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Fringe Government

Richard Neuhaus
Richard Neuhaus; drawing by David Levine

1.

The election of Pope Benedict XVI increases, naturally, the importance of certain conservative members of the American Catholic Church hierarchy; but it also increases the influence of some Catholics who are not bishops—who, in fact, have put pressure on the hierarchy. Four men especially had good relations with the Vatican of John Paul II and will have even closer ties to that of Benedict XVI. They are also situated at the contact points between the similar ruling systems of the Vatican and the White House, along with overlapping financial support systems. Two of these four are laymen (Michael Novak and George Weigel) and two are priests (Joseph Fessio and Richard John Neuhaus). I have just named them in the rising order of their probable importance.

Michael Novak has been a deft maneuverer up an improbably jerry-built scaffolding. He began in the 1960s as an ex-seminarian calling for an “open church” and attacking Paul VI’s condemnation of contraceptives. He studied several years for a doctorate at Harvard, which he did not take—right-wingers sometimes call him “Dr. Novak,” perhaps from some honorary degree or other. Then he served as an assistant professor of humanities at Stanford, where he was known as a beads-wearing “hippie prof” and wrote A Theology for Radical Politics (1968). As an outspoken opponent of the Vietnam War, he worked in the 1968 campaigns of Eugene McCarthy and Robert Kennedy.

In 1972, Sargent Shriver invited three young liberal Catholic writers (including Novak and me) to his house to advise him on the positions a Catholic might take in running for president. Only Novak showed interest in this project, and when Shriver ran for vice-president on the McGovern ticket, Novak became a press aide in that campaign. But earlier that year he was at loose ends, writing speeches for various politicians, including a seconding speech for George Wallace at the Democratic National Convention—an odd credential for one who would later be appointed by the Reagan administration as US ambassador to the UN Human Rights Commission.

By that time Novak had moved from the hippie left to the hard right and written The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism (1982). He collaborated with Nixon’s rich Catholic former Secretary of the Treasury William Simon in criticizing the American bishops’ 1984 pastoral letter on the failings of the US economy with regard to the poor, and he won the 1994 Templeton Award (with a cash prize of one million dollars) for the advancement of religion. He was invited to Rome by President George W. Bush’s ambassador to the Vatican to defend the attack on Iraq, which the Pope had deplored and Novak had promoted along with his fellows George Weigel, Richard John Neuhaus, and Catholic fellow traveler Jean Bethke (“I am not in full communion with the Catholic Church”) Elshtain.

George Weigel also climbed the foundations ladder to become president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington (1989–1996). He moved to being a fellow of the center while he wrote the most influential biography of John Paul II (Witness to Hope, 1999), a book that will be pivotal to the present pope’s announced rush to canonize his predecessor. With good sources in Rome and Poland, Weigel has received the papal cross Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice, and he serves on the editorial board of Richard John Neuhaus’s monthly magazine First Things, which has a circulation of 39,000.

Joseph Fessio is the present pope’s man in America—he refers to him, justifiably, as “my friend Pope Benedict.” Fessio studied theology at Regensburg with Professor Ratzinger, who directed his dissertation on the theologian Hans Urs von Balthazar (a favorite of John Paul as well as of Benedict). With three other Ratzinger students (two of them now cardinals) Fessio founded the Casa Balthazar study center in Rome, under the patronage of Cardinal Ratzinger. Fessio also founded Ignatius Press in America, which is Ratzinger’s American publisher. When Fessio had a falling out with his Jesuit superiors at the University of San Francisco, he became the provost of the new Ave Maria University in Naples, Florida, founded with a $250 million grant from the Domino’s Pizza fortune of conservative Catholic Thomas Monaghan.

Fessio, who knows how dear to Pope Benedict liturgical retrenchment is, began an institute called Oremus, to bring back Latin in the Mass, the altar faced away from the people, adoration of the Host, and Gregorian Chant (all favored by then Cardinal Ratzinger). These positions move partway toward the more-papal-than-papalist Latin liturgies of Mel Gibson in his private chapel. Fessio is himself super-papalist. In a television interview, he told me that if the Catholic authorities ever changed their stand on contraception, their church would go out of business. Because of Fessio’s close ties with the current pope, the author of an article on him in the UK journal The Tablet called Fessio “The Priest Who Bestrides America.”

