I heard recently from one of my regular readers (I’ll call her “Kathy”) who shared her concerns about the future of our shared faith. Like me, she is a Roman Catholic with liberal religious and political inclinations. And, like me, she was distressed by several recent major events in the Church: the Ryan Report documenting generations of sexual abuse by the clergy in Ireland, the hostility expressed by several American bishops towards Notre Dame University for inviting President Obama to give the commencement address, and the recent conversion of Florida’s Father Alberto Cutié to the Episcopal Church.
Cutié, the former Roman Catholic priest and media star (known to many as “Father Oprah” for his advice to those struggling with both personal and religious issues), was exposed in the press as having a girlfriend. Forced to choose between the celibacy of the Roman Catholic priesthood and the life he wished to live, he left not only the priesthood but the Church.
Kathy believes, as many of us do, that priestly celibacy should be optional and that the priesthood should be open to women. We object to efforts by Church leaders to force their subjective teachings on non-Catholics and its attacks on religious pluralism and separation of church and state – often in league with the Religious Right. And we especially object to the belligerence directed at independent-thinking Catholics by a reactionary hierarchy. These conflicts are making it unbearable for many of us to stay in the Church. And some us think Church leaders are intentionally squeezing us out.
Kathy isn’t so sure about that. She observes that many liberal-leaning Catholics like Father Cutié don’t fight back but “just walk away.” She thinks that the reactionary forces within the Catholic hierarchy “are fighting a lost cause,” and that in “their moral posturing over President Obama’s speech at Notre Dame, they run the risk of alienating a lot more Catholics than they realize.”
The Catholic Right wants those of us who embrace religious pluralism and liberalization within the church to leave a global religion solely in their hands.
But I think that the Catholic Right and the reactionaries in the hierarchy do indeed know what they are doing. They want those of us who embrace religious pluralism and liberalization within the church to leave a global religion –with its well-organized hierarchy and diplomatic nation-state status – solely in their hands. The movers and shakers of the Catholic Right are indeed attempting to provoke a modern day schism within Catholicism and they are willing to lose untold numbers of members in order to achieve a leaner, arguably meaner, but in any case more traditionally orthodox and authoritarian Church. The Pope himself has called for a “a leaner, smaller, purer church.”1
Not only reproductive justice and equality issues are at stake. The time-tested Roman Catholic concern for economic justice and the poor, the rights of workers and immigrants, and a responsive government are anathema to the groups pushing for a more traditional church. The Catholic parish as a vital community for immigrants and poor people will be lost.
They believe shrinking the Church would only be temporary. Actually, a “pruning” is the more apt description of the agenda of those pushing schism. Liberal and moderate members – many of whom have small families – would be replaced by more traditional-minded Catholics who eschew family planning and would quickly augment the Church’s numbers.
Schism is very much a top-down phenomenon. Influential bishops and priests backed by the Pope and right-wing lay intellectuals are aggressively pushing the Church rightward. Unlike the Protestant Reformation, when the reformers left to establish their own denomination, today we are seeing more of a “reverse schism,” one in which those who actually oppose reform and transparency create an atmosphere so hostile and so constricting that those actually desiring transparency and reform are forced out. They have little support at the base of the U.S. church. Even today, only somewhere between 50,000 to 100,000 out of 60 million American Catholics describe themselves as “traditionalist.”2
I will talk more about the right-wing lay intellectuals’ role in promoting schism in a later article. For now, I will just say that the struggle unites all kinds of Catholic conservatives, internationalist and isolationist, those supporting a robust government and a small one. Much of the Catholic Right pines for the return of the Latin Mass and are united on such matters as abortion, euthanasia, homosexuality and stem cell research. They merge theological with political conservatism.
