The Catholic Right
Frank Cocozzelli printable version print page     Bookmark and Share
Mon May 08, 2006 at 07:23:20 AM EST
INTRODUCTION: In light of the attention over the release of Ron Howard's film The DaVinci Code, the ultra-conservative group Opus Dei has become a subject of much discussion. Some of it is accurate, some is not.  

I am a Church-going Roman Catholic, an attorney, and an advocate for embryonic stem-cell research. Over the past five years I have continually run into "Catholic" opposition that I ultimately found to be fueled by Opus Dei members or its sympathizers. As a progressive minded member, my Church heroes are Monsignor John A. Ryan, Dorothy Day and Pope John XXIII. To a great extent, the current Catholic Right seeks to undo much of their good work. I believe it is time that the belief and methods of Opus Dei and the broader Catholic Right be exposed. As for the aforementioned inaccuracies in The DaVinci Code, I worry that Opus Dei and other socially conservative groups that rely on Catholic identity to further an agenda may use them as a shield for deflection from more concerns that can adversely affect our pluralistic democracy.  

The following is the first installment on a four part series on the Catholic Right. The opening piece is intended to be an introduction to American Catholic thought and how it is relevant to the contemporary Catholic Right.

'The great tragedy of Spain was that in the nineteenth century the working masses apostatized from the Church, as Pope Plus X once remarked.  And, it is well to remember, it was poverty, destitution and injustice which made them apostatize. They got to hate the Church because they hated the friends of the Church, who exploited them and whom the Church did nothing to rebuke or correct.  The words of Pope Leo XIII 45 years ago went unheeded and his great encyclical Rerum Novarum was neglected.
The lesson of all this for us is that we should meet the evil of Communism not merely by denouncing it, and not at all by stigmatizing as communistic all fundamental reforms.  We must attack the main causes of Communism.  Among these are poverty, insecurity and inequitable distribution of wealth and income.  Failure to remove these evils will do more to strengthen Communism than all the propaganda and all the "boring-in" methods of the organized Communist movement.'
                               Rev. Wilfrid Parsons, S.J., circa 1936

The neoconservative Catholic activist George Weigel called the release of the film The DaVinci Code "a great opportunity for bishops, priests, and deacons to dedicate Eastertide 2006 to preaching the truth of Christian history." 1 Unfortunately, Mr. Weigel's view of "the truth" is slanted to serve those of superfluous wealth and privilege.  

But Mr. Weigel is correct about the release of this movie being an opportunity--an unintended opportunity to finally cast sunlight on the various reactionary groups that are now attempting to seize control of my faith, Roman Catholicism. These groups are doing so not just to affect Vatican policy, but to have a profound influence on the politics of American secular government that is often at odds with basic Christian notions of morality.

What is the Catholic Right? As a more progressive Catholic, I believe Rev. Parsons was correct that the Catholic Right are "the friends of the Church" who exploit the less powerful often using the cloak of religion to achieve unjustifiable, disproportionate power and pecuniary gain.  

While the Catholic Right is far from monolithic, it basically comprises two primary groups. The first is more akin to the American paleo-conservative style of Pat Buchanan or (Opus Dei convert) Robert Novak. This first group opposes feminism, birth control and stem cell research, but do not have any inkling toward using war to build empire. Among this group there are those who want to undo the changes of Vatican II (including having Mass said in the local language instead of Latin) as well as those who agree with some of the changes but who are more concerned with what they see as a general moral decay in society.  

But there is a second, more pernicious following emerging on the Catholic Right. This group tends to have close ties the neoconservative political movement. Many of them have adopted much of neoconservative philosopher Leo Strauss's philosophy of the need for benign tyrants to rule over a general population, which they believe cannot always handle the truth. They employ many of Strauss's terms of art such as "nihilism" and "moral relativism" while impugning modernity.  

But before we can engage in a headlong discussion on the Catholic Right, some background must be provided. Accordingly, this first of four weekly posts will offer some historical background about the Catholic Right within the context of American Catholicism.  

A Brief Overview.

The majority of modern first-world Catholics, especially in America, are progressive on many social issues, especially where privacy comes into play. American Catholics tend to see birth-control as a non-issue; more readily accept the marriage of clergy; and tend to be more tolerant of issues concerning abortion and stem cell research. Church teaching allows for a belief in evolution, provided one believes that a given point in time God gave mankind a soul. By and large, American Catholics are more in tune with the beliefs of the great Nineteenth Century Church Liberal Robert Hugues-Felicité de Lamennais and the Civil War era abolitionist Bishop John Purcell than they are with those of either, for example, U.S. Senator Rick Santorum (R-PA) or William Donohue, president of the Catholic League for Civil Rights.