Richard John Neuhaus was a Lutheran pastor opposed to the Vietnam War who became a Catholic priest in 1991, after he had published The Naked Public Square (1984) advocating the reinjection of religion into politics. He is the founding editor of First Things, in every issue of which he writes an extensive summary of points he thinks relevant to the interplay of religion and politics during the month. Why do I think him the key figure in this “gang of four”? Well, for one thing, he is a favorite of Karl Rove, who would gladly talk with any of these men but who singled out Neuhaus as a helpful adviser even before Mr. Bush became president. Neuhaus was asked to come see Governor Bush, which began a long relationship. As Time noted in February of this year:

When Bush met with journalists from religious publications last year, the living authority he cited most often was not a fellow evangelical, but a man he calls “Father Richard,” who, he explained, “helps me articulate these religious things.”

2.

Evangelicals and Catholics Together (ECT)

Neuhaus consults with President Bush on what both men call “culture of life” issues like stem cell research. We see at last a realization of evangelicals’ worst nightmare when they opposed the election of John F. Kennedy—the sight of an American priest relaying papal dogma to the ears of a president of the United States. The ironic thing is that evangelicals are now cheering Neuhaus on while he does what no priest would have dared to do in the 1960s. Neuhaus favors religious intervention in politics which far outruns anything Catholics could have envisaged in the past—as we saw in the last presidential election. Some American hierarchs, especially Archbishop Raymond Burke of St. Louis, threatened at that time to deny communion to political candidates like John Kerry, who voted for legalized abortion. Neuhaus, who is a great admirer of Cardinal Burke, applauded his position, and rebuked bishops who took a more moderate approach. In the issue of First Things appearing just a month before the 2004 election, Neuhaus accused D.C. Cardinal Theodore McCarrick of misrepresenting Cardinal Ratzinger’s communication to him—of watering down a letter that supported the withholding of communion. Neuhaus predicted that McCarrick’s moderation would end his chances of becoming the leader of the American hierarchy (Neuhaus’s own candidate for that role is Cardinal Francis George of Chicago).

There are many ironies here. In the aftermath of the pedophile scandals in the Catholic Church, some Catholic liberals called for more initiatives from outside the hierarchy; but most of the lay and clerical activists who have taken up that assignment have been conservatives, who criticize the bishops for not being rigid enough in their decrees. A lay organization, the Cardinal Newman Society, regularly chastises bishops for not keeping abortion advocates off Catholic campuses, and Father Fessio hinted that Cardinal Mahoney of Los Angeles was not doctrinally sound on the Eucharist. The astonishing thing is that such doctrinaire old-line Catholicism is now supported by leading Protestant evangelicals—and no one is more central to this development than Neuhaus. He not only prints and praises fellow members of his Catholic “gang of four” in First Things—he welcomes conservative evangelicals like Chuck Colson, the Watergate felon turned born-again prison reformer, to his pages.

Neuhaus and Colson began in the early Nineties to develop the idea of an evangelical–Catholic coalition. This reached concrete form in a joint declaration in 1994, “Evangelicals and Catholics Together” (a document familiarly known on the religious right as ECT). Neuhaus published the eight-thousand-word text in First Things. Twenty evangelicals and twenty Catholics signed it. Among the Catholics were such influential figures as the late Cardinal John O’Connor of New York (who ordained Neuhaus), Cardinal (then Bishop) Francis George, Cardinal (then Father) Avery Dulles, and (of course) Michael Novak and George Weigel. The most prominent evangelicals, aside from Colson, were Pat Robertson, Bill Bright (of Campus Crusade for Christ), Richard Mouw, James J.I. Packer, and Mark Noll.

Despite such support, ECT caused what the best report on the document calls “a firestorm” in the evangeli-cal camp.1 It was said that doctrinal divisions between the two religious communities had been downplayed to create what was called a “co-belligerency” on political issues like abortion (which got the longest treatment of any practical matter in the document). In an attempt to create deeper theological backing for the coalition, three more documents were developed in succeeding years—ECT II on justification (1997), ECT III on the Bible (2002), and ECT IV on the communion of saints (2003). These were so successful among evangelicals that one of the original signers of ECT, Mark Noll, was prompted to take the documents as a harbinger of a possible “end of the Reformation.”

