Friday, May 12, 2023

The Other Christian Nationalists: Leonard Leo and Opus Dei

Here's the story the Washington Post broke last week:

In January 2012, [Leonard] Leo instructed the GOP pollster Kellyanne Conway to bill a nonprofit group he advises and use that money to pay Virginia “Ginni” Thomas, the documents show. The same year, the nonprofit, the Judicial Education Project, filed a brief to the Supreme Court in a landmark voting rights case.

Leo, a key figure in a network of nonprofits that has worked to support the nominations of conservative judges, told Conway that he wanted her to “give” Ginni Thomas “another $25K,” the documents show. He emphasized that the paperwork should have “No mention of Ginni, of course.”

The Post was able to document that Leo funneled at least $100,000 to Ginni Thomas through these connections. 

Not many people know who Leonard Leo is because, until recently, he's managed to keep a pretty low profile. But in 2018, Clarence Thomas referred to him as “the Number Three most powerful person in the world.” Of course, he was only joking...sort of. 

Two of the best sources of information on Leo are (1) the Washington Post article from 2019 titled: "A conservative activist’s behind-the-scenes campaign to remake the nation’s courts," and (2) a presentation by Senator Sheldon Whitehouse documenting how dark money interests bought the courts.

The bottom line is that Leo spent hundreds of millions of dollars getting the six extremists judges that currently sit on the Supreme Court. Now, he's using the $1.6 billion from one mega-donor to fight the co-called "culture wars" - even going so far as to create a “private and confidential” conservative group to “crush liberal dominance.”

What you are less likely to know about Leo is that he currently serves on the board of an organization called the Catholic Information Center - which was founded by the cult, Opus Dei. Like much of Leo's endeavors, membership in Opus Dei is usually kept private. But Leo doesn't just serve on their board. In 2022, CIC honored him with their "John Paul II Evangelization Award" (Justice Antonin Scalia received the award in 2016).

Unlike how Opus Dei was portrayed in Dan Brown's "The DaVinci Code," the cult is all about gaining political power. After studying Opus Dei in Europe, the Center for Research on Population and Security described their efforts with this:

Opus Dei advances its agenda...on a number of fronts and through a variety of strategies. The ultimate aim of all of these endeavours is to gain political power so that its moral agenda might be enshrined in public policy and legislation.

That is exactly what the Catholic Information Center is all about. In many ways it resembles the Protestant group Jeff Sharlet wrote about in his book, “The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power.” 

The man who put the CIC on the map in Washington, D.C. is Rev. C. John McCloskey. What he brought to Catholicism was an emphasis that has been more visible in some Protestant denominations: evangelism. Incorporating the need to proselytize moves religious faith beyond the arena of the personal to one in which it’s all about “building the Kingdom of God” by taking over the institutions of power. 

Here is how Chris Suellentrop summarized McCloskey:
He describes the period after Vatican II as a “generally unfortunate period for our country and our Church,” calls coeducation a “failure,” and notes the “particular needs of the complementary yet quite different sexes.” He advises college students to avoid “nominal” Catholic colleges (meaning Notre Dame, Georgetown, Boston College, and the like) that emphasize concepts like “openness, just society, search, diversity, and professional preparation.”

Back in 2003, Charles Pierce interviewed McCloskey for the Boston Globe. Here's an excerpt that seems to have been a forecast of the "soft civil war" being egged on by the GOP today:

He is talking about a futuristic essay he wrote that rosily describes the aftermath of a "relatively bloodless" civil war that resulted in a Catholic Church purified of all dissent and the religious dismemberment of the United States of America. "There's two questions there," says the Rev. C. John McCloskey 3d, smiling..."One is, Do I think it would be better that way? No. Do I think it's possible? Do I think it's possible for someone who believes in the sanctity of marriage, the sanctity of life, the sanctity of family, over a period of time to choose to survive with people who think it's OK to kill women and children or for—quote—homosexual couples to exist and be recognized? "No, I don't think that's possible," he says. "I don't know how it's going to work itself out, but I know it's not possible, and my hope and prayer is that it does not end in violence. But, unfortunately, in the past, these types of things have tended to end this way. If American Catholics feel that's troubling, let them. I don't feel it's troubling at all."

But when the curtain got pulled back on McCloskey, it was the same-old, same-old.

The global Catholic community Opus Dei in 2005 paid $977,000 to settle a sexual misconduct suit against the Rev. C. John McCloskey, a priest well-known for preparing for conversion big-name conservatives — Newt Gingrich, Larry Kudlow and Sam Brownback, among others.

The woman who filed the complaint is a D.C.-area Catholic who was among the many who received spiritual direction from McCloskey through the Catholic Information Center, a K Street hub of Catholic life in downtown Washington. She told The Washington Post that McCloskey groped her several times while she was going to pastoral counseling with him to discuss marital troubles and serious depression.

All of this is a reminder that, while we've grown accustomed to thinking of Christian Nationalists as exclusively white evangelical protestants, the halls of power are filled, not just with dark money, but with extremist Catholics - many of whom (like Leonard Leo) belong to the Opus Dei cult. Their goal is to gain political power so that they can enshrine their moral agenda in public policy. But even as they scream about "groomers," their ranks are filled with sexual abusers and pedophiles. 


  1. Oh No not the Papist's too? Read more dan brown. Alas. Having grown up in catholic school's though I never "beleived" rumors of Papist plots. Not because I had any doubt they could execute long term planning etc but I doubted wheather the beuracriecies of the Roman Catholic could move that fast, Nothing less then 150 years plans were the threshold. No institution lasted for 2 millium must have some carniverous self defense strategies. Could they yeah but could they get everything in order. One could say that the vatican beauracies were the models for the Vogans in hitch hikers guide...

  2. What will inevitably happen if the Christian Nationalists seize power...the sectarian wars will start. The REASON the First Amendment has the establishment clause is because the end of centuries of religious wars was within the lived history of most of them.

    1. Precisely Bruce! Most Americans have no idea why the Founding Fathers wrote the Establishment Clause into the 1st Amendment & also why the U.S. Constitution's Article VI prohibits religious tests for public office. As you so adroitly point out, the European Wars Of Religion if not contemporary, were recent history to them. They wanted to make sure that sectarian schisms would not occur in the U.S. I've always found it rather comical that people do not study history and then are surprised when the obvious occurs (i.e. sectarian violence, etc.). Northern Ireland anyone?

  3. Fascinating, and thanks for explaining it. We're growing more and more aware of the threat from culture warriors and, sadly, the Supreme Court after Trump's appointments to void the establishment clause.

    I'd just add two cautions. One is that of course every religion will have its nutty, even dangerous sects and also well-meaning adherents who derive their own strength from it, as indeed Nancy often reports on doing with mainstream Christianity. With Leo, awful as his beliefs are, they'd be awful even if he'd never joined the cult.

    Second and more worth warning about, I'm not dead sure it's quite the same danger here as with the evangelicals. The latter's arises from the power of preachers to grow and to move a base. With Leo, I hear not a preacher talking to millions. I hear money talking, just as with the entirety of the Clarence Thomas scandal. Yes, money does talk, and that scares me, too. The idea of right-wing apologetics, like those of Russ Doodad in the NY Times, that it only hurts if you can point directly to the pro in quid pro quo, is scarier still.

    1. Oh, sorry, didn't mean to leave that anonymous. Not that I want you all to remember me, but I know that anonymous comments online tend to use the anonymity to bad ends.


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