A complication for American Catholics is the long, commonly held belief that non-Protestants, such as Catholics and Jews, live in the United States under a form of sufferance. Although this is a waning idea, it was less than half a century ago, when only Protestants could become a President of the United States, or lead a Fortune 500 company. And if a Jew were to reach the heights of economic power, there were still societal preclusions. Unlike a Rockefeller, they could not think of taking the next step to high political office, let alone play golf in many upscale country clubs.  During the 1960 Presidential election, candidate John F. Kennedy had to meet with protestant clergy to reassure them that his Catholic beliefs would not mean, in essence, a papal presidency. By successfully doing so, Kennedy broke down one of the great barriers of Catholic sufferance in America.  

The Catholic political experience first emerged in the Irish-American community. It arose out of the Tammany Hall-style Democratic clubs where coal and food were given out to the Irish poor. When the Irish first started coming in large numbers in the 1830's, Catholics were seen as outsiders whose arrival might mean the ascendancy of Papal political domination. So, just as it was in British occupied Ireland, the Irish were the scorned victims of prejudice. And just as it would be with the later arriving Eastern European Jews, the discrimination experienced in both the new and old worlds drove the Irish to seek political power. The difference was that in America, despite the existing prejudices, there was an opportunity to move upwards. In the new world there was no royalty or class system "to keep certain people in their place." Instead, there was the promise that talent alone could better an individual's life. Yet, by their Catholicism, they were still viewed with the fear that, if given a choice, they would always choose an allegiance to the Pope over democracy. Thus, this sufferance would slow the political emergence of the Irish and other Catholic ethnic groups.  

Much of the Protestant-Catholic tension arises from basic, but distinct theological notions of freedom. Mainstream Protestant congregations placed their faith in the freedom of the individual coupled with a faith in the basic goodness of mankind. Protestantism also embraced a more Darwinist economic liberalism of the nineteenth century. The Catholic concept of freedom had less to do with the individual and is focused more communally --  with an emphasis upon order and general obedience to higher religious authorities.  Yet, there was still an emphasis on authority--a source of disagreement between Catholic progressives and traditionalists on religious issues to this very day.

The Church was also concerned with providing workers with such progressive concepts such as minimum and living wages for their work. In fact, American Priest John Ryan performed much groundbreaking work in this area in the early to middle part of the Twentieth Century. 2 Catholicism of the Nineteenth century feared the Protestant emphasis on the individual's freedom believing that it would lead to disobedience and societal disorder--a belief still common today among many Catholic traditionalists, but rejected by many mainstream American Catholics.    

Because of these disparate views of humanity, there was a fear among many Nineteenth century Protestant "native" Americans that the incoming number Irish and German Catholics would erode the rights of individual Americans. This was a bit hypocritical of many of the more progressive Protestants who initially did not wish to take religion out of the public school systems, often impressing a Protestant view of Christianity upon Catholic students. 3  

The Irish had one vital tool that many other non-Protestant immigrants did not: They spoke English. It was the Irish who pulled in many of the other Catholic ethnic groups into the Democratic fold. Furthermore, several Irish dominated Democratic machines emerged in cities such as Boston (Fitzgerald-Kennedy families, as well as the Curly machine) and Chicago (eventually the Daly machine) and Kansas City (Pendergast). But, it was in New York where a Irish and Jewish alliance used the powerful Tammany base to enact progressive legislation.  

On the heels of the infamous 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, New York State Assemblyman Al Smith and other elected officials in the Northeast and parts of the Midwest began paying more attention to the workers than to the factory owners. Real advances were made in public health, child labor laws and workers' rights. At the heart this movement was a sense that an activist government could do advance the nation's general welfare.  

This is where Catholicism has had one of its greatest influences on modern liberalism:  a deeply ingrained sense of community. The Catholic notion that we are still somehow responsible for each other in a communal nature, transformed Nineteenth Century economic liberalism into the more compassionate Twentieth Century liberalism which would subsequently define the New Deal and its succeeding variants. Laying the groundwork for such policy was The Bishops Plan of 1919 (Link: Ghost written by Monsignor Ryan it presciently called for retirement insurance and the right of workers to organize for the purpose of collective bargaining. Many of its ideas found their way into the New Deal.  