Of course, the convergence of evangelicals and Catholics was not begun or completed by Neuhaus’s ECT. Old animosities had been disappearing for many political reasons. The Protestant objection to public support for private (read: Catholic) schools was broken down by the Brown v. Board of Education decision. Private schools were set up in the South to avoid integration, and then religious schools developed from these to protest the ban on school prayer, the teaching of evolution, and sex education in public schools. Home schooling, religious schools, and right-wing colleges are now a principal seedbed of the religious right—as The New Yorker pointed out in its June 27 article on Patrick Henry College, in Purcellville, Virginia, whose students flow into congressional and White House internships.

Francis Schaeffer, the original formulator of a “co-belligerency” strategy on abortion, had also softened evangelical resistance to Catholicism.2 When Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority made opposition to abortion its major issue, some Catholics joined his effort, even though the evangelicals used pseudo-biblical arguments and the Catholics relied on papal pronouncements. The latter point would once have spelled the end of cooperation with the Protestants; but a new urgency in the “pro-life” movement overrode past causes of division.

The quieting of old fears could be seen in the fervent outpouring of evangelical support for Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, which was based on a book that would once have been condemned by evangelicals as “Mariolatrous.” Gibson’s “sedevacantist” view of the modern papacy—i.e., the belief of those Catholics who do not recognize the popes from John XXIII on—would have precluded Vatican support for his movie before the apocalyptic coalition created a pas d’ennemi à droite mentality among “co-belligerents.” Extreme branches of both the evangelical and the Catholic communities united to promote the movie, which was a commercial “miracle.” The fact that some Protestant churches required attendance at the movie looked like a strange inversion of Catholic support for the movie The Song of Bernadette in the 1940s.

Colson and Neuhaus came along at just the right time to solidify the evangelical–Catholic coalition. By 2004, a survey of evangelicals found that Pope John Paul II had a higher favorable rating (59 percent) than either Jerry Falwell (44 percent) or Pat Robertson (54 percent). There was even agreement between evangelicals and Catholics about excommunicating members of their congregations for supporting abortion. While Archbishop Burke was advocating that in St. Louis, a Baptist minister, the Rev. Chan Chandler, drove nine Democrats out of his church in Waynesville, North Carolina.3

3.

A Quiet Extremism

No one is better at fostering the sense of shared anxiety than “Father Richard.” He does so with a quiet air of reasonableness which just makes his extremism more effective. In his 1984 book, The Naked Public Square, he argued that the removal of religion from public life had undermined the historical identity of America. He praised evangelicals for the anger with which they recognized this fact. Liberals, he said, are theoretically impersonal and cold as they go about what he describes as “sterilizing” or “sanitizing” or “neutralizing” public discussion. The hot gospelers, by contrast, speak as people who have “experienced assault” on their values and identity. While posing as a moderator of their excesses, he feeds the fires of their outrage. By “invoking the nightmares we fear,” according to Neuhaus, the religious right is returning to the theological origins of democracy (which he derives from Oliver Cromwell, of all people).

Neuhaus’s tactical uses of extremism were on display in a symposium he created for First Things in 1996, a set of five commissioned articles under the overall heading “The End of Democracy? The Judicial Usurpation of Politics.” Neuhaus admitted in his introduction that the symposium might be called “irresponsibly provocative and even alarmist”—and in fact it caused two members of the First Things editorial board, Gertrude Himmelfarb and Walter Berns, to withdraw their names from the masthead, in protest at what Berns described as a message “close to advocating not only civil disobedience but armed revolution.”

One of the contributors to the symposium, Robert Bork, did not retract anything he said in it himself, but he criticized Neuhaus’s introductory claim that Americans “have reached or are reaching the point where conscientious citizens can no longer give moral assent to the existing regime.” But it is hard to see much difference between Neuhaus’s words and inflammatory statements in Bork’s own article—such as:

It seems safe to say that, as our institutional arrangements now stand, the Court can never be made a legitimate element of a basically democratic polity…. Perhaps an elected official will one day simply refuse to comply with a Supreme Court decision. That suggestion will be regarded as shocking, but it should not be.

