The Rise of the Catholic Right | Sojourners

The Rise of the Catholic Right

How right-wing billionaires are attempting a hostile takeover of the U.S. Catholic Church.
Photo: Composite/Reuters

TIMOTHY BUSCH IS A WEALTHY MAN with big ambitions. His version of the prosperity gospel, Catholic in content and on steroids, is a hybrid of traditionalist pieties wrapped in American-style excess and positioned most conspicuously in service of free market capitalism.

Busch’s organization, the Napa Institute, and its corresponding foundation are among the most prominent of a growing number of right-wing Catholic nonprofits with political motivations. Such groups, some more extreme than others and all on the right to far-right side of the political and ecclesial spectrum, have in recent years muscled in on territory that previously was the largely unchallenged domain of the nation’s powerful Catholic bishops.

What Busch calls “in-your-face Catholicism” is often expressed amid multicourse meals followed by wine and cigar receptions, private cocktail parties for the especially privileged, traditional Catholic devotionals, Mass said in Latin for those so inclined, “patriotic rosary” sessions that include readings from George Washington and Robert E. Lee, and the occasional break for a round of golf.

Busch’s Catholic Right brand of American libertarianism aligns with some far-right leaders based in Italy who oppose Pope Francis and appear interested in joining forces to fashion an alternative to official Catholic leadership structures, which in this country means the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB).

Last summer, the Napa Institute sponsored a birthday soiree at the Rome residence of Cardinal James Harvey, a far-right American cleric. There, Princess Gloria von Thurn und Taxis, a German philanthropist-turned-conservative Catholic, rubbed shoulders with American arch-traditionalist Cardinal Raymond Burke, who, according to The New York Times , “ate birthday cake in the shape of a red cardinal’s hat, held champagne in one glass and blessed seminarians with the other, and watched fireworks light up the sky in his honor.”

Princess Gloria also introduced German Cardinal Gerhard Ludwig Müller, fired by Pope Francis from his position as the church’s doctrinal watchdog, to Steve Bannon. Bannon subsequently invited Müller to Bannon’s Washington headquarters, better known as the “Breitbart Embassy,” according to The Times. All done under the watchful eye of Timothy Busch.

Money, politics, and religion

Paralleling the ascendancy of the Religious Right out of 1980s evangelicalism, today’s Catholic Right is rising and well-financed. While pendulum swings are common bet ween conservative and progressive tendencies in Catholicism, the 35-year traditionalist reign of popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI allowed the Far Right to flourish. In the United States, Catholics constitute the largest and most organized Christian denomination and include Catholic parishes, schools and universities, and hospitals.

Busch offers one of the best examples of how money and a political agenda can shape religious teaching—particularly using the 501(c)(3) tax status, the portion of the IRS code that exempts charitable nonprofit organizations from paying federal taxes.

The Napa Institute’s high-end evangelism takes place at venues such as Busch’s Meritage Resort and Spa in Napa Valley and in high-profile spots such as the Trump International Hotel in Washington. His events never lack for a smattering of red and purple zucchettos, the skull caps worn by bishops and cardinals, lending the proceedings a certain credibility and legitimacy.

‘Authorities above the authorities’

The Napa Institute—with its mission, according to its tax forms, to “equip Catholic leaders to defend and advance the Catholic faith in the ‘next America’”—is one of several Catholic nonprofits that have become forceful players within the church and at the intersection of religion and politics, and one of the most active. Some groups are aggressively involved in aligning Catholic thought with libertarian economic theory while others are devoted to defining Catholicism for the culture by exceptionally conservative theology and practice.

For Christianity, money and power have been corrupting influences since Judas Iscariot accepted the silver in exchange for a betrayal. In Roman Catholicism, from the times of the Medicis and Borgias up to more recent scandals—such as when the Legionaries of Christ used large sums of money to buy influence (and a temporary buffer from scrutiny) in the Vatican—the mix has produced high art, toxic papacies, and distortions of the gospel and of church teaching.

In the United States today, influence is not peddled through royal families and palace intrigues, but often through a peculiarly American construct—the nonprofit sector, which has exploded in recent decades with a particular emphasis on politics. Traditional groups such as the Knights of Columbus continue to make substantial charitable contributions, but its capacity for funding has given the Knights an inordinately loud voice, unmatched by other lay groups. It has millions to send to dioceses in need, or to clean the façade of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome—or for other purposes.

With that kind of financial power, no one in the hierarchy is likely to object when the Knights appropriate funds for politically conservative think tanks, news agencies, and even the Federalist Society, an organization that advocates for conservative justices, with no connection to anything religious or charitable. Nor did any bishops question a communiqué supporting Judge Brett Kavanaugh for a seat on the Supreme Court.

Newer groups—including the Napa Institute, Legatus (launched by Domino’s Pizza founder Thomas Monaghan), and the Acton Institute—use the nonprofit designation to push an extreme libertarian economic agenda. Their devotion to individualism, unrestricted capitalism, and diminishment of government services, especially to the poor and marginalized, runs counter to the central tenets of Catholic social teaching.

