In late July, a tiny item in the Washington Post announced some surprising news: Sen. Sam Brownback, a Kansas Republican and former United Methodist best known for his opposition to cloning, converted to Catholicism on June 27. But just as notable as Brownback’s conversion was the man who performed it, the Rev. John McCloskey. Brownback is the third political celebrity to convert to Catholicism under McCloskey’s guidance—the other two were journalist Robert Novak and economist-commentator Lawrence Kudlow. The priest, who operates out of Washington’s Catholic Information Center a couple of blocks from the White House, has made himself a spiritual K Street lobbyist.
What’s he lobbying for? Souls, but also the soul of the Catholic Church. In addition to his trifecta of high-profile conversions (plus a fourth, the former abortion doctor Bernard Nathanson), McCloskey has become one of the nation’s most prominent priestly pundits, espousing his doctrinaire conservatism (in matters of faith, not politics) on Meet the Press, The O’Reilly Factor, Crossfire,NPR’s All Things Considered, and Tim Russert’s hourlong CNBC show. He chats on television with Greta Van Susteren, Paula Zahn, and Tony Snow and is quoted by USA Today, the Washington Post, and the New York Times. Like all good advocates, he’s relentlessly on-message: The Catholic Church, he says, will be revitalized by a traditionalist return to its roots, not through liberalization.
It’s a two-pronged strategy: Bring in conservative evangelical Protestants like Brownback while at the same time casting out liberal Catholics of all stripes. McCloskey is the anti-Garry Wills, telling American Catholics who dissent from some church teachings why you aren’t a Catholic. “A liberal Catholic is oxymoronic,” he says. “The definition of a person who disagrees with what the Catholic Church is teaching is called a Protestant.” The Catholic Information Center, which McCloskey calls D.C.’s “downtown center of evangelization” for Catholicism, features a chapel and a bookstore that promotes McCloskey’s views. Displayed prominently in the window at 1501 K St. is Goodbye, Good Men: How Liberals Brought Corruption Into the Catholic Church, Michael S. Rose’s controversial book on homosexuality in Catholic seminaries.
McCloskey is a native Washingtonian, an Ivy Leaguer who graduated from Columbia and a former Wall Streeter who worked at Citibank and Merrill Lynch. As a result, he travels comfortably in elite circles, and his ministry is focused on them: on young priests and seminarians (the intellectual elite in many Catholic communities), on college students at elite universities and “strong countercultural” Catholic institutions, and on “opinion-makers and people of influence.” The self-described supply-sider has a top-down strategy to transform the culture, too. He wants to turn Blue America into Red. As McCloskey wrote in an essay last year for Catholic World Report, “[I]n the first several centuries of Christianity the Gospel was most successfully preached not to the poor and the outcasts, but rather to the prosperous middle classes and educated upper classes in the cities.”
That focus on elites is a hallmark of Opus Dei, the conservative Catholic society to which McCloskey belongs. As James Martin put it in the Jesuit weekly America, “Opus Dei is the most controversial movement in the Catholic Church today.” It’s fiercely evangelical and fully devoted to the pope and the Catholic hierarchy. It’s also a powerful force within the Vatican. The pope’s spokesman is a member, and its founder, a Spanish priest named Josemaria Escriva (who died in 1975), will be canonized Oct. 6. Opus Dei is not well-known among American Catholics, nor is it particularly popular among them—3,000 U.S. members and holding for the past 20 years, if Opus Dei’s numbers are to be believed. (And there’s no reason not to believe them.)
But Opus Dei’s Vatican influence and its doctrinal rigidity have made it the target of tough criticism from Catholic liberals for controversial practices such as self-flagellation, intolerance of dissent, and strict segregation of the sexes. The Rev. Richard McBrien, a Notre Dame professor of theology, says the group’s beliefs are a throwback to the days before Vatican II, the council that liberalized Catholic teachings in the 1960s. Adds Martin, the Jesuit author of the America article, “What you have to assent to to be Catholic is the creed that we say at Mass. One of the criticisms leveled at liberal Catholics is that they’re cafeteria Catholics. But you can find cafeteria Catholics on the right that choose to ignore church teachings on social justice, on the rights of workers and the poor, on just war theory.”
But McCloskey says that Catholics must “assent wholeheartedly” to each and every one of the church’s teachings, regardless of how theologians rank their importance. “A good Catholic isn’t worried about going deep into these theological levels,” he says. “You say, ‘I believe.’ ” It’s an anti-intellectual approach: All members of the church take a leap of faith, but McCloskey wants them to do it with their eyes closed and their hands over their ears.
That demand of total, uncritical obedience is reminiscent of the most damning criticism leveled at Opus Dei by former members—that it uses cultlike methods of recruitment and indoctrination to prey on the unwitting. A practicing Catholic, Diane DiNicola founded the Opus Dei Awareness Network after her daughter was recruited into Opus Dei. She says her daughter did not know that she would be required to sleep on wooden boards, to flagellate herself, or that her incoming and outgoing mail would be read by Opus Dei. “I’ve experienced personally a side to Opus Dei that I wonder whether it comes from the Holy Spirit,” DiNicola says. “I think Opus Dei is a cancer on the Catholic Church.”
Critics like DiNicola lead many to believe that Opus Dei has a mysterious, unknown mission. But McCloskey’s agenda, at least, seems transparent. He’s quietly blunt about what he wants, and he writes about it in detail on his Web site, McCloskey’s Perspectives. He describes the period after Vatican II as a “generally unfortunate period for our country and our Church,” calls coeducation a “failure,” and notes the “particular needs of the complementary yet quite different sexes.” He advises college students to avoid “nominal” Catholic colleges (meaning Notre Dame, Georgetown, Boston College, and the like) that emphasize concepts like “openness, just society, search, diversity, and professional preparation.” During a time of increasing ecumenism, McCloskey blithely predicts the imminent demise of liberal Protestantism: “Over time, most of them will fall away from Christianity or become Catholics.” And when he goes before a mass audience, he doesn’t back down, telling Russert on CNBC that if the pope were to reverse himself on birth control, “that would be the end of the Catholic Church because it would put in doubt any teachings of any sort, including adultery or any number of the Ten Commandments.”
Despite his high-profile successes, it’s paranoid to believe that either McCloskey or Opus Dei is going to convert the entire U.S. government or that all U.S. Catholics are going to embrace his brand of the faith. (Even McCloskey doesn’t believe that, though he would argue that it is the brand of the faith.) And despite valid concerns raised by DiNicola and others, most members of Opus Dei are just good people trying to be good Christians. “Hey, it’s a big church, there’s plenty of room for them,” says Michael Sean Winters, who writes about Catholicism for theNewRepublicand other publications. “I only wish that they would feel that way.” Winters is right: The problem isn’t that McCloskey is conservative or that he wants to bring in conservatives like Brownback. It’s that he wants to throw everyone else out.
McCloskey is on the front lines of a long-simmering war over the Catholic Church, its direction and future—a war over the role of women, over contraception, over the proper role of the laity—ultimately, a war over the meaning of Vatican II. No one, save God, knows the outcome. But it’s worth noting that even one of the church’s most devoted partisans can’t avoid a little “Protestant” dissent.
When asked what he would do if the Catholic Church ever reversed its position on birth control, McCloskey dismissed the question as an impossible hypothetical. Dismissed it, that is, after he blurted out his first, instinctive reaction: “I’d be gone in a second.”
Perhaps there’s room for private judgment after all.