The other articles were just as extremist. Colson called the Roe v. Wade decision a “horrendous offense against God.” He said that we had probably not reached, yet, the point where “government becomes sufficiently corrupt that a believer must resist it,” but “we are fast approaching this point.” Robert P. George asked, “Has the regime of American democracy forfeited its legitimacy?” The answer, again, was not quite, but “the hour is late.” This essay is called “The Tyrant State.” Hadley Arkes concluded that “the courts are making the political regime unlivable for serious Christians and Jews.” Russell Hittinger argued:

It is late in the day, and our options have dwindled. Either right-minded citizens will have to disobey orders or perhaps relinquish offices of public authority, or the new constitutional rulers will have to be challenged and reformed.

He said the latter course must first be tried, since “prompting the constitutional crisis is the responsible thing to do.” It is significant that two of the symposium authors arguing that Roe v. Wade made the Court illegitimate, Robert George and Hadley Akens, were recruited by White House supporters to assure the religious right that Court nominee John Roberts is on their side.4

The illegitimacy Neuhaus and others attack is not just an aberration of the courts, or of the federal government more generally. The problem is a Godless culture, one that accepts wholesale murder in the form of abortion. The new religious right does not claim to be speaking for a moral majority. It knows it is a minority—in fact, it asks for protection of believers as a matter of minority rights.5 Is the whole American nation illegitimate? (One of the First Things articles was called “A Culture Corrupted.”) The First Things symposiasts said that the American regime is illegitimate because the Court upheld Roe v. Wade. But in June of this year a Gallup poll for CNN/USA Today showed that 65 percent of the American people oppose repeal of Roe v. Wade, with less than half that number (29 percent) favoring its overthrow. Earlier polls had shown a similar split.6

The division in the nation becomes more pronounced when the question moves from abortion to mandatory maintenance of life support, an issue the religious right has lumped together with protection of the fetus. According to the March CBS poll, 82 percent of the American people were opposed to the intervention of Congress and the President in the Terri Schiavo case—only 13 percent of those polled thought the concern voiced for Schiavo was a sincere concern about her own good, while 74 percent said that the concern was politically motivated. On a related issue, embryonic stem cell research is supported by approximately two to one in the nation (58 percent to 31 percent). It is understandable that the evangelical–Catholic coalition would call this a “culture of death,” subject to God’s wrath and calling for extreme measures.

4.

Governing from the Fringes

This presents a difficult problem. How do you govern an apostate nation? When the entire culture is corrupted, the country can only be morally governed in spite of itself. A collection of aggrieved minorities must seize the levers of power in every way possible. One must govern not from a broad consensual center but from activist fringes of morality. That has, in fact, been Karl Rove’s strategy. He cultivates the extreme groups that are out of step with the broad consensus of the nation, since they supply the hard workers in primaries and general elections. Acting in accord with Rove’s priorities, the President instantly flew back to Washington and got up in the middle of the night to sign the bill calling for further intervention in the Schiavo case. The fringe was calling the tune.

On stem cells, the fringe is so extreme that Chuck Colson has informed evangelicals they should not support for president Mitt Romney, the governor of Massachusetts, who is a Mormon, since Romney thinks that the inseminated ovum is not a human person (as opposed to the ovum that is “nidated,” i.e., planted in the uterus). Colson believes that whenever any human semen enters any ovum God pops a soul in along with it—though almost 50 percent of the resulting “people” perish instantly by failing to achieve nidation.7

Bush’s team has been as solicitous of the extremists here as on the Schiavo case—it commissioned the White House liaison to evangelicals, Jay Lefkowitz, to coordinate the formation of policy on stem cells.8 President Bush had a ceremony in the White House for those who “adopt” embryos and bring them to birth (though encouraging such marginal adoption guarantees that most available embryos will be overproduced and destroyed).9

Senator Bill Frist invoked his medical expertise to look at some tapes of Terri Schiavo and declare her not brain-dead. Only Tom DeLay outdid him in the faith-over-science department when he said, “Terri Schiavo is not dead. She talks and she laughs, and she expresses happiness and discomfort. Terri Schiavo is not on life support.”10

Most American administrations at least try (or pretend) to govern by compromise, to speak for “all the people.” The Bush presidency has not even put on a show of doing this. It secretly meets with its business and religious supporters; it favors lobbyists who hold extreme views on education, the environment, the family, gun control, regulation of any kind. Its officials make appearances on extremist talk shows and in far-right-wing publications. On issue after issue, this administration is out of touch with the majority of the American people.