Like several of the reactionary bishops who opposed Obama’s appearance at Notre Dame, these leaders tend to be traditionalist and bemoan the modernization of the Church stemming from the Second Vatican Council (Vatican II). This was the three-year gathering of bishops and other church leaders launched by the marvelous Pope John XXIII that ended in 1965 with the Church extending its hand in dialog to Eastern Orthodox and other churches, saying that truth could be found outside of the Roman Catholic Church. Vatican II also encouraged lay members to study the Bible for themselves and dropped the Latin Mass in favor of Mass held in the congregants’ own tongue with laypeople taking an active role in the service. The Second Vatican Council extended a hand to Jews by saying that Jews both in Jesus’ time and today could not be held responsible for the killing of the messiah. The spirit of Vatican II is the spirit of dialog.
Vatican II also increased the power of the bishops against the pope, a decentralization which helped nurture the development of Liberation Theology in Latin America and Africa. By 1978, reversing Vatican II and forestalling any other liberalization seemed the far-fetched dream of a small group of reactionary bishops and cardinals, and a relatively small number of dissatisfied Catholics.
But the appointment of Pope John Paul II in that year, and his successor Pope Benedict XVI in April 2005, means the traditionalists’ dream is no longer far-fetched. They enjoy a Catholic hierarchy with fewer liberal members. About three quarters of the world’s bishops were appointed by Pope John Paul II following his ascendancy in 1978.3 With very few exceptions, they reflect a world-view whose spectrum usually extends from the socially conservative Cardinal John J. O’Connor to the communion-denying Cardinal Edmund Burke and even to the extreme of the self-professed militant warrior Bishop Robert Finn attached to the reactionary men’s fraternal society Opus Dei.
Unless a moderate or liberal succeeds Pope Benedict XVI, the hierarchy will soon be wholly in the hands of the traditionalists. The bishops who attacked Notre Dame will represent the bulk of the church and liberal Catholics will go the way of liberal Republicans, as rarely sighted as a polar bear in a melting world. How did we get to this point?
The Second Vatican Council
Before the papacy of Pope John XXIII (1958-1963), there was little difficulty for the average American Catholic to reconcile one’s Roman Catholicism with one’s Americanism. Catholic economics were part and parcel of America’s embrace of New Deal capitalism and the true battles over abortion and biological issues had yet to begin in earnest. It was only among the Church’s theologians and hierarchy where democracy and modernity were pitted against orthodoxy. Essentially, Catholics who were both economically and religiously conservative had no avenue for influencing the Vatican simply because they were boxed in: an economically liberal Church was still religiously traditional.
Since the 1960s, issues such as civil rights, women’s rights, and reproductive choice exacerbated the divide between more traditional Catholics, who wanted little or no change – and those who did. This had a partisan dimension.
Politically conservative U.S. White Catholics became disenchanted with what they believed to be the Democratic Party’s catering to Hispanic and African-American minorities. Although this perception probably exceeded reality, the additional focus on women’s rights generally, and abortion in particular, clashed with Roman Catholic orthodoxy. Some Catholics then did the once unthinkable and started voting for what has been the party of the Protestant Brahmins.
Eventually those who saw the Church’s liberalization as too similar to the Democratic Party’s liberalization formed the core of what became the contemporary American Catholic Right. Then, disenchanted Catholics began falling away from the faith. New England lost one million Catholics over the past 20 years even as the region’s overall population has grown.4 Between 2006 and 2007 alone, the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life reports that American Catholicism lost about 400,000 adherents, shrinking the playing field for the Right.5
The Catholic Right’s hatred of modernity can be best summarized in philosopher Isaiah Berlin’s observation that they embrace “the old Platonic belief in the philosopher-kings, who were entitled to give orders to others.” Their common opposition to embryonic stem cell research, gay marriage, and abortion rights are classic manifestations of such a belief. Embryonic stem cell research, for example, begins to demystify science and in their eyes, removes the virtue of human heroism. Homosexuality supposedly runs contrary to a thirteenth century understanding of natural law. And abortion – beyond the issues of life and death – presupposes a woman’s equality with man, another belief that runs contrary to a thirteenth century understanding of the natural order of life.