“I think we’re in a kind of brave new world where these groups really are setting themselves up as authorities above the authorities,” said Stephen Schneck, former director of the Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies at the Catholic University of America (and a Sojourners board member). “I don’t know how else to say that. They’re challenging the legitimacy of existing structures of authority and trying to fill that space with their own agenda and their own people.”

Schneck sees the explosion of religious nonprofits not so much as a cultural phenomenon but rather “as something that leaked over from American politics,” where a flood of money influencing the direction of the two major parties is coming through groups that have little allegiance to traditional party structures or traditionally held positions and alliances.

The decline of the bishops

The eruption of independent groups may not have been that surprising in the Protestant world where evangelical leaders and their movements, taking up issues on the margins of society and church, often exercised a degree of suspicion about mainline denominations.

In the rigidly hierarchical Catholic world, on the other hand, dissent was often smothered beneath the rubric of Catholic unity. Since its founding in 1917 (as the National Catholic War Council) to ensure Catholic support for World War I, the U.S. Catholic bishops’ conference has been one of the most powerful religious organizations in the country. Until recently, the Catholic clerical culture, particularly at the bishops’ level, was able to present a united and authoritative front when speaking on social and political issues.

The phenomenon of independent organizations challenging the established Catholic authority emerged in the 1980s, just as the U.S. bishops were at the apex of their power as a teaching body, addressing major issues of the day. In 1983, the bishops released a far-reaching pastoral on modern warfare, the result of broad consultation with lay experts. They followed in 1986 with a pastoral letter titled “Economic Justice for All,” a document anchored in a century of Catholic social teaching and highly critical of President Ronald Reagan’s economic policies—and completely unwelcome to the 1980 vice-presidential candidate for the Libertarian Party, David H. Koch.

The ascendancy of the Catholic Right, Schneck said, is rooted in the bishops’ letter on economics. Countering the pastoral letter, he said, marked “the beginning of the conservative efforts to create their own magisterium [teaching authority] on the side.”

Well before the pastoral letter was published, Michael Novak, a leading conservative Catholic scholar with the American Enterprise Institute, another nonprofit that has become an influential voice in the religion conversation, and William E. Simon, treasury secretary under Richard Nixon, began attacking the document and its support for government policies that aid the poor. Novak and Simon presented an 80-page rebuttal arguing that church teaching supported free enterprise. The paper appeared before the first draft of the pastoral was even released.

The USCCB’s diminished role is due in part, said Schneck, to a “tremendous turnover of staff in recent decades” that “undercut the organization’s ability to do staff-level work. And frankly, for all sorts of reasons, some of the bishops themselves are less supportive of the USCCB’s public and policy applications ... the role the USCCB might play in American public life and politics has been dramatically pulled in for all sorts of reasons.”

Among those reasons was a document by Pope John Paul II in 1998 that dramatically reduced the authority of national bishops’ conferences and their ability to address major social issues. John Paul’s appointments to the episcopacy also tended to be men less inclined to take on cultural issues other than abortion and, more recently, gay marriage and religious liberty. Another reason for the diminished role of the U.S. conference these days is the bishops’ preoccupation with a disaster of their own making, the clergy sex abuse crisis.

‘Evangelization’ through access to capital

The nonprofit sector has accommodated far more than charitable instincts in this country, said Schneck, “where we have all of these groups basically allied on one side or another, using faith issues for their political purposes.” Peter Dobkin Hall, in his 1992 collection of essays Inventing the Nonprofit Sector, noted that the number of nonprofits grew from 12,500 in 1940 to more than 700,000 in the early 1990s. According to the Urban Institute’s National Center for Charitable Statistics, nonprofits now number more than 1.5 million and “include everything from neighborhood associations that meet a couple of times a year and have no assets to large universities and foundations with billions of dollars in assets” and everything in between, from labor unions to community music organizations to an increasing number involved in the culture wars of the current age.

Money is the fuel that provides certain voices with what some might consider outsize clout. Busch aims to affect church institutions and to shape the Catholic narrative for the wider culture by gaining influence on universities and media corporations.

In October 2017, the Napa Institute sponsored an event at Catholic University titled “Good Profit,” in homage to Charles Koch’s book of the same name. Busch donated $15 million to Catholic U., and the business school there is now named after him. At the event, Busch said that “Catholic NGOs” (nongovernmental organizations) are at the heart of the Catholic Church’s mission today. “The evangelization of our country is being done by private foundations, Catholic NGOs, like Napa and Legatus,” Busch said. Catholic nonprofits, he said, remain “tethered to the church through a bishop ... But they have access to capital that the church doesn’t.”

Knights of Columbus: Follow the money

One of the leading funders of both church activities and the new Catholic Right groups is an organization that is as establishment as they come: The Knights of Columbus. Founded as a fraternal benefits organization in the mid-19th century to help Irish immigrants, it has grown into an insurance company for members, with $2.2 billion in reported revenue in 2015, as I reported in National Catholic Reporter (NCR). It spends tens of millions of dollars on charity and in aid to the church and has given millions to the Vatican for everything from maintenance of buildings to purchase of communication equipment.

