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What a Tangled Web: Tracking Connections Between Catholic Right and Political Right

National Catholic Prayer Breakfast 2007

In my previous posting about Catholic restorationism at the end of the 20th century, I argued that the Catholic religious and political right have a shared interest in controlling discourse about the connection of Catholic faith and values to the political sphere.  My posting notes that watchdog groups monitoring what theologians teach and write are not confined to the religious right, but that the Catholic political right also has a keen interest in controlling theological conversations within the church—particularly those that constitute a continuation of the project of Vatican II—because of the political implications of those conversations.

I note that the concern underlying this monitoring of theological discourse is to control dialogical engagement between Catholic ideas and values and secular intellectual traditions, because that engagement has the possibility of retrieving the many critical strands in Catholic thought that stand against neoconservative political and economic commitments. The right does not want this retrieval to happen, and will not tolerate it happening.

I’d like to follow these observations now with another posting from my Bilgrimage blog that offers evidence for these claims.  Here, I want to argue that even the most cursory overview of the thick, incestuous ties between the Catholic religious and political right (and the similar connections between the two and the political right in general) raises pointed questions about how and why progressive theological conversation is closely monitored in the church today.

The network of right-wing groups with a predominant interest in orienting Catholic theological conversations to neoconservative political ends is strongly interwoven.  In this network, strand leads to strand, with figures in one strand recurring in another—and with all strands pointing to a central nexus of extremely powerful political and economic players who have cozy ties to leading Republican political figures dating as far back as the Nixon era.

Tom Monaghan

No matter where one turns in the right-wing Catholic network, for instance, one immediately runs into pizza magnate Tom Monaghan.  As reporter Liam Dillon notes, Monaghan is a “national power broker for GOP political candidates.” (And see also here).

As Dillon also notes, Monaghan’s confidantes include influential Catholic political figures like Deal Hudson, “a prominent Catholic Republican operative” in the Bush administration.  Politicians Monaghan has supported with major funding include Sam Brownback (R, Kansas), Mitt Romney (R, Massachusetts), and Bob Schaffer (R, Colorado).  He is also a major contributor to the Republican National Committee.

As Dillon points out, Monaghan has chosen to exert influence on the American political process by using his wealth to fund and create organizations for political activism.  Monaghan has a particular interest in trying to keep the Catholic vote in the Republican pocket, because of the Republican party’s support of neoconservative economic ideas congenial to Monaghan, even when those ideas are critiqued by Catholic magisterial teaching.

As Dillon states,

The combination of Monaghan’s staunch anti-abortion stance and pro-free market capitalism make him a natural fit for the Republican Party. His willingness to spend his fortune promoting these ideas makes him a power broker, especially as the bloc of 47 million Catholic voters nationwide continues to fragment.

Monaghan’s attempt to move Catholic political and theological conversations to the right has extended not only to direct political activism through funding of right-wing political players.  He has also sought to set up an alternative, ideologically and theologically “correct” Catholic university in Florida, Ave Maria.   Monaghan and Ave Maria have strong ties to Justice Robert Bork, Nixon’s attorney general and solicitor general, later appointed by Ronald Reagan to the U.S. Court of Appeals for D.C.; Antonin Scalia, a Supreme Court justice appointed by Reagan; and Clarence Thomas, another Supreme Court justice appointed by George H.W. Bush. As Peter Boyer points out in a 2007 New Yorker profile, under the Reagan administration, Monaghan was actively involved in the attempt to undermine liberation theology in Latin America (and see here).

Michael Genovese, a political science professor at Loyola Marymount University and co-editor of the book Catholics and Politics (Georgetown UP, 2008), notes that Monaghan’s influence extends through the multiple right-wing political organizations he helps to fund and/or has set up, through an interlocking network of ties that geometrically increase the influence of these groups on the political process of the United States. Dillon refers to this interlocking network as the “Ave Maria nexus.”

Deal Hudson

Through his ties to Deal Hudson, whom Bill Berkowitz at Media Transparency characterizes as “the point man for the [George W.] Bush administration in all matters Catholic,” Monagahan and his allies exerted strong influence in that administration. Berkowitz notes that Hudson was in regular contact with Karl Rove and advised Rove and his associates about how to tailor their message for Catholic audiences. Berkowitz notes as well that

[Hudson] was also a major player in the organized effort by conservative Catholics to demonize liberal Catholics, and remake the church in their own ideological image; turn it away from concerns about economic and social justice missions and towards embracing narrow social issues.