A pluralism of values – a material element of modern liberal democracy – is therefore not acceptable. All must submit to one selective version of “the truth.” To that end, almost any form of dissent is viewed as disobedience. It is here that the church’s conservative politics merge with a more authoritarian hierarchy. Back in the early 1960s, even some of his supporters looked askance at the way Pope John XXIII, the pope who launched Vatican II, encouraged bishops and cardinals to openly air their disagreements with one another. For the more authoritarian-minded princes of the Church, “the truth” is not to be found in either bottom to top or lateral exchanges – or in respectful dialog with other faiths – but solely in top-down pronouncements grounded in ancient if not obsolete “tradition.”
Church traditionalists’ goal is simple: a return to a pre-Vatican II Catholic Church, one where a Catholic toes the line, remains mum, or gets out. They object, among other things, to replacing the language of Mass from Latin to the local language; the elevation of conscience in relationship with Magisterium (the “teaching authority of the Roman Catholic Church”). Perhaps more importantly the respectful view of other faiths enunciated by Vatican II and the ecumenical dialog that followed was anathema to those who viewed the one true church as the only path to eternal salvation.
But perhaps most shocking to the traditionalists was open dissent to the authority of the hierarchy from clergy as well as the rank and file. For those who followed St. Bernard of Clairvaux’s neoplatonic admonition that “faith is to be believed, not disputed,” dissent, in and of itself, was tantamount to heresy.
With Pope John-Paul II’s 1978 ascension, the traditionalist-minded conservatives now had a powerful ally setting Church policy. The socially conservative John-Paul reached out to reactionary-minded lay organizations like the plutocratic and free market-loving Opus Dei which his two predecessors wisely viewed with deep suspicion. A mix of laymen, bishops and priests, Opus Dei has historically worked to purge progressives from church ranks, notably in Latin America, and infuse Catholicism with right-wing principles. John Paul saw Opus Dei and other authoritarian-minded groups such as the Legionnaires of Christ and Communion y Liberacíon as a means to a more conservative Church. Dissent was increasingly equated with disloyalty.
The current Pope Benedict – formerly known as Cardinal Ratzinger— executed John-Paul’s purges as head of the office of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, once known as the Office of the Inquisition. In that role, Ratzinger attempted, but failed, to condemn noted Liberation priest and theologian Gustavo Merino; successfully had Father Charles Curran, one of the chief American dissenters against the church’s 1968 statement against artificial birth control, removed from his position as theologian and teacher of theology at Catholic University in Washington, D.C. (see box); and disciplined the liberal theologian Hans Küng for daring to question papal authority (although years earlier Küng brought a younger Ratzinger to teach at the University at Tübingen, essentially being the future pope’s academic mentor).
Now as Pope, Benedict’s outreach to far right splinter groups such as the Priestly Society of Saint Pius X (SSPX) takes Pope John Paul II’s rapprochement with the far Right to a new level. SSPX is best known for its fondness for the Latin rite Mass and, in Europe, for its affinity for the French neofascist National Front Party. In January, Benedict accepted four bishops into the church ordained by an archbishop and SSPX leader in defiance of the Vatican in 1988. One, Richard Williamson, was a Holocaust denier who decried the “false messianic vocation of Jewish world-dominion.” Benedict’s acceptance of the bishops sparked an international firestorm.6
Apparently this pontiff’s obsession with supposed schemes of secular moral relativism and nihilism, and his desire for traditionalism in the church, allowed him to turn a blind eye to the hateful ideology of Williamson and many other SSPX members. Finally, faced with outrage from Catholics far and wide, the Pope revoked his acceptance of Williamson in February.
While the Pope’s embrace of SSPX backfired so badly that liberal Catholics won a rare victory, the message was clear: Traditionalists no matter their past transgressions can be brought back in the fold while liberal dissenters such as Father Charles Curran can go their own way (see box).
Shrinking the Church in America
The vast majority of Catholics – here and overseas – don’t want a return to the Latin Mass. For me, the Latin Mass is very elitist, with the priest speaking almost in a whisper and his back facing the congregation. It is nothing more than a scheme to gain support from more reactionary forces both within the Church (Opus Dei) and somewhat estranged from the Church (SSPX).