Most people favor sensible controls on guns, but the administration goes with the NRA extremists who think that any regulation of even the most exotic weapons would spell the elimination of all guns from American life. Most people are opposed to private accounts instead of Social Security, but the administration follows its free-market purists. A majority would vote to support the Geneva Conventions, but the administration secretly overrides them and then tries to cover up its actions. If the administration depended on only one set of extremists, it could not prevail over the general consensus; but it weaves together a chain of extremisms encircling the polity, each upholding the others, forming a necklace to choke the large body of citizens. Grover Norquist explained the strategy of governing by extremist groups to John Cassidy of The New Yorker (August 1):

If you want the votes of people who are [simultaneously] good on guns, good on taxes, and good on faith issues, that is a very small intersection of voters. But if you say, Give me the votes of anybody who agrees with you on any of these issues, that is a much bigger section of the population…. And if you add more things, like property rights and home-schooling, you can do even better.

If religious extremism is only one large set of bodies in this fringe constellation, it is a powerful one. That is why federal agencies reject scientific reports on ecological, stem cell, contraceptive, and abortion issues. They sponsor not only faith-based social relief, but faith-based war, faith-based science, faith-based education, and faith-based medicine. Other administrations would be embarrassed by a high defense official who could say what General William (“Jerry”) Boykin did of the 2000 election. Standing before a church audience in full military uniform, he said:

Now ask yourself this. Why is this man [George W. Bush] in the White House? The majority of Americans did not vote for him. Why is he there? I tell you this morning he’s in the White House because God put him there for such a time as this. God put him there to lead not only this nation but to lead the world in such a time as this.11

There could not be a better statement of the view that the moral minority has to prevail over the lackadaisical majority. Nor was this an isolated outburst. It is what Boykin repeated in churches and at prayer breakfasts, often with slides, doing this routine:

Well, is he [slide of Bin Laden] the enemy? Or is this man [slide of Saddam Hussein] the enemy? The enemy is none of these people I have showed you here. The enemy is a spiritual enemy. He’s called the principality of darkness. The enemy is a guy called Satan…. Our spiritual enemy will only be defeated if we come against him in the name of Jesus.

He answered a boast by a Somali Muslim warlord that Allah was on his side by saying, “My God was bigger than his. I knew that my God was a real God, and his an idol.” When the man was caught, he claims, he told him, “Mr. Atto, you underestimated our God.”12

The man saying this was not some minor functionary but a key figure in the Defense Department’s own intelligence unit—the one that gave us those assurances about weapons of mass destruction. There was a time when such views would lead to reprimand, if not to dismissal. When General Edwin Walker, a member of the John Birch Society, voiced its extremist views before his NATO troops in Germany, President Kennedy had him removed from his command. This caused an uproar in the right-wing community. Karl Rove would not risk such an uproar these days—Boykin was not dismissed, rebuked, or even disowned. He continues doing intelligence work for the Defense Department.

Rove knows that Neuhaus, while being more subtle about it, has the crusading spirit of Boykin. Neuhaus has endorsed Samuel Huntington’s “clash of cultures” thesis, defended the historical Crusades as “probably justified warfare,” and answered a caller on C-SPAN who said that Islam was an implacable enemy with the warning that we must “be very sober about the possibility that this really is the only Islam that is going to present itself on the world historical stage for the rest of this century.” It is a more sophisticated form of Boykinism, and it informs the evangelical-Catholic support for the war in Iraq at a time when a majority of Americans have come to think it was a horrible mistake.

5.

