters who identified themselves as either strongly Democratic or strongly Republican finished in a flat-footed tie at 33 percent apiece, as opposed to white Protestants, who were overwhelmingly Republican.

In the 2000 general election, for the first time, Republicans courted Catholic conservatives as Catholics rather than simply as conservatives. In fact, it was the attempt to develop a style of religious conservatism palatable to Catholic voters that was the basis for "compassionate conservatism," the catchphrase of the Bush campaign.

On the surface and despite Hudson's best efforts, Al Gore still outpointed Bush among Catholics, 49 percent to 47 percent. Hudson saw an opportunity when he looked deeper into the numbers. Bush had won the support of 55 percent of practicing Catholics -- the ones most likely to attend Mass once a week. John McCloskey's righteous remnant seemed to be moving toward a common political ground at least with conservative Protestants, with whom they have marked theological differences, particularly regarding the pope.

"We developed different strategies," Hudson explains. "Because we found through our polling that the way you approach the evangelical market and the Catholic market are very different. Catholics don't like self-righteous -- or any tone of condescension or moralistic preaching." Clearly, Hudson sees his own journey reflected in the data that he helped gather for the White House. Since Bush's election, the outreach by the Republicans and the White House to Catholic conservatives has continued apace. For example, the Republican Party announced the formulation of a National Catholic Leadership Forum to plan strategies in the 2002 congressional elections as well as Bush's reelection campaign next year.

Not long after he was elected, President Bush met with a group of prominent conservative Catholic lay people -- including Hudson and Monaghan -- to enlist their support for his various "faith-based" initiatives. On March 22, 2001, the president spoke at the dedication of the Pope John Paul II Cultural Center in Washington. Bush also met privately with several American bishops, including Cardinal Bernard Law, who a month later endorsed what he said was the president's dedication to building a nation that was "unambiguously prolife."

Bush appointed John Klink, a former Vatican diplomat, to a position in the State Department involved with population studies, and did so over another candidate preferred by Secretary of State Colin Powell. In the summer of 2001, Catholic thinkers like Robert George also were central to the administration's half-a-loaf decision on embryonic stem-cell research.

Indeed, the Bush campaign was the first real attempt to reconnect conservative Catholics with the religious right. As Robert George told The Washington Post in April 2001, "In 1960, John Kennedy went from Washington down to Texas to assure Protestant preachers that he would not obey the pope. In 2001, George Bush came from Texas up to Washington to assure . . . Catholic bishops that he would."

Conservative Catholics, then, have begun to flex their muscles publicly as Catholics who are conservatives, and not vice versa. This past summer, when Senate Democrats stalled two of Bush's judicial nominees who both happened to be Catholics, Hudson and others accused the Democrats of engaging in a "no Catholics need apply" strategy, summoning up the old nativist bigotry against the immigrant church. (The effort was hampered not at all by the fact that it was led by former White House counsel C. Boyden Gray, a longtime Republican operative and a Methodist.) And Hudson has defended Mel Gibson's ultratraditionalist film The Passion from charges of anti-Semitism, in which Hudson was joined by a website called run by Jennifer Giroux, a former field director for Pat Buchanan's presidential campaign.

Consequently, when the sexual abuse scandal exploded, Catholic conservatives were not only organized within the church, they were uniquely situated outside the church to frame the public discussion of the scandal. The meeting in Washington at the Cosmos Club was a perfect demonstration of both. It was a seamless blend of conservative political thought and conservative Catholic doctrine, particularly on the volatile issues regarding sex and reproductive choice.

The group, according to George, had come together "to give support to the bishops in their efforts to teach what the church believes on these issues." He made it quite clear that this includes the bishops regaining their lost authority to discipline Catholic politicians who try to finesse the church's positions on issues like abortion and gay marriage. George, for example, objected to the inclusion of former Clinton administration chief of staff Leon Panetta to the board appointed by the bishops to monitor the church's response to the sex abuse scandal, on the grounds that Panetta is insufficiently faithful to Catholic teachings on a number of issues, especially abortion.

"My advice is not to do it," George said at a press conference after the meeting. "My advice is not to place on boards people who in general do not believe what the church believes on key issues. I believe that undermines the church's teaching and that it causes confusion in the church."

In a sense, every Catholic builds his own cafeteria now. Even John McCloskey has said that he would leave the church if, by some chance, a future pope were to change the church's stand on, say, birth control or abortion. The American church still consists of a vast middle caught between two bitterly opposed wings. The reformists are an amorphous gathering of professional types who see the crisis in the church as a failure of a management model; on the other side is a disciplined cadre that sees itself as responding to a spiritual crisis in the church that has its roots in a spiritual crisis in the culture. The battle now is clearly for the control of the aftermath.

Given the doctrinaire papacy of John Paul II, the next pope likely will be more of a caretaker than anything else. He will preside over an American laity that for years has been both ignoring Vatican pronouncements and declining John McCloskey's invitation to depart for other churches. "My own view is that [the conservatives] are a very well organized minority viewpoint," says Peggy Steinfels, a liberal Catholic writer and former editor of Commonweal, a review edited by Catholic lay people. "They have a counterpart movement in Rome eager to rein in what they see as a runaway Catholic Church in the United States."

"But what will they do," wonders Notre Dame's Richard McBrien, contemplating the post-John Paul II church, "without their great patron?"

The influence of the Catholic conservatives within the church depends vitally on the patronage of the episcopate that has its source in Rome. However, in the United States, the conservatives have succeeded in injecting their ecclesiastical politics into the secular realm more effectively than the likes of Voice of the Faithful ever will. The end to clerical celibacy is never going to be an issue in the New Hampshire primary but opposition to gay marriages will be. And it will be a capital irony if the counterreformation ends up less as a theological awakening than as a political moment. That's not what McCloskey has in mind, anyway -- an assimilationist conservative Catholicism, working the sacred out through the profane.

Deal Hudson does not like John McCloskey. Before saying anything about him, and nothing that's good, Hudson turns off a reporter's tape recorder. After all, if one is trying to simultaneously renew the universal church and build a conservative Catholic political movement out of the ashes of scandal, it does not help to have someone baptizing leading political conservatives while waxing affably about the religious dissolution of the country.

For his part, McCloskey is adamant and unapologetic. "I love the United States of America," he says. "I would hope, rather than violence, if there was to be a difference in the way that people look at the fundamental issues, that they would separate peacefully rather than impose their views on the others. It's not my ideal. I'm just trying to explain it to you. Really, I'm being quite honest and sincere."

McCloskey is the cold stone at the heart of all the paradoxes about American Catholicism. His positions are the sharp, logical end of what Hudson believes about Voice of the Faithful and of all the philosophical filigree with which Robert George surrounds his opinions about Leon Panetta. McCloskey is the id of everything that was discussed at the Cosmos Club. He is the gleaming rock on which it's built.

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