From the mid-1930's to the 1960's, this new coalition, founded upon Al Smith-Robert Wagner-FDR liberalism, was the economic champion of the Irish, the Italians and other non-protestant ethnic groups. Even when some groups did not embrace the Democratic Party and registered Republican (notably suburban Italians), they tended to gravitate towards more libertarian Republicans such as Thomas Dewey rather than the Howard Taft-style Republican.  

The first cracks in this coalition appeared in the late 1940's and early 1950's. Catholicism and communism were natural enemies in that one espoused a belief in deity and the other, atheism. Communist regimes were not just scornful of the Church, they were clearly hostile to its very existence. In an America, where the red scare was causing friends to name friends as "fellow travelers," many Catholics saw it as a logical extension of their being to be an anticommunist.  

But in 1958 a new pope was elected who would make major changes in the church. Pope John XXIII. Known previously as Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli, he was the jovial and thoughtful son of Italian peasants. As pope, he trusted his bishops and thought their theological disagreements to be healthy instead of threatening. When he ascended to the papacy, a curtain of elitist tradition was torn down and the sunshine of greater reason was allowed to enter Vatican thought, much of which was found in John's call for a Second Vatican Council.  

Vatican II brought extraordinary changes in the Church.  Mass was no longer said in Latin, but in the local language of the parish. The Church finally spoke out against the ridiculous claim that the Jews were responsible for the death of Jesus. Instead, the Jews were described as "the first to hear the Word of the Lord." Furthermore, self-examining criticism of the Church was legitimized. No longer was the church to be a static hierarchy, but instead, "the People of God on a pilgrimage in time." 4  

At around this time a breach appeared in American Catholic thought. During the 1960's issues such as civil rights, women's rights and reproductive choice exacerbated the divide between more traditional Catholics, who wanted little or no change from the more progressive proponents of Vatican II.  

Conservative Catholics became disenchanted with what they believed to be the Democratic Party's catering to Hispanic and African-American minorities.  Although this was more of a case of perception being greater than reality, the liberal focus on women's rights and abortion clashed with Catholic catechism.  With Republican Party, now trending more conservative with the Nixon's Southern Strategy, some Catholics did the previously unthinkable and started voting for what was the party of the Protestant Brahmins. Eventually those ethnics who saw the Church's liberalization as being too similar to the Democratic Party's liberalization formed the core of the American Catholics social conservative movement.  

It would be these religiously disenfranchised who would be the first to link up with those who never accepted economic liberalism.  

A Forum for Reaction

In 1976, former Nixon administration Treasury Secretary William Simon, who had just been appointed to run the very conservative John M. Olin Foundation, urged the business world to change the entire means of rebutting liberal causes by weakening liberal bastions such as labor unions, universities, mainstream religions and of course, the media. Simon was not only conservative on economic issues, but was very much a traditionalist, pre-Vatican II Catholic. For him, there was no separating his faith from his politics.  

Simon's plan was straightforward and simple. Wealthy conservatives would support foundations that would in turn cultivate conservative voices in universities, in the media and of course, in religious politics. The goal was not to change the message, but the entire political landscape by disguising the message to make it appear more centrist than it actually is. A unified message on any given subject would descend intact from the think tank, complete with talking points, directly to the pundit whose job is to get that message into the daily discourse and finally to the political candidate who campaigns on it as an issue. Repetition and unity has become the hallmark of their success even if the facts are incorrect.  

The goal was to create a populist backlash against progressive economic thought from current feminist notions of equal pay for equal work, through the economic security visions of the New Deal and in direct refutation of both the Social Gospel and Catholic distributive justice movements. Their weapon of choice was and still is to broad-brush it all as immoral and ungodly.  

Parallel to the Simon plan, neoconservatives in the 1970's also began a very open campaign to transform American foreign policy. Initially begun as an ideology focused upon "taking the fight to the Soviets" during the Cold War, after the collapse of the Berlin Wall it changed its focus to creating a new Pax America. As Gary Dorrien, the noted chronicler of the neoconservative movement as well as of American progressive Christian faith explained, "After Bill Clinton won the presidency in 1992, the unipolarists refined their strategic vision and regrouped organizationally. Under the leadership of Dick Cheney, Paul Wolfowitz, Donald Rumsfeld, William Kristol, and Donald Kagan, the unipolarists [what does this mean?] launched a think tank in 1997--the Project for a New American Century (PNAC). 5

The PNAC neoconservatives are very much influenced by University of Chicago philosopher, Leo Strauss -- who taught that religion should be unapologetically dogmatic and that faith is not as much a spiritual experience as it is a means for societal cohesion and ordely control by a plutocracy. By the early 1980s the movement would eventually include those who now drive the contemporary Catholic Right: George Weigel, John Neuhaus and Michael Novak. Their names now feature prominently in think tanks with little actual public support, but funded by wealthy individuals who oppose many of the positions supported by mainstream American Catholics: embryonic stem cell research, Roe vs. Wade and the separation of church and state. And in doing so they ultimately reject the Church-inspired work of Al Smith, Monsignor Ryan and Pope John XXIII.