Two years ago, the New York Daily News interviewed a priest, Reverend Brian Jordan, about the Latin Mass. He hit the nail on the head when he said,
For 24 years I have been a member of an endangered species - the Catholic priesthood - and never celebrated the Mass in Latin because there was never a local pastoral need to do so ….There continues to be no national pastoral need to celebrate the Mass in Latin other than to satisfy a small - albeit very influential - number of disgruntled Catholics.7
Helping power the push among right-wing Catholicism to shrink and purify the church in the United States is Opus Dei and its Washington, D.C. operative Rev. C. John McClosky. McCloskey, a former Wall Street executive, is a “self-described supply-sider” according to journalist Chris Suellentrop, who “has a top-down strategy to transform the culture, too. He wants to turn Blue America into Red.”8
McCloskey described his futuristic vision of the moderate and dissent-free Church of 2030 in a Catholic World Report article he published in May 2000:
“As you may have learned, there were approximately 60 million nominal Catholics at the beginning of the Great Jubilee at the turn of the century. You might ask how we went from that number down to our current 40 million. I guess the answer could be, to put it delicately, consolidation. It is not as bad as it looks. … I mean to say only 10 percent of that base assented wholeheartedly to the teaching of the Church and practiced the sacraments in the minimal sense of Sunday Mass and at least yearly confession. The rest, as was inevitable, either left the Church, defected to the culture of death, passed away, or in some cases at least for a couple of decades, went to various Christian sects, what remained of mainstream Protestantism or Bible Christianity.9
He also gleefully notes that in this future Church, “Dissent has disappeared from the theological vocabulary.”10
The danger that a politically active Opus Dei membership currently represents to both Catholicism and liberal democracy is not from assassinations by imaginary albino monks (for the record, contra The DaVinci Code, there are no Opus Dei monks), but in its very plutocratic attitude in abhorring dissent. Opus Dei is openly concerned with the economic self-interest of “friends” who already have superfluous wealth and power often at the expense of the economically less powerful.
It is no accident that Opus Dei’s allies in advocating a smaller, more orthodox church are closely aligned with the U.S. Right. For example, William Donohue, president of the Catholic League, is an adjunct scholar with the Heritage Foundation. Pizza-franchise magnate Tom Monaghan regularly bankrolls the laissez-faire-oriented Acton Institute as well as orthodox Roman Catholic GOP candidates for public office. Catholic neoconservatives Michael Novak and the late Richard John Neuhaus were among the founders of the Institute on Religion and Democracy (IRD), where McCloskey has served as an advisor.
This is significant because, as Frederick Clarkson wrote in The Public Eye, IRD brings both right-wing politics and conservative theology to mainline Protestant denominations. It has always “intended to divide and conquer—and diminish the capacity of churches to carry forward their idea of a just society in the United States—and the world.”11 In this way, Roman Catholic elements involved in IRD not only sought to hobble the major Protestant churches which had become more politically and socially liberal during the 20th century, but also to divide what they saw as their main competitors for influence and the direction of the culture.
The role of McCloskey and other prominent conservative Catholics in this anti-liberal Protestant agency deeply troubled the late Reverend Dr. Andrew Weaver, a prominent Methodist writer, who called it “the most grievous breach in ecumenical good will between Roman Catholics and Protestants since the changes initiated by Vatican II.”12 Indeed, the agenda advanced and the tactics used by IRD and its allies against the mainline Protestant churches as detailed by Clarkson, Weaver, and others are also evident in the battles in Roman Catholicism, and involve some of the same fractious groups and individuals.
While fractious may fairly describe the activities of McCloskey and his ilk both religiously and politically, that may be a radical understatement.