Hudson fell on hard times, unfortunately, when it came out in 2004 that he had left Fordham University a decade before as a result of a sexual liaison with an 18-year old coed. He has now bounced back to a position of influence in D.C. at the Morley Institute, sponsor of a neocon blog called Inside Catholic, which describes itself as “a voice for authentic Catholicism in the public square.”

Rev. Joseph Fessio and Cardinal Ratzinger

Closely associated with Monaghan’s Ave Maria venture from its inception is an influential Jesuit theologian and political activist, Joseph Fessio, who is now Theologian-in-Residence at Ave Maria University.  An online history of Ignatius Press (which Fessio founded) describes him as “a longtime personal friend of Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI.” As journalist Melissa Jones notes in a National Catholic Reporter overview of Fessio’s St. Ignatius Institute, he founded this institute at San Francisco University in 1976 “in reaction to liberalizing influences of the Second Vatican Council (1963-65) and curriculum changes at the university,” and is a “celebrated figure in right-wing Catholic circles” closely associated with the EWTN network of Mother Angelica.

The founding of Ave Maria University by Monaghan and the founding of St. Ignatius Institute by Ave Maria’s Theologian-in-Residence in order to combat “liberalizing influences” of Vatican II in Catholic universities indicate the exceptionally strong interest of the Catholic political-religious right in monitoring theological conversations in the Catholic church of the U.S.  Inevitably, as one tracks that interest, one also comes across another watchdog group with ties to many of the same political and religious players I’ve just mentioned.  This is the Cardinal Newman Society.

This society has strong traction in the mainstream media as a watchdog group monitoring Catholic universities in the U.S. for perceived lapses in orthodoxy.  It routinely publishes alerts about these purported lapses on its website.  The name of the group suggests that it is a Catholic confraternity or theological organization.  But dig into the organization’s history, affiliations, and activities, and it soon becomes evident that the Cardinal Newman Society is not a theological confraternity at all.  In key respects, it’s a front for the Republican party wearing a Catholic disguise.

In 2005, Michael Kranish did a valuable analysis of the Cardinal Newman Society for Boston Globe readers. Kranish notes that the group, whose headquarters are in an unmarked building in a mall in northern Virginia outside D.C., routinely “pores over statements by professors at the nation’s Catholic colleges in an effort to find ‘heretics and dissidents’ . . . .”

And why this lavish attention of the Cardinal Newman Society to attempts to prove that American Catholic universities are heretic-infested? As Kramish notes, the allegations that the Cardinal Newman Society makes about the purported decline in Catholicity of Catholic universities “help the group raise hundreds of thousands of dollars, mostly from small contributors.” Money that goes towards political causes—Republican political causes; and allegations that keep Catholic money flowing in that direction . . . .

Kranish wrote his exposé at a time in which the Cardinal Newman Society had decided to target Boston College. Unfortunately, the attempt of the Society to depict that Jesuit university as defectively Catholic backfired, as leading figures in American Catholic academic life denounced the tactics and not-too-hidden political agenda of the Cardinal Newman Society.

In the view of Rev. John Beal, a canon law professor at Catholic University of America, the Society’s behavior is “red-baiting in ecclesiastical garb.” Charles L. Currie, president of the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities in 2005, told Kramish that the “attacks [of the Cardinal Newman Society] can no longer go unchallenged.” He noted that the Society’s activities at Boston College “follow a long trail of distorted, inaccurate, and often untrue attacks on scholars addressing complex issues.”

According to Michael James, vice president of the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities in 2005, the Cardinal Newman Society is ‘”destructive and antithetical to a spirit of unity in our commitment to serve society and the church.” In the view of Rev. John Paris, a member of Boston College’s faculty attacked by the Society, he was targeted to help the Cardinal Newman Society raise money. Paris questioned the political agenda of the Cardinal Newman Society.

Karnish notes the widespread conclusion of many of those observing this quasi-Catholic political activist organization that its high-profile attacks on Catholic universities are primarily about raising funds for Republican causes. As he also notes, a number of its board members have strong ties to politically conservative groups and highly placed, influential right-wing political activists.

Brent Bozell

These include L. Brent Bozell III, director of the Media Research Center, which Karnish characterizes as “a self-described watchdog for liberal bias.” Karnish notes that Bozell’s website says he is executive director of the Conservative Victory Fund, a political action committee that has raised money for congressional candidates.