So much for faith-based war. How about faith-based science? The administration rejects scientists’ findings on global warming, evolution, and contraception. It has put networks of right-wing religious bureaucrats in agencies such as the FDA, the NIH, the HHS, the President’s Council of bioethics, the Advisory Committee for Reproductive Health, the National Center for Environmental Health. These officials have a coordinated agenda to oppose abortion, condom use, AIDS awareness programs, sex education not centered on abstinence, stem cell research, needle exchange programs, and the morning-after pill. Even the conservative Jeffrey Hart, a longtime editor of National Review, has criticized such activity:

The Bush administration has devoted millions to faith-based organizations promoting abstinence, but in doing so [is] telling flagrant lies: that condoms fail to prevent HIV 31 percent of the time during heterosexual intercourse (3 percent is accurate); that abortion leads to sterility (elective abortion does not); that touching a person’s genitals can cause pregnancy; that HIV can be spread through sweat and tears [Bill Frist would not deny this on the George Stephanopoulos show]; that a 43-day-old fetus is a “thinking person”; and that half of gay teenagers have AIDS. Some grants for faith-based programs stipulate that condoms be discussed only in connection with their failure.13

The Centers for Disease Control removed information about safe sex from its Internet site. Though peer-reviewed studies written by scientists from Columbia and Yale demonstrated that abstinence-only courses in public schools are ineffective, conservatives in the administration preferred a counter-paper prepared by the Heritage Foundation, which allowed for a margin of error of 10 percent, though 5 percent is the limit for scientific studies.14 The FDA overruled its own scientific board’s recommendation that the morning-after contraception called Plan B be made available without prescription. Bush had stacked the advisory panel with conservatives, including W. David Hager, a gynecologist at the University of Kentucky who took public credit for killing the scientists’ recommendation, saying God had used him to bring this about: “Once again, what Satan meant for evil, God turned into good.”15

This reminds me of the way another panel was stacked with conservatives by Pope Paul VI. In 1968 a commission of Catholic experts, lay and clerical, on natural law (the only controlling norm on the matter) was about to reach the conclusion that there is no basis for the ban on “artificial” contraception. The Vatican rushed in new members and rigged the voting rules; yet the commission still reached the undesired result—so the Pope simply overruled the experts who were qualified on this subject.16

This is not the only way Vatican methods run parallel with those of Washington. Rome too is now ruled from the margins. Most Catholics hold views different from the Pope’s on many matters. In a poll taken this April, by CNN/USA Today/Gallup, Catholics in America favored women’s ordination by 55 percent, and favored married priests by 63 percent. But these figures are misleading. Most of the minority siding with the Vatican is made up of older and more conservative Catholics. The future lies with those under thirty, who are far less submissive to the Vatican. The deepest survey of this sector of the community was undertaken with Lilly Endowment funds in 1997. It relied on many interviews and focus groups along with regular polling. Only 17 percent in this age group agreed with the Vatican on the exclusion of women from the priesthood, and only 27 percent on the celibate priesthood. So few of the young adults agreed with the Pope on contraception that they fell within the margin of error, making them statistically nonexistent.17

A Pew Research poll in April of this year found that 38 percent of Catholics think a woman should be able to have an abortion “for any reason” (more Catholics get abortions than Protestants, according to the Alan Gutmacher Institute’s polls of doctors). The numbers of Catholics saying that homosexuality is “not wrong at all” is higher than those in the general population (39 percent to 33 percent).18 Though Cardinal Ratzinger advised bishops to deny communion to politicians voting for legal abortion, a May 2004 ABC/ Washington Post poll showed that 72 percent of American Catholics opposed such action. Even a majority of those opposed to abortion were against it.

How then do you govern an apostate church? From the fringes. Like Karl Rove, the Pope has cultivated intense little extremist groups—Opus Dei, the Legionaries of Christ, the New Catechumenate, and Communication and Liberation, well-financed, semi-secretive, ascetical, ultrapapalist. Karol Wojtyla, as cardinal, spoke to Opus Dei groups when he visited Rome. Joseph Ratzinger spoke to a Communication and Liberation group just before his election to the papacy. The Vatican equivalent of the executive branch has been stocked with extreme loyalists, and debate on their actions has been suppressed. In a 1998 Motu Proprio—or document issued by the Pope on his own initiative—called Apostolos Suos, national conferences of bishops were ordered to pass no legislation except by unanimous vote and after Vatican approval, reducing them to little more than rubber stamps of the Pope, after the Second Vatican Council had increased their importance.

