Reflections on Mary Jo McConahay’s Playing God: American Catholic Bishops and the Far Right

Posted in: Book Reviews

Mary Jo McConahay’s new book describes how U.S. Catholic bishops have been “playing God” over and over again, trying to make Christianity the law of the United States, “believing that their own moral point of view ought to reign for everybody, throughout the land.” (ix) The bishops of the Catholic Right used to agree with the popes, but now Pope Francis is more liberal than they are, so they reject him, joining those who ask this pope, but not the last two, to retire. Read the book to see if you agree with McConahay that the distance between the bishops and Rome “has placed the U.S. Church on the verge of schism.” (xi)

Playing God shows that huge amounts of money—millions of dollars—support the bishops and their “rightward lurch.” (xi) They have plenty of support for their idea that Catholic views should govern the law and other components of society.

Readers probably won’t be surprised to learn that these bishops “stand for traditional gender roles.” (xi) They also oppose gender-affirming care for transgender individuals. They have a lot of freedom to do that because one in six hospitals in the United States is Catholic. And the bishops have never been for LGBTQ rights. The bishops wanted to forbid pro-choice politicians like Joe Biden and Nancy Pelosi from receiving communion but could not because the pope has kept communion open to everyone. It is a little more surprising to learn that the bishops approve of laws that suppress African American and Latino voters. Apparently, they do not believe that everyone should be able to vote; protecting their supporters is enough. “After record turnout of voters in the 2020 election, Republican lawmakers in forty-nine states introduced more than four hundred bills to limit voting, often aiming at communities of color.” (176) Criticisms of Black Lives Matter are frequent, while the bishops are often quiet on the sins of racism.

Read the book to find out how we got here. McConahay points out that all six of the conservative Supreme Court Justices were raised Catholic. [C]onservatives didn’t have a chance if public opinion prevailed. So they needed to stack the courts.” (86) “Give us Supreme Court justices … who will expand the role of religion in the public sphere, they effectively said, including rescinding women’s right to bodily autonomy, and you get our vote.” (51) Those six Justices “have rendered the wall between church and state a mere gossamer curtain.” (xi) Supreme Court decisions “on church attendance during the pandemic might have been written by rightist bishops themselves.” (16) Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett, “a Catholic working mother of seven, is just the sort of model of the ‘feminine genius’ to which … devout women might aspire rather than looking to the secular model of feminism, with its emphasis on social and economic equality for men and women.” (185)

One of the Justices, Clarence Thomas, plays a prominent role in the Catholic movement. Thomas is friends with Leonard Leo, the co-founder of the Federalist Society, who helped all three Catholic Trump nominees receive their seats on the Court. The Right blocked President Obama’s nominee to the Court, Merrick Garland. And, as the book points out, Thomas and Leo are joined by Thomas’s wife Ginni Thomas. Those three are the “unholy trinity.” (83)

The Catholics enjoy the financial support of Charles Koch and Tim Busch and many others for all their Catholic projects.

One of the bishops’ and their supporters’ most recent projects is opposition to COVID-19 vaccines and mask-wearing. Rev. James Altman “called the insurrection of January 6 a ‘false flag operation,’ accused Pope Francis of betraying God ‘like Judas,’ termed mask wearers ‘Godless vermin,’ and said the Jews of Warsaw brought the Holocaust upon themselves by failing to fight against abortion.” (19) San Francisco’s Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone did not wear a mask while saying mass and distributing communion. Many of the bishops were not vaccinated. They asked for religious exemptions from vaccines for many religious persons. Maybe that is why McConahay talks of schism, as Pope Francis defended the scientific support for vaccination.

You can talk about COVID health all you want, but the bishops always want to speak against abortion. Those COVID vaccinations? The bishops say they are too closely related to aborted fetuses, so it is not moral to use them, even though the pope says you can. “God is still the best doctor and prayer is still the best medicine.” (17) What can we say to that?

The book reminds us of numerous other instances when the Church inserted itself into secular government. It spells out the big role Paul Weyrich played in the origins of the Christian Right. Weyrich and others asked for a Catholic priest to be disciplined for joining an Episcopal prayer service after Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated, “on grounds that praying among non-Catholics was heretical, a ‘worship of false gods.’” (36) Some Catholics opposed desegregating schools and got President Richard Nixon to veto a daycare bill because it disfavored the traditional family. Do not forget Phyllis Schlafly, who led the successful movement to stop the Equal Rights Amendment from joining the Constitution. “Schlafly has to be regarded as one of the two or three most important Americans of the last half of the 20th century.” (48)

Numerous Catholic and Catholic-supporting individuals and the many organizations they have founded appear throughout the book, far too many to list here. Included are William Barr, William Simon, Alexander Haig, Clare Boothe Luce, Peter Grace, Michael Novak, Bruce Ritter, Peter Thiel, Ross Douthat, and George Weigel. Weigel is the “last survivor of the theocon ‘triumvirate,’ as it has been called, which included Novak, who died in 2017, and Richard John Neuhaus (d. 2009), a Lutheran minister who became a Catholic priest .” (151) Domino’s Pizza founder Thomas Monaghan is mentioned, among other items, for his development of the Thomas More Law Center.

Another key goal, described in detail, is the bishops’ lead in “[c]onfronting the threat of radical Islam.” (114) Christian nationalists often display Islamophobia in support of their own Christian goals. The book tells us about the city of Dearborn, Michigan, where many of the first Arab immigrants to the United States lived. Christian evangelicals won a lawsuit against that city for limiting Christian religious preaching. That gave them more freedom to teach their anti-Islamic beliefs there and elsewhere. They also warned the country of the huge dangers of sharia law. All these projects were undertaken in a “campaign to marginalize Muslims for the sake of a putative Judeo-Christian American nation.” (122)

Money plays a large role in this book. Funding universities to keep their ideas alive and to “shape the hearts and minds of U.S. voters” (69) in their favor is important to the bishops and their allies. The schools include Catholic University, Creighton University, Santa Clara University, Boston College, and my own alma mater, the University of Notre Dame.

The Right has opposed climate change research and support for it. They did not join the extensive praise for Pope Francis’s letter on climate reform, Laudato Si’. The critics? “What I see behind this is a push for worship of ‘Mother Earth,” said Cardinal Raymond Burke. (198) Editor of First Things R. R. Reno called Laudato Si’ “perhaps the most anti-modern encyclical since the Syllabus of Errors, Pius IX’s haughty 1864 dismissal of the conceits of the modern era.” (198) They also criticized Pope Francis’s Pan-Amazon Synod, which was supposed to draw attention to a different part of the world. They do not like his recommendation that ecocide be identified as a new fifth category of international crime against humanity, joining crimes against humanity, genocide, war crimes, and crimes of aggression. Why? Because ecocide “leads to forced migration of people, displacement, and death.” (209)

Notably, in 2022, Pope Francis named Robert W. McElroy a cardinal instead of the many bishops who play a large role in this book. In contrast to the bishops of the right, Cardinal McElroy recently wrote an article calling for the “radical inclusion” of LGBT individuals and women in the church. The pope’s choice confirms the distance between him and the bishops of the American Catholic Right that McConahay develops in her book.

So read the book. It is fascinating to see how the Catholic Right has developed and continues to win huge victories in the American setting.

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