As Media Transparency’s webpage tracking Brent Bozell notes, Bozell is “a zealot of impeccable right-wing pedigree,” who is a nephew of Catholic journalist William F. Buckley and whose father L. Brent Bozell, Jr., assisted Barry Goldwater with writing The Conscience of a Conservative. Media Transparency webpage also notes that Bozell was a close associate of Terry Dolan, the closeted gay founder of the National Conservative Political Action Committee, on which Bozell has served as finance chairman and president.

In the view of Media Transparency, Bozell’s Media Research Center is all about right-wing political activism—“a platform from which to bash the arts and popular culture.”  Keith Olbermann named Bozell “Worst Person in the World” in November 2006 when Bozell claimed that “100 generals … would disagree” with NBC’s characterization of the Iraqi war as “a civil war.”

During the 2008 elections, Bozell targeted vice-presidential candidate Joe Biden, seeking traction for a media meme that would depict Biden as inadequately Catholic.  In October 2008, Bozell published a  News Busters column about Biden agreeing with the contention of Bishop Joseph Martino of Scranton that Biden ought to be refused communion:

As CBS and other networks touted Biden’s “working-class Catholic roots” growing up in Scranton, Pennsylvania, they refused even to note that the Bishop of Scranton had announced it wrong to give Holy Communion to pro-abortion politicians like Biden.

As Eric Boehlert notes at Media Matters, following the presidential election and the victory of Mr. Obama, Bozell sought to depict the Democratic victory as the result of biased reporting by a liberal media, claiming, “In 25 years of looking at the national media, I have never in my life seen a more one-sided, distorted, vicious presentation of news — and non-news — by the national media.”  The attempt to depict the mainstream media as liberal (and antithetical to Catholic beliefs) has been part and parcel of Bozell’s poliical activism: as Steve Benen reports in Washington Monthly in July 2004, in June of that year, Bozell, “a conservative activist, launched a $2.8 million advertising and talk-radio campaign to discredit the ‘liberal news media.’”

To underscore the primary point of my analysis: though the Cardinal Newman Society seeks to present itself as a watchdog group for theological orthodoxy, with folks like Brent Bozell on its board, it’s clearly far more than that.  This is a political group that is all about trying to push American Catholics into the Republican party, and to squelch theological conversation that explores the significant strands of Catholic belief and thought which move directly against the neoconservative economic theory these political groups espouse.

Bishop Joseph Martino

And so when Bozell lambasts the mainstream media for celebrating Joe Biden’s working-class Catholic roots without noting that his own bishop in Scranton, Joseph Martino, has forbidden Biden communion, Bozell is not so much protecting Catholic orthodoxy as he is promoting a right-wing political agenda.  As is Bishop Martino, who at the time Bozell published his attack on Biden and the “liberal” media, just happened to sit on the theological advisory board of the same Cardinal Newman Society Board on whose board of directors Brent Bozell sits.

Other members of Cardinal Newman Society’s theological advisory board include such outspoken members of the Catholic political and religious right as Bishop Fabian Bruskewitz of Lincoln, Nebraska, and Vatican official Archbishop Raymond Burke. Its spiritual advisor Benedict Groeschel is a close associate of EWTN, and its board chaplain Paul Scalia is a son of Justice Antonin Scalia.

As anyone reading this account of the thick connections between leaders of the Catholic religious and political right and the political right in the U.S. in general will immediately recognize, there is no way to disentangle what appear, on the face of it, to be concerns about theological orthodoxy in right-leaning Catholic circles, and political objectives.  Right-wing political objectives.

There is a clear, plain intertwining and interlocking of religious and political objectives and affiliation in the “theological” analysis of folks like Deal Hudson or Brent Bozell and groups like the Cardinal Newman Society—or, for that matter, of prelates like Raymond Burke and Joseph Martino, who recently resigned as Scranton’s bishop. Their religious analysis is also political analysis. They are moved as much (or more) by their political commitments and ideas, as by their religious ideas.

Their attack on Catholics who do not toe their restorationist theological line is a political attack. It is designed to serve the interests of the Republican party. It reflects the judgment of a nasty nexus of right-wing political operatives and right-wing Catholics that the Republican party is the sole option for faithful Catholics today.

The ties are obvious, and they are exceptionally thick. From Nixon, Reagan, and Bush, to Bork, Scalia, and Thomas, through right-wing Catholic activists including Monaghan, Hudson, and Fessio, to Republican congressional members funded by this nexus: the ties I’ve described above run everywhere through the interconnected networks of the Catholic religious and political right.