The Vatican has adopted a literally marginal strategy. While still Cardinal Ratzinger, the current pope said that the Church may have to become smaller in order to become truer to itself. Just as the religious right in America has declared itself an embattled minority, Ratzinger said, “The word ‘subculture’ should not frighten us.”19 The fringe will be activated in Africa, Latin America, and Asia, about which the Vatican has a romantic notion of forming a circle of extremists—though the priest shortage is greater in these regions than in Europe and North America, the Vatican has warned against “syncretism” with other cultures, and Catholics compete with evangelicals there who have a married ministry and a nonhierarchical structure.

As nuns disappear and priests age, the Vatican’s response is to become ever more extremist. Pope John Paul changed a long Catholic teaching tradition when he supported the need for life support in terminal cases. The hierarchy has changed its long acceptance of the theory of evolution as a scientific account—after being attacked by rightist Catholic groups for being too lax on the subject.20 These are odd moves for authorities who claim they never change. The notion of infallibility has been expanded to cover things like the all-male priesthood and non-Catholic ordinations to the ministry. The use of “backdoor infallibility” has been evident in Stakhanovite beatifying and canonizing, sometimes of those with dubious and/or anti-Semitic records (Pius IX, Maximilian Kolbe, Josemaría Escrivá). John Paul even canonized a man, Juan Diego, historians say never existed.21 Like American evangelicals drawing their recruits from the home-schooled, religious schools, and institutions like Patrick Henry Community College, the Vatican has converted Catholic seminaries into ultraconservative schools turning out priests at odds with their future congregations on matters like contraception and homosexuality.22

Superstitions like the cult of the Lady of Fatima have been inflated—then Cardinal Ratzinger claimed that the Virgin Mary, appearing to subteen children in Portugal, predicted in 1917 the 1981 attempt on John Paul’s life.23 The old war between the Church and science has been revived. The current pope joined American evangelicals who attack Halloween by warning the world against Harry Potter. Pope John Paul performed three exorcisms, not all of them successful.24 On the use of embryos for stem cell research, the Vatican is even more extreme than President Bush, who welcomes babies from “adopted” embryos—the Vatican teaches that in vitro fertilization is aways wrong, among other reasons because getting the necessary semen involves masturbation.25 The Pope announced in August that he would again grant numerous indulgences (passes out of Purgatory)—a practice some had thought as obsolete as papal interdicts (the denial of sacraments to whole regimes).26 If indulgences are back, can interdicts be far behind?

On condoms, the Pope agrees more with American evangelicals than with Catholics—though the National Review, not to be out-extremed, published an article defending the reversal of Griswold v. Connecticut, which made condom sales legal.27 The de-nial of condoms to those with AIDS in Africa has led to deaths—causing more hostility to the Church, in some circles, than the pedophile scandals did. In fact, both the fringe power systems, holding together their own extremist networks, have drifted apart from or alienated the rest of the world.

The Bush administration had a world ready to cooperate in the hunt for terrorists after the attacks of September 11, but it drove them off by its unilateral obsession with brushing aside the UN investigations which had tied Saddam’s hands and would have shown in time the absence of weapons of mass destruction. In a similar way, after the Second Vatican Council, Rome had world religions ready and anxious to join in the struggle with immoral practices around the world, but it blighted the ecumenical energies with things like Dominus Jesus (2000), the condemnation of pluralism that called other Christian faiths “gravely deficient.” (General Boykin would just say, “Our God is greater than your God.”)

Given the resemblances between the strategies for governing from the margins, it is easy to see how well placed is the Catholic gang of four I began with. Its members are perfectly able to serve as both the Pope’s men and Rove’s men, for reciprocally strengthening reasons. They are at the interface between two systems of power exercised from the fringes.

—September 8, 2005

Letters

'Fringe Religion'? February 9, 2006

  1. 1

    Mark A. Noll and Carolyn Nystrom, Is the Reformation Over? An Evangelical Assessment of Contemporary Roman Catholicism (Baker Academic, 2005), p. 15. The ECT series is given extensive treatment at the center of the book (pp. 151–208). 

