Noah Feldman

Is the American Catholic Church Fueling the Far Right?

Just how conservative is the Catholic Church? So conservative that, when Pope Francis recently said that homosexuality is a sin but not a crime, observers (correctly) took that for progress. The connection between Catholicism and conservatism runs deep. It goes back to at least the Counter-Reformation, when the church had to defend the religious status quo in Christian Europe against Protestants’ radical criticisms of its priests, its hierarchy and its doctrines. In its day, the Catholic Church opposed the Enlightenment. It rejected freedom of conscience. Church teaching was for a long time extremely skeptical of democracy.

Indeed, it’s fair to say that the most profound and sustained conservative critique of liberalism comes from within the Catholic intellectual tradition. It’s no accident that the Supreme Court’s six conservative justices happen to have been raised Catholic. (One, Neil Gorsuch, was brought up in the church but now identifies as Episcopalian. One of the liberal justices, Sonia Sotomayor, is also Catholic.) When the Federalist Society set out to develop an elite cadre of legal conservatives, brilliant young Catholic lawyers were more inclined and prepared to follow in the footsteps of Justice Antonin Scalia than were, say, young evangelical Protestant lawyers.

The conservative nature of the Catholic Church has long posed a challenge for postwar American Catholic liberals. Today, politicians like Joe Biden (only the second Catholic president) and Nancy Pelosi insist on their Catholic faith while holding mainstream liberal political positions. These include on issues like abortion and gay marriage, where their perspective contradicts the church’s official teachings. In this, Biden and Pelosi are following a path trod by John Kerry, Mario Cuomo and even John F. Kennedy.

In her new book, “Playing God,” the journalist Mary Jo McConahay, herself a liberal Catholic, aims to show the extreme conservatism of a handful of American Catholic bishops and connect them, directly or indirectly, to the Trump-adjacent far right. The conservative bishops on whom she focuses are, it must be said, very conservative indeed. Bishop Joseph Strickland participated in a Stop the Steal rally on the National Mall on Dec. 12, 2020. At the same rally, which was organized by a Christian group called Jericho March, Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò told the story of how God brought down the walls of the besieged city after the Israelites surrounded it. Then there is Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone of San Francisco, who during the pandemic declined to wear a mask while saying Mass or distributing holy communion, and who rejected Pope Francis’ stance on Covid vaccines, telling a San Francisco Chronicle podcast in December 2021 that he had a strong immune system and that the vaccines approved by the government “are not really vaccines.”

McConahay is not wrong to identify strands of contemporary Catholicism that veer to the far right. However, none of the figures she examines goes as far as Father Charles Coughlin or Father Arthur Terminiello, mid-20th-century demagogues who preached racism, antisemitism and even proto-fascism to a wide national audience. Father Frank Pavone, head of Priests for Life and a vocal Trump supporter, was defrocked by the Vatican in November for “blasphemous” social media posts and for ignoring the directives of his superiors. (He has since also been accused of sexual misconduct.) Some US bishops have made common cause with people who stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.

But reading McConahay’s book can be a bit frustrating. For one thing, she does not distinguish between conservative views that are official church teaching, such as its doctrine of sin, and far-right views that are not inherent to Catholicism, like election denial, vaccine denial and the QAnon conspiracy theory. The result can at times sound distressingly similar to old-style Protestant attacks on Catholicism that combined principled objections with rebuking Catholics for the content of their faith.

McConahay writes that some conservative Catholic bishops “speak as if we were still living in the 14th century, when religion was hegemonic, and any given cleric was likely to be considered the font of knowledge and truth.” So they do — because the Catholic Church still believes itself to be, well, the font of knowledge and truth. “Today,” she continues, “we know better than to trust our very selves unquestioningly to our faith leaders, who themselves are only human.” Martin Luther and John Calvin, founders of Protestantism, would heartily agree. But it would be hard for Francis to concur fully, because neither he nor the church has abandoned the doctrine of papal infallibility.

For another thing, McConahay’s thesis is supposed to be about ties between Catholic bishops and right-wing activists and public figures. Yet she has difficulty closely linking actual bishops to prominent conservatives or conservative institutions. A chapter called “Unholy Trinity'' describes Justice Clarence Thomas; his wife, Ginni; and the Federalist Society co-chairman and Trump judge picker Leonard Leo. To McConahay, all three, joined by the Koch brothers (who are not actually Catholic), are engaged in a “grand plan to shift the ship of state toward Christian nationalism.” Maybe so, but McConahay does not manage to connect any Catholic bishops to this project.

A chapter on Paul Weyrich and his successful efforts to unite Catholics and evangelical Protestants through the Moral Majority in the 1980s has almost nothing to say about the Catholic hierarchy. Ditto the chapter on the Domino’s Pizza founder Thomas Monaghan, who funded the Ave Maria Law School and the Thomas More Law Center.

Like other American Catholic liberals, McConahay clearly admires Francis, who stands for the possibility that the church might gradually become, if not liberal, at least less conservative. For that matter, I admire him myself. I find it harder to sympathize with McConahay’s repeated insinuations that conservative Catholics, including bishops but also laypeople, are somehow being disobedient when they take positions to the right of Francis.

When the conservative Benedict was pope — and appointed many of the conservative American bishops still serving — it was perfectly acceptable for liberal Catholics, in the United States or anywhere in the world, to adopt and express views that were to his left. The Catholic Church, for all its conservatism, does not demand from the faithful total fealty on all matters. It distinguishes core teachings necessary to the faith from matters on which disagreement is permissible. Both Catholic conservatives and Catholic liberals should enjoy this leeway, such as it is.

At the same time, it doesn’t seem uncharitable to remind liberal Catholics like McConahay that the Catholic Church is by self-definition a structure of hierarchical authority run by a single man who holds the keys of heaven given by Jesus to St. Peter. If that’s not a conservative institution, I don’t know what is.