While the influence pedaled by the Napa Institute remains shrouded behind private foundations and multiple family business interests, the Knights of Columbus’ money trail has become more accessible to public scrutiny.

The organization is currently led by Supreme Knight Carl Anderson, a former political operative who began his career working for the Republican senator Jesse Helms and later worked in the Reagan White House. During his tenure, the Knights has become a funder of politically conservative organizations. In 2014, for instance, it donated $325,000 to the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which fought the contraception mandate of the Affordable Care Act, even though most Catholic institutions, including the Catholic Health Association, said they could live with accommodations carved out by the Obama administration. It also gave $330,000 to the Ethics and Public Policy Center, a conservative political think tank that is home base for George Weigel, an influential conservative Catholic writer. The Federalist Society has received several donations of $50,000.

Between 2010 and 2014, according to NCR, the Knights spent more than $1.4 million to sponsor Catholic bishops attending medical ethics workshops that included speakers opposing same-sex marriage and same-sex parenting. Presentations included psychologically discredited claims that people who identify as gay or transgender can be “cured” through counseling and can become heterosexual. The anti-gay training for bishops is coordinated by the National Catholic Bioethics Center, according to a 2014 report in NCR by Nicole Sotelo. The center is another organization that receives Knights of Columbus support. In 2014, it received $250,000; in 2015, $300,617.

In addition to substantial donations to a number of conservative news outlets, the Knights awarded $1.5 million to the Alabama-based Catholic media conglomerate EWTN, the Eternal Word Television Network. Busch, too, is a donor to (and board member of) EWTN—a platform that became useful last summer for releasing a letter attacking Pope Francis.

Attacking Pope Francis

During previous pontificates, Busch was all-in on loyalty to the pope and the teaching authorities of the church. In the era of Pope Francis, however, he has associated himself with right-wing Catholic efforts to discredit the pope using the largely debunked accusations of Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, the former papal ambassador to the United States. In one of several letters criticizing the pope, Viganò urged Francis to step down.

The case could be made that Viganò is merely a disgruntled employee striking back at the home office. When Francis visited the United States in 2015, it was Viganò who arranged the awkward surprise meeting between the pope and Kim Davis, a county clerk in Kentucky who refused to sign marriage licenses of same-sex couples. Viganò was later removed from the diplomatic post by Pope Francis, under a cloud of controversy.

But Viganò’s complaints—including accusations that Pope Francis ignored warnings about Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, who was removed from active ministry in June after numerous allegations of sexual abuse over 50 years—rose above the level of an unhappy bureaucrat. Viganò shared his letter ahead of time with several far-right Catholic leaders, including Busch.

Viganò’s letter calling for the pope’s resignation was distributed through a subsidiary of EWTN, the largest religious media network in the world with a claimed reach of a quarter-billion households in 140 countries. EWTN, which was launched in the early 1980s by nun-magnate Mother Angelica, who was committed to promoting “traditional social values,” also owns the Catholic News Agency and the National Catholic Register newspaper, through which Viganò’s accusations against the pope were distributed.

Viganò has since moderated his claims, and they have been strongly refuted by Vatican officials, but Busch told The New York Times that the archbishop “has done us a great service. He decided to come forward because if he didn’t, he realized he would be perpetuating the cover-up.” Later, Busch added, “Viganò has given us an agenda. We need to follow those leads and push that forward.”

A right-wing phenomenon

Since their emergence in the 1980s, right-wing Catholic groups, with their deep alliances among the bishops themselves, have achieved a prominence that essentially makes them an alternative to the U.S. bishops’ conference. Schneck said that it has become “increasingly difficult to identify the line between this conservative Catholic deployment of organizations and the official institutions of the church in America.”

In a bizarre turn, we now have Catholic groups accusing the pope of betraying the church and calling for him to resign, as well as initiating what amounts to hate group activity against gays and others in church settings. Money, and the power of U.S. nonprofits, has given extreme-right Catholics new means of communicating to the wider world what they think the Catholic narrative should be. That generally, but not always, is confined to sexual issues—abortion, gay rights, the rights of divorced and remarried people within the church.

Schneck believes there is a qualitative difference today in the challenge to the structure of Catholic hierarchy than there was in the 1980s. “Then, they were trying to respond to the letter on the economy, but they weren’t challenging the authority of the bishops, they weren’t challenging the authority of the pope,” Schneck said. “They weren’t really trying to involve themselves in religion as much as trying to push the church in the direction of being more accommodating to capitalism and free market solutions.”

Today, he said, “These groups are increasingly trying to change the church itself.”

If the bishops allow the extreme-right groups to continue unchallenged, Schneck said, their influence will only increase, and they’ll be able to “claim legitimacy and their own authority in making their pronouncements. Because they have the money and because the church always needs money at every level, the doors will continue to be open to them to interact with the church.”

And the money, he said, resides mostly on the right of the ecclesial and political spectrums. He sees nothing of similar ideological heft or funding on the left. “Maybe,” he said, “it’s because progressives have just given up on the church and aren’t willing to contribute a dime to anything that might go toward it.”

This appears in the March 2019 issue of Sojourners
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