In my talk at the New York Society for Ethical Culture on the January 6 coup attempt, I stressed that the Capitol attack was not only the result of discord created by Donald Trump; it was also fueled by various authoritarian interests that have been systematically breaking down the separation of Church and State for decades. This alarming insurrection attempt also sparked the concern of seasoned Catholic journalist Mary Jo McConahay, who observed many individuals outside the Capitol wearing crucifixes or depictions of Jesus. The violent insurrection attempt propelled her to delve into the future trajectory of the Catholic Church and write her important book, Playing God: American Catholic Bishops and the Far Right.
Regarded as one of America’s most prominent Catholic journalists, Mary Jo McConahay gained renown as a war correspondent in the 1980s for her coverage of Central American insurgencies. A graduate of the University of California in Berkeley, McConahay is a longtime contributor to the National Catholic Reporter and an esteemed author, earning accolades for her books, The Tango War: The Struggle for the Hearts, Minds, and Riches of Latin America During World War II and Maya Roads: One Woman’s Journey Among the People of the Rainforest.
I invited Mary Jo to my podcast to discuss the central themes in her book Playing God. Her work comprehensively analyzes how the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, supported by affluent donors and major right-wing contributors, has waged war on democratic institutions. She highlights their role in shaping Supreme Court decisions, pushing Catholics away from the vision of Pope Francis, and launching an assault on secular, liberal democracy.
Christian Nationalism and Support for Donald Trump
Mary Jo discussed the pivotal role the U.S. Bishops, a group of 229 mostly white, beyond middle-aged men, play in American right-wing politics. She explained that the most right-wing among the bishops are Christian nationalists, who share sympathies with those involved in the 2021 Capitol attack, demonstrating their alignment with extreme factions of the Republican Party.
Their support for Trump was mainly due to his stance on key issues, such as anti-abortion, and his willingness to nominate conservative judges like Amy Coney Barrett, who committed to overturning Roe v. Wade. The bishops’ influence has even extended to controversial decisions like denying communion to pro-choice politicians, including an attempt (slapped down by the pope) to deny President Biden. In my book, The Cult of Trump, I demonstrate how influential groups like Opus Dei and the New Apostolic Reformation also back this movement, seeing Trump as an instrument for ‘God’s work.’
Pope Francis and Conservative Bishops: The Ideological Divide Within the Church
As Pope Francis, now 86, nears the conclusion of his papacy, he leaves a significant legacy of progressive views that align with the sentiments of a majority of American Catholics, with a remarkable 82% viewing him favorably. However, Mary Jo believes that the endurance of his influence post-tenure hangs in the balance as his time to appoint enough allied cardinals that share his ideology may be limited.
Pope Francis’s tenure is characterized by a modernization of the Church, embracing Vatican II, or the Second Vatican Council. Vatican II introduced significant reforms such as fostering greater interfaith dialogue and extending additional roles to women, which have been met with staunch resistance from these bishops. In addition, their fixation on the abortion issue has put them at odds with Pope Francis and his broader understanding of “pro-life” issues, which include care for people experiencing poverty, euthanasia, and climate change. Such ideological discord is causing concern about a potential schism with Rome.
Money Trails: Catholic Influence and Hidden Agendas
Mary Jo and I also discussed how Catholic bishops use “dark money” to advance their agenda, aided by major financial contributors to conservative causes like the Koch family. In her book, Playing God, she reveals the methods through which radical clerics, political strategists, and businesspeople have successfully woven their ideologies into the fabric of mainstream American society, influencing laws and various institutions to benefit their interests.
Notably, prominent figures such as Timothy Busch, a Southern California billionaire and the founder of the Napa Institute, have played a pivotal role in promoting conservative Catholic views. The Napa Institute’s summer conference has become a nexus where wealthy conservative Catholics and right-wing politicians converge. Industrialist Charles Koch, another major player, leverages his wealth to fund Catholic universities. Tom Monaghan, founder of Domino’s Pizza and a right-wing Catholic, financially supports an important law firm to bring cases to the Supreme Court, thereby influencing its rulings. These affluent benefactors, among others, have successfully advocated for legislation that keeps their donations to non-profits anonymous. Undisclosed funding, possibly even from foreign governments, undermines American institutions and raises serious concerns about the erosion of separation between Church and State.
Cultivating Awareness: A Crucial Step in Safeguarding Democracy
Preserving our democratic society relies heavily on the informed engagement of its citizens. There is strength in numbers; pooling resources, knowledge, and a solid moral foundation can create a potent force for positive change. Awareness of the social influence tactics employed by institutions and cultivating strategies to counteract them is a vital step in preventing a shift toward authoritarianism. By understanding and advocating for core values such as equality, compassion, and inclusivity, we can work together to ensure that leaders do not exploit fear and prejudice to their advantage.
Mary Jo and I agreed that countering the pervasive right-wing propaganda requires collective effort. The U.S. prelates steering the Church’s direction are predominantly conservative hardliners, with moderate voices forming a small minority. Our hope lies in the growth of this moderate group, for they can lead the Church free from political biases and provide American Catholics with the balanced, compassionate leadership they deserve.
Playing God: American Catholic Bishops and the Far Right by Mary Jo McConahay
Opinion: Who will Catholics follow? Pope Francis or the right-wing U.S. bishops? LA Times Opinion piece by Mary Jo McConahay