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...
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...
...McCloskey's agenda... 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."
...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...