The attempt of neoconservative Catholic activists in the latter decades of the 20th century to politicize Catholic faith—to make being Catholic synonymous with being Republican—is one of the most significant stories in the history of American Catholicism.  It is one that has to be told and carefully understood, if the Catholic church in the United States expects to have a viable future.

The politicization of Catholic faith in the U.S. in the final decades of the 20th century, and the attempt to disguise this politicization as a concern for theological purity, have done serious harm to American Catholicism.  As Rev. James Keenan told Michael Kranish as Kranish researched the Cardinal Newman Society’s attacks on Boston College,

There is something terribly indicative here of the degree of contentiousness in the United States Roman Catholic Church today. Hopefully, someday our bishops will call us to end this awful conduct, which hurts not only those of us targeted, but more importantly, the unity of the church itself.

The politically driven attempt to thwart theological conversation about the creative dialectic engagement between Catholic ideas and values and the culture at large harms the church because it is fundamentally ill-informed.  This attempt is, to a great extent, being driven by groups who do not even know or understand the tradition they claim to be intent on saving for the rest of us.  By people who frequently do not read —really read, beyond soundbytes—or think about the rich variety and nuance of the tradition they claim to be saving with their laments for a waning Catholicity. By people who do not think carefully or anguish over what they learn as they struggle with new ideas. By people who do not value respectful dialogue and opening of mental horizons.

And as this politicization process has occurred in American Catholicism in the past twenty years, with a consequent dumbing down of theological discourse, people are walking away from the Catholic church in droves.  As Richard McBrien reminds us in his latest article at National Catholic Reporter, one-third of American Catholic adults have left the Catholic church.  And ten percent of all Americans today are ex-Catholics—a group large enough to form the second largest denomination in the nation behind the Catholic church, if all these former Catholics decided to create a new church.

If the time was ever ripe for the kind of open, inclusive, honest (and, yes, progressive) theological conversation Open Tabernacle hopes to promote, that time would seem to be now.  If the church cares about its future, that is . . . .

(Cross-posted from Bilgrimage, 1 March 2009, with editorial revisions)

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6 Responses

  1. As noted at Vatican II, again in Gaudium et spes, speaking of a Christian’s engagement in politics:

    “Often enough the Christian view of things will itself suggest some specific solution in certain circumstances. Yet it happens rather frequently, and legitimately so, that with equal sincerity some of the faithful will disagree with others on a given matter. Even against the intentions of their proponents, however, solutions proposed on one side or another may be easily confused by many people with the Gospel message. Hence it is necessary for people to remember that no one is allowed in the aforementioned situations to appropriate the Church’s authority for his opinion. They should always try to enlighten one another through honest discussion, preserving mutual charity and caring above all for the common good.”

    I think it significant that Catholics tend to split half and half between Republicans and Democrats. Neither party wholly reflects Catholic values, despite claims made in competing for votes. Myself, I have always been either an Independent or Democrat, but I can understand the Republican point of view, and understand why a great many sincere Catholics find it more palatable.

    That said, this post is useful and interesting, but not because it presents some great danger. I am sorry that both the left and the right seem to have some common rhetorical strategy of portraying the Church as captive to the Republicans. it isn’t so in fact, and I hope it doesn’t become so. But the answer doesn’t seem to me to lie in demonizing Republicans as engaging in something sinister, or in characterizing the Church as in thrall, but in answering, point for point, as brothers in Christ.

    • Thanks for your response, Mr. Allen.

      I’m sorry that you choose to see my attempt to follow the trails of the Catholic right as a “demonizing” process.

      And it’s a bit difficult for me to understand how research that “demonizes” is also “useful and interesting.”

      Your conclusion stresses the need to engage in point-by-point dialogue as “brothers in Christ” (though, as Colleen points out, this formulation leaves out the other half of the human race who equally hold the sky up).

      But I wonder how any point-by-point dialogue is to take place with people and groups whose objective is clearly not to engage in dialogue, but to impose their viewpoints on others through channels of influence that are not transparent, public, or permeable to discussion.

      Demonstrating that this is how some of our sisters and brothers in the Lord have been at work in the political process (and also within the governing structures of the church) for some time now is one of the major objectives of this article.

      • I guess what I see as “demonizing” is your characterization of the complex set of relationships and institutions among conservatives as somehow subversive to the political process.