  2. 2

    For the importance of Francis Schaeffer to the formation of the religious right, see Garry Wills, Under God: Religion and American Politics (Simon and Schuster, 1990), pp. 318–328. 

  3. 3

    “Church Split in Dispute Over Bush,” Associated Press, May 10, 2005. 

  4. 4

    David D. Kirkpatrick, “A Year of Work to Sell Roberts to Conservatives,” The New York Times, July 22, 2005. 

  5. 5

    Noah Feldman points out the shift of strategy by which the religious right now makes it court claims as an endangered minority—see Divided by God:  

  6. 6

    “Abortion and Birth Control,” PollingReport.com.  

  7. 7

    “While We’re at It,” First Things, May 2005. Neuhaus agrees with Colson on the status of the embryo, but he said that Romney could perhaps be supported if he stayed true on other issues—though Neuhaus answered with a no the question “Is the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints a Christian communion?” 

  8. 8

    Esther Kaplan, With God on Their Side: How Christian Fundamentalists Trampled Science, Policy, and Democracy in George Bush’s White House (New Press, 2004), p. 126. 

  9. 9

    Liza Mundy, “Out of the Freezer, Into the Family: The Booming, and Bizarre, Business of Embryo Adoption,” Slate, May 31, 2005. 

  10. 10

    DeLay quoted by Bob Herbert, The New York Times, June 23, 2005.  

  11. 11

    William Boykin, Address to Good Shepherd Community Church in Boring, Oregon, June 2003. 

  12. 12

    MSNBC News, October 15, 2003.  

  13. 13

    Jeffrey Hart, “The Evangelical Effect,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, April 17, 2005. 

  14. 14

    “Weird Science,” Christian Alliance for Progress, June 20, 2005. 

  15. 15

    The Washington Post, May 12, 2005.  

  16. 16

    Robert McClory, Turning Point: The Inside Story of the Papal Birth Control Commission (Crossroad, 1995). 

  17. 17

    Dean R. Hoge, William D. Dinges, Sister Mary Johnson, and Juan L. Gonzales Jr., Young Adult Catholics: Religion in the Culture of Choice (University of Notre Dame Press, 2001), pp. 200–201. The survey devoted special attention to Latino-Americans and found them more traditional than Anglos, but only “slightly” (pp. 113–130). 

  18. 18

    “American Catholics in John Paul’s Time,” The New York Times, April 2, 2005. Catholic confidence in spirit-ual leaders, once very high, was at 19 percent. 

  19. 19

    John L. Allen Jr., Cardinal Ratzinger: The Vatican’s Enforcer of the Faith (Continuum, 2000), p. 311. 

  20. 20

    For the attacks, see the Fatima Network, Perspective No. 426. For hierarchical backing off, see “Leading Cardinal Redefines Church’s View on Evolution,” The New York Times, July 9, 2005. 

  21. 21

    Lisa Sousa, Stafford Poole, and James Lockhart, The Story of Guadaloupe (Stanford University Press, 1998). 

  22. 22

    Bishops now claim they are taking only candidates for the priesthood who agree with all papal teaching. Since the Lilly survey found that fewer than 5 percent or so of under-thirties agree with the teaching on contraception, the pool for new seminarians has shrunk drastically. Only half of the 5 percent, after all, are men, and only a minority of men ever want to be priests, so the pool is down to 1 percent or so. It is further decreased by some bishops’ policy of not accepting gays. (A Los Angeles Times poll in 2003 found that 23 percent of young priests call themselves gay). Many note how the number of priests has dwindled in recent decades. The prospects of resupply look grim under present guidelines, not only in the quantity of candidates available but in their quality. This is not a process that tends to produce creative or critical minds. 

  23. 23

    Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, “Theological Commentary,” The Message of Fatima, Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, May 13, 2000. 

  24. 24

    John Norton, “Pope Performs Exorcism Over Teenage Italian Girl,” Catholic News Service, September 11, 2000. 

  25. 25

    Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Donum Vitae (1987). 

  26. 26

    “World Briefing,” The New York Times, August 9, 2005. 

  27. 27

    Robert P. George and Dave L. Tubbs, “The Bad Decision That Started It All,” National Review, July 18, 2005.