McCloskey makes it quite clear that if the United States as we know it must be ripped apart in order to achieve his ideal world of orthodox Catholicism, so be it. For example, in his Church of 2030 manifesto, he refers to his fantasy of a new country called “the Regional States of North America,” a place where the separation of church and state and the freedom of conscience have been abolished:
[A] final short and relatively bloodless conflict produced our Regional States of North America. The outcome was by no means an ideal solution but it does allow Christians to live in states that recognize the natural law and divine Revelation, the right of free practice of religion, and laws on marriage, family, and life that reflect the primacy of our Faith. With time and the reality of the ever-decreasing population of the states that worship at the altar of “the culture of death,” perhaps we will be able to reunite and fulfill the Founding Fathers of the old United States dream to be “a shining city on a hill.” [Emphasis added]
Garry Wills observed of such revisionist history that what McCloskey is doing here is trying to sell the Founders as “proto-Catholics.” Wills further observed in his recent book Head and Heart: American Christianities, that John Courtney Murray’s idea “that America was really founded on Catholic principles… would have made Adams and Jefferson snort with derision.”13 Adams and Jefferson would find much to snort about because such views are not the exception but are increasingly the rule on the Catholic Right.
Common Ground or War?
Bishop Robert Finn, head of the Kansas City-St. Joseph diocese - and like McCloskey a member of Opus Dei – recently described Catholicism as “the Church militant” and told his audience, “We are at war.”14 The occasion was an address to prolifers at the 2009 Gospel of Life Convention held in Overland Park, Kansas. His speech was marked by a view that most Americans would find hard to believe were uttered by an American Church leader of the 21st century:
The more dangerous “human enemies” in our battle are those who in this age of pluralism and political propriety seek ways to convince us of their sincerity and good will. …
They may propose “tolerance” and seem to have a “live and let live” approach to all human choices - even if the choice is not to “let live,” but actually to “let die,” or “let life be destroyed.” These more subtle enemies are of all backgrounds. They may be atheists or agnostics, or of any religion, including Christian or Catholic.
He went on to denounce those religious liberals, including President Obama, who have sought to identify “common ground” between antiabortion and prochoice camps:
This dissension in our own ranks should not surprise us because we all experience some dissension against God’s law of love within our own heart. But the “battle between believers,” who claim a certain “common ground” with us, while at the same time, they attack the most fundamental tenets of the Church’s teachings, or disavow the natural law - this opposition is one of the most discouraging, confusing, and dangerous.
Finn then directly opened up on Notre Dame University president John I. Jenkins who had invited President Obama, to give the 2009 commencement address:
I suspect that, since Notre Dame will need a scapegoat for this debacle, and Fr. Jenkins will probably lose his job, at this point perhaps he ought to determine to lose it for doing something right instead of something wrong. He ought to disinvite the President, who I believe would graciously accept the decision. Notre Dame, instead, ought to give the honorary degree to Bishop John D’Arcy of the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend, who has supported and tried to guide the University, despite their too frequent waywardness, faithfully for 25 years.
This is nothing short of separatist language aimed at taking over the entire institution. It reflects a certitude and arrogance on a par with the great American preacher Jonathon Edwards, whose 1741 diatribe “Sinners in the Hand of an Angry God” defends, in the midst of a complex religious revival he helped spur, the Puritan notion of God’s elect. Like 18th century Puritans, today’s Roman Catholics who see themselves as fundamental, pure, and elect for salvation seek separation from those they see as disobedient via their independent thought.
Springtime for Traditionalism
How, we may ask, would such a Catholic schism affect American Christianity? A Protestant friend, Reverend Dan Schultz,15 provided a sober assessment.
“If it comes to schism,” Schultz explained, “Mother Church is going to lose a whole lot more than it gains. It needs Americans to fund its work in Africa and elsewhere.” The clear-thinking United Church of Christ minister added, “A purge will no doubt strengthen the Episcopalians, Lutherans, perhaps the UCC and unfortunately, the already-swelling ranks of the non-religious.”
If Schultz is correct, liberals might be tempted to look for possible renewal in mainline Protestantism. But consider the political implications: The Catholic Church with its global reach and moral authority would be run by those who would put aside social justice principles and replace them with a greater emphasis upon buccaneer-style laissez-faire economics, (not to mention such a radical opposition to birth control that they oppose condom distribution and HIV education in areas afflicted with AIDS). The effect on the poor and disenfranchised would be devastating.