        It seems to me quite a normal and healthy thing that they have universities and think tanks and periodicals, that they like bishops who agree with them and don’t care for those who don’t, that the same names tend to show up at their seminars and sign their manifestos. That’s politics itself.

        So I come back to the issue of specificity. In the entire article I don’t think there’s a single reference to a single contested political issue.

        Back twenty years ago, when my purse was fatter, I used to buy books from Fr. Fessio’s Ignatius Press–the Chesterton series, a nice edition of Newman’s Parochial and Plain Sermons, even Ratzinger’s book on the liturgy. I used to read First Things. I didn’t agree with everything advocated, but they certainly weren’t bullyin, hectoring bigots. So I am concerned that the internet-style of attack-attack-attack that’s become so dominant in our secular politics is becoming the norm for our religious discussions.

        So, if their theology is wrong-headed, their scriptural exegesis mistaken, their science behind-the-times, their understanding of Vatican II blinkered, their philosophy unsophisticated, let us know what they think, on a particular topic, and why, and why that’s not consonant with Catholicism. Otherwise all we have is generalized execration.

        It is a very interesting question about why people leave the Church. All I can say is I know some who have left because they think it has become too conservative, and some who have left because they think it is too liberal. Some have left because they are too busy, and some frankly no longer believe and no longer care. A few I know left after getting into a fight with a priest over some trivial matter. I even know a few who left to become Pentacostals. It would be interesting to see some study going beyond my own personal experience. But I don’t think that the decline can probably be attributed to any one set of Catholic ideologues.

        I myself was raised Presbyterian. Why did I leave? Long story, of course, but, mainly (1) I read Calvin, and (2) I married a Catholic. Two dangers that my Presbyterian friends might want to guard against in future.

        • It’s interesting to me, Mr. Allen, that you’re choosing to ignore the entire terms of my argument, and the research that underlies it, in order to shift the discussion to some kind of point-by-point back and forth regarding issues like exegesis or the use of science in theology.

          And so we’re back to the question about dialogue that you yourself raised from the beginning of your response to my posting. How is dialogue possible when people don’t want or intend to engage the primary points made in a particular argument? Or the research underlying that argument.

          I think I’ll let my posting and its research speak for itself. In my view, there’s abundant documentation to show that some groups within American Catholicism have been working for some time now to influence the political process (and intraecclesial discussions) in a behind-the-scenes way that undercuts core Catholic values. And I certainly don’t think it’s demonizing to expose the mechanisms of that behind-the-scenes work. I think it’s healthy and necessary, given the attempt to ally the church with a single political party and political option.

          Because, as you say, the Christian commitment ought to be open to a wide range of political options, and not captive to any one of them . . . .

  2. Rick, I would agree with you one hundred percent if I knew both sides would engage in a point for point dialogue and brothers (and sisters) in Christ.

    That isn’t how it works in practice. That’s not how it works when two groups are working from different world views, two different political views, and from different spiritual places. This is especially true when one side is operating from a fear based logic and the other doesn’t want to deal from fear.

    I have no problem admitting that in our culture fear is a big motivator, almost as big as sex. The issue I have is that both fear and sex are relatively easy drives to manipulate for totally other purposes–like social power and control and that agenda is usually hidden behind the kinds of front groups Bill mentions.

    To be honest candidate Obama appears to have substituted manipulating people’s hopes in place of manipulating their fears. I find that even more odious and should this blog ever take that path, I will be the first to leave.

  3. “That’s not how it works when two groups are working from different world views, two different political views, and from different spiritual places.”

    “Two different political views”? The American political landscape appears to me remarkably narrow. We have no one contending for monarchy or aristocracy or Marxism or even European-style parliamentary rule. No Republican dare question social security or medicare; no Democrat the need to prop up our banks at home or our military presense abroad. All are content with our vaguely plutocratic custom of allowing the people to occasionally choose between the candidates of the two established parties and calling it “democracy.” Ours is a politics of “tweaking.”

    By the same token, we have in common with Catholics on the Republican side the scriptures and Catholic tradition–the fathers and doctors, the work of the saints, the sacraments, the Eucharist, the teaching of the ecumenical councils. If, with that common heritage, we are at such “different spiritual places” that we can’t even talk without fearmongering, what hope is there?

    Seems to me is, step one, take what your fellow Catholics say in good faith. I don’t say they’ll do the same for you. It’s not a tit for tat thing. It’s just the right way to proceed.

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