The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date: September 5, 2003
Opus Dei priest brings conservatives to Catholicism
By JOE FEUERHERD
Fr. C. John McCloskey, director of the Washington archdioceses Catholic Information Center, likens his current job to his pre-ordination experience hawking stocks on Wall Street.
Im a salesman for the church, said the 49-year-old Opus Dei priest.
Some of the nations leading conservatives are buying.
McCloskey is credited with facilitating the conversions of such luminaries as failed Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork, Crossfire co-host Robert Novak, Republican Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas, conservative book publisher Alfred Regnery, economist and commentator Larry Kudlow, and one-time New York gubernatorial candidate Lewis Lehrman. Abortion doctor-turned-pro-lifer Bernard Nathanson was tutored by McCloskey, as was indicted Tyco International counsel Mark Belnick.
Its just like the brokerage business or any business of sales, said McCloskey. You get a reputation, you deal with one person and they mention you to another person and all of a sudden you have a string of people.
Meanwhile, McCloskeys connections, telegenic manner and proximity to Washingtons media elite (the 6,000-square-foot information center is just two blocks from the White House) have made him the go-to cleric for television producers seeking an orthodox take on the churchs sex abuse scandals.
One element of the Washington natives success: He knows his product. The Catholicism he preaches is as black and white as his cassock and Roman collar.
McCloskeys late 1980s tenure as a campus ministry chaplain at Princeton University was controversial. Campus critics charged that he used his position to promote Opus Dei and that he advised students to avoid certain classes. Dismissed from the campus ministry office in 1990, McCloskey continued work with students at an Opus Dei center in the community. McCloskey said the controversy resulted from a relatively small minority of students, professors, and townspeople who were not at all happy to have orthodox Catholic teaching present on the campus.
It was in Princeton, in 1997, that McCloskey received the phone call offering him the Catholic Information Center directorship. The center came under Opus Deis auspices in 1993 at the request of then-Washington Archbishop James Hickey, who feared he would have to close the operation when the Redemptorists, who launched it in 1957, could no longer provide a priest to run it.
It is, by all appearances, his dream job.
On any given weekday, dozens of Washingtonians -- retired ambassadors, tourists, busy bureaucrats and K Street lobbyists -- crowd the information centers small chapel (dedicated to St. Josemaria Escriva, Opus Deis founder) for 12:05 Mass. Eucharistic adoration follows in the afternoon.
The center is McCloskeys parish. He celebrates Mass, hears confessions, provides spiritual direction. It is a venue for evening discussions. This month, for example, William E. May, professor of moral theology at the Pope John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family, will discuss An Introduction to Moral Theology. Monthly evenings of recollection are presented by Opus Dei priests and lay members -- the first Tuesday of the month for men, the first Thursday for women.
The priests one-on-one work with potential converts does not, McCloskey said, fall outside the churchs preferred method of bringing people into the church -- the parish-based Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults, RCIA. Such spiritual direction is part of the charism of the information center, he said. Its understood that it exists for that type of work.
Further, continued McCloskey, The RCIA program also envisions the extreme case where a person receives what we used to call instruction: He sees a priest on a regular basis, and because of their work schedule, their family life, whatever it might be, they simply cannot fit into the parish structure, said McCloskey. For everyone Ive received outside [the RCIA framework], Ive sent many other people to parish RCIA programs, said McCloskey.
But some of the people of more fame I have dealt with are people who do not fit -- [who] are not going to go to the local parish and sit in the class for an hour every week for nine months, said McCloskey.
What do conservatives find attractive about what McCloskey offers?
Perhaps, McCloskey speculated, they are more interested in basic issues of truth, common good, and salvation. Its hard to say. One common element: A majority of them on moral issues are strongly aligned with what the church teaches.
Im not into politics, said McCloskey. Im into helping transform people into serious Christians. The only way were going to transform society and the culture is to have believing, prayerful, scripture reading, sacramental Catholics who with their own drive and energy will have an enormous impact on entertainment, the arts, music, culture and politics.
McCloskey sees a smaller and increasingly orthodox church emerging in the next two decades. Over time, the children and grandchildren of the nominal Catholics will simply fade away. They wont keep up the fiction that theyre Catholic when they dont know their faith.
And of the Catholics in public life who favor abortion rights, or are open to gay civil unions? Its delightful, delicious, the irony. Those types of people, those nominal Catholics, will not be there in 20 or 30 years.
He continued, To what extent they are Catholic I dont know. I dont know if they go to Mass on Sunday, I dont know if they go to Communion, I dont know if they go to confession. All I know is that on the most basic policy issue theyre on the wrong side and are still identifying themselves as Catholics. And that cannot be done.
Meanwhile, later that week, another prominent Washington television personality -- one from the fair and balanced cable news network -- awaits his appointment with McCloskey.
Joe Feuerherd is NCR Washington correspondent. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
National Catholic Reporter, September 5, 2003
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