But what specific type of rightist policies would such a Church pursue? That may depend upon the lay leaders involved in the schism. I will explore the roles of paleoconservatives and neoconservatives in this fight, their respective agendas, as well as their movers and shakers, in part two.
- R. Scott Appleby, “‘A Leaner, Smaller, Purer Church’? Catholicism expert says the new Pope will likely keep enforcing orthodoxy, leading to possible ‘winnowing’ in the U.S. Church,” Business Week, May 2, 2005.
- Ronald A. Simkins and William L. Blizek, “Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ; Sectarian Catholicism and Mel Gibson,” Journal of Religion & Society.
- John Thavis, “Church’s international contours changed under Pope John Paul II,” Catholic News Service.
- Michael Paulson, “Number of N.E. Catholics tumbles,” The Boston Globe, March 9, 2009. The article finds that the American Catholic population is stabilized due to increased Hispanic immigration in the U.S. Southwest. Still, the trend is clear: in the Northeast a Catholic identification among the descendents of European Catholic immigrants is declining for a variety of reasons. It should not be lost that this group is presently better educated and economically better off (generally) that their Hispanic co-religionists.
- Daniel Burke, “Big churches posting small membership losses,” The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life.
- Rachel Donadio, “Pope Reinstates Four Excommunicated Bishops,” The New York Times, World, January 24, 2009.
- The Rev. Brian Jordan, “Latin Mass is all Greek to most worshippers,” Daily News, Opinion, July 12, 2007.
- Chris Suellentrop, “The Rev. John McCloskey: The Catholic Church’s K Street Lobbyist,” Slate.
- Rev. John McCloskey, “2030: Looking Backwards,” CatholiCity: The Catholic Church Simplified.
- Frederick Clarkson, “The Battle for the Mainline Churches,” The Public Eye Magazine, Spring 2006 (20), no.1 (2006).
- Andrew Weaver, “Neocon Catholics target mainline Protestants: Institute on Religion and Democracy leads serious breach of ecumenical good will,” Media Transparency.
- John Courtney Murray was a Jesuit priest who wrote both before and during Vatican II on the similarities of Catholic notions of natural law as well as those of the Founding Fathers. Murray attempted to reconcile Catholicism with democracy and was in fact influential on the Council’s pronouncements on religious freedom. To understand where Murray erred on the similarities see my article in the Summer 2008 issue of The Public Eye magazine, “How Roman Catholic Neocons Peddle Natural Law into Debates about Life and Death.”
- Bishop Robert W. Finn, “Kansas City Bishop to pro-lifers: ‘We are at war!’” National Catholic Reporter, Faith & Parish, April 28, 2009.
- The proprietor of the influential blog Street Prophets, and author of the forthcoming book Changing The Script: An Authentically Faithful and Authentically Progressive Political Theology for the 21st Century.
- Rev. John McCloskey, “2030: Looking Backwards,” CatholiCity: The Catholic Church Simplified. McCloskey’s article reveals his plan to add more congregants by combining the practice of birth control by non-Catholics with the fertility of the more obediently inclined futuristic faithful. To that end he writes, “You will also note that as a group they are averaging four to five children per family, which means that over the next few decades we will see an increasing natural growth. Given that modern pagan society has achieved its goal of zero population growth and more, the demographics are on our side. Ironically in this year 2030 we are only 10 % of the population, but it is a rock solid fulcrum of which Archimedes would be proud. Upon that fulcrum we can transform the world if we stay the course.”
- Robert McClory, Turning Point: The Inside Story of the Papal Birth Control Commission, and How Humanae Vitae Changed the Life of Patty Crowley and the Future of the Church (New York: Crossroad, 1995). Sixty-five members voted for a change in Church teaching while four theologian priests dissented with one cardinal and two bishops voted not to change the belief that artificial birth control was evil.
- Thomas Cahill, Pope John XXIII (New York: Penguin Books, 2002), 221.