In the next installment, the role of Catholic Straussians and Opus Dei will be examined.


  1. The Catholic, Posted April 20, 2006. Link:

  2. Monsignor Ryan would pioneer the cause for both a minimum and living wage. He was also a strong supporter of both FDR and the New Deal. In 1936 he would openly defend FDR against Fr. Charles Coughlin in nationally broadcast radio speech.

  3. See, McGreevy, John T. Catholicism And American Freedom; Hutton 2003, Pages 1-43. Of particular interest is McGreevy's discussion of the matter of Thomas Whall.  Whall was a Catholic student at Boston's Eliot School. The school, which used Protestant prayers and followed Protestant theology, whipped Whall for refusing to recite the King James version on the Ten Commandments which refers to graven images instead of  "having no other gods before me,"---clearly a rebuke of  Catholic practice of allowing religious shrines and statues.

  4. See-Cahill, Tomas, Pope John XXIII, Viking-Penguin, New York, New York 2002.

  5. Gary Dorrien, Imperial Designs: Resisting the Permanent War, April 9, 2003. Link:
Dr. Dorrien currently holds The Niebuhr Chair at the Union Theological Seminary.

Weigal, Novak, and Neuhaus for the last 4 days.  Novak and Neuhaus were among three of the founders of the IRD, a think tank created in 1981 in quasi-government circles to destroy the National Council of Churches, subvert mainline protestant churches, and to destroy liberation theologists in Central and South America.  Wiegal, though not a founder, was brought onto the governing board a little later

Penny Lenoux is my primary source on this.  Do you know of other reporters and researchers who were following the group at it's beginnings?

by tikkun on Mon May 08, 2006 at 01:33:34 PM EST

As to origins, I would defer to Fred, others here and Joe Conason. In the next installment I will dive headfirst int IRD and Opus Dei.

As a member of the Catholic Left, George Weigel gives me headaches for days too!

by Frank Cocozzelli on Mon May 08, 2006 at 08:01:53 PM EST

the former editor of Christianity & Crisis magazine, wrote about IRD from early on. I recall him writing at least one feature artile for C&C on the subject.

by Frederick Clarkson on Mon May 08, 2006 at 08:15:26 PM EST
Fred, thank you for the note.  Do you happen to know if Christianity and Crises is included on Lexis Nexis?  I've read Howell's work in UnitedMethodism@R I S K and found it quite helpful.  Recently I received a copy of the Presbyterian book, which predated the Methodist book.  I've found it less helpful for some reason.  Maybe it's just that I'd already covered a lot of the territory.  

I find that having access to primary sources makes me feel more confident about my public speaking on the topic.  The combination of the immediacy of primary sources and reflective secondary sources is the best possible preparation.

by tikkun on Fri May 26, 2006 at 03:38:05 PM EST

 I will be looking forward to future posts. The new bishop of Kansas City, KS is an acknowledged member of Opus Dei ( ticle_id=3666).
He has been making a lot of changes recently and causing a lot of disruption in local churches by supporting fundamentalist positions and groups such as the Cursillo Movement, Charismatic Renewal and extreme anti-abortion groups like Father Frank's. This area is home to several huge right wing mega churches, plus the old Pentecostal groups like Assembly of God and Church of Nazarene, not to mention Fred Phelps and his tribe. Seems like someone thought it would be a likely place to infiltrate the Catholic Church, and some local Catholics think they can get on the gravy train of money and power like the right-wing Protestants have.
By the way, our Republican Sen. Sam Brownback is now denying he is a member of Opus Dei (Kansas City Star, February 1, 2006)  

by dorothy in oz on Mon May 08, 2006 at 01:52:03 PM EST
I plan on fighting for the soul of my Church and this series is part and parcel of that effort. The time for progressive Catholics to walk away in frustration is over; something the radical Catholic Right wants. I will do my best to cast light on this vastly underreported story.

As for Brownback, he can deny that he is techincally not an Opus Dei member, but he certainly is sympathetic to their causes, uses their lingo and was converted by the infamous Opus Dei priest, Rev. John McCloskey--a lot more on him in the next installment.

by Frank Cocozzelli on Mon May 08, 2006 at 08:09:05 PM EST

Thank you for your diary. I am glad to know that there are other progressive Catholics in the wilderness. Unfortunately, the more traditionalist ones get the press and the funding.

by khughes1963 on Mon May 08, 2006 at 09:04:18 PM EST

First of all thank you very much for this new series...I follow all discussions of the Religious Right with interest but often find they lack the Catholic dimension of religious-right activities. Mother Angelica has been around as long, or longer, than many of the Cerullos and Crouches of this world, for example.

Enough of the soapbox. Is Cursillo really one of the monkey wrenches in the right-wing toolbox? My otherwise rather liberal parish has an active Cursillo group, which seemed rather harmless.

by zentrumspartei on Tue May 09, 2006 at 02:48:24 AM EST

Cursillo is new on the radar screen for me. At this stage I'm still looking into them. I know they're into evanglizing, which is a departure from standard Catholic procedure.  The red flag for me is that their formation took place in Spain during Franco's reign. Hopefully, by the last installment I will have more information for you.

by Frank Cocozzelli on Tue May 09, 2006 at 11:19:05 AM EST
That's an unfortunate pedigree.

by Bruce Wilson on Tue May 09, 2006 at 04:41:11 PM EST

Seeing Kansas as a prime area for infiltration wouldn't shock me one bit (especially knowing the Full Gospel Businessmen's Fellowship International (a "business ministry" of the Assemblies of God) and its known role in planting "Catholic Charismatic" cell-churches in mainstream Catholic groups).  I'd be willing to bet they're trying it there largely because they WILL get support from known hijackers.

by dogemperor on Tue May 09, 2006 at 08:26:26 AM EST
someone needs to write about cell churches. I just worry that it would cause the brains of the less well steeped to simply melt down.

by Bruce Wilson on Tue May 09, 2006 at 04:46:29 PM EST
...and one of my future posts I'm planning is actually going to be on the history of cell churches--not just as a coercive religious movement, but as a tool for infiltration of mainstream Christian churches.

by dogemperor on Tue May 09, 2006 at 11:20:23 PM EST
The subject is one logical progression for IRD related conversations.

by Bruce Wilson on Tue May 09, 2006 at 11:54:42 PM EST
Just posted:

Divide and Conquer: Cell Churches and Hijacks

by dogemperor on Wed May 10, 2006 at 11:57:39 AM EST

I, for one, fully support a national day honoring one of the world's greatest penguins and hope that we can get some action on this.....oh, whoops, I misread the column.  Sorry!


by Pauljaxon on Tue May 09, 2006 at 02:25:38 PM EST

All that comes to mind are images of inquisitors brandishing devices of torture and chasing fleeing penguins.

by Bruce Wilson on Tue May 09, 2006 at 04:44:26 PM EST
I think Berkeley actually drew a Sunday comic protraying that very image.....

by Pauljaxon on Wed May 10, 2006 at 11:48:31 AM EST

As a former liberal Catholic priest, I must ask you "Are you ready to KILL in order to prevail ?"  
My guess is that, as genuine liberals, you aren't. And unless God and/or Jesus reverse their hands-off policy of the past 2000 years, I hate to inform you that you are fighting a lost cause.
Are you anywhere near getting to the point when you could have LIBERALS in all of the following positions of power :
# The reigning pope.
# The next pope.
# That pope's right hand man.
# Vatican Secretary of State.
# Cardinal of Taiwan, China.
# Cardinal of Leningrad, Russia?
We DID in the fall of 1978. But 7 months later, they were all dead - "by natural causes" if you believe the official version of events, which are full of blatant lies.  

The fact is that the Conservatives are in charge again because they will stop at NOTHING, including MURDER to retain and/or get back into power.  See http://JesusWouldBeFurious.Org/murderedpope for an introduction to these facts, if you are unfamiliar with them.

The inevitable conclusion is that you will get nowhere in your efforts unless you can expose the current leadership for the criminals they are, instead of treating them as the legitimate representatives of God Almighty!  That's what I have been trying to accomplish at http://CatholicArrogance.Org/ .

by Rayosun on Mon Jan 14, 2008 at 07:21:50 PM EST

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