Some people are so passionate about their perspectives that they are blinded to what’s happening around them. They may see the same facts as others. However, when driven by an intense desire to fit these facts into a narrative, it can lead to distortion.
Such is the impression of the 2023 book, Playing God: American Catholic Bishops and the Far Right by Mary Jo McConahay. The liberal Catholic journalist gives such a sensational account of the post-Vatican II Church that it ends up being part CNN report, part conspiracy theory and a bit of Da Vinci Code drama. The reader is bewildered by the whirlwind of names, associations and conclusions that skew everything leftward.
Bishops in Cahoots with Radical Right?
An example of this distortion is the book’s central thesis. The author believes that the American bishops form a “conservative majority” so strong and intransigent that they can be counted upon to “spearhead the country’s rightward lurch.” Most American conservatives would scratch their head, wondering and asking where this conservative majority is. With some honorable exceptions, they would say that any lurch rightward happened despite, not because, of the bishops.
Nevertheless, the author insists the bishops are in cahoots. It does not take much to establish collusion—a statement, a blurb, a board membership, a big donation, a controversial opinion or a mutual friend. Despite the immense differences between the characters in this drama, they are all made to march in lockstep favoring “Christian nationalism”—whatever that means.
Lost in the Hyperbole
Thus, everything looms monolithic in the telling of the story. A cascade of adjectives makes everything hyperbolic. The author does not talk about the conservative Opus Dei but the ultra-conservative Opus Dei. It is not Tradition, Family and Property (TFP) but a more sinister-sounding “alt-right international Catholic network of politico-civic organizations.” Directing things is “the powerful and secretive Council for National Policy.” All are linked with the bishops and dedicated to “the idea of a supremely free market nation without safety, environment, and labor regulation or guaranties for groups that offend their radical Christian sensibilities like LGBTQ+ people.”
The result is a fast-paced narrative that assumes the reader can connect the dots. Even The New York Times reviewer Noah Feldman gets lost and admits to being “frustrated.” He claims the author “has difficulty closely linking actual bishops to prominent conservatives or conservative institutions.” The sympathetic reviewer painfully notes that chapter after chapter outlines the work of key conservative figures, but they hardly mention the bishops or their role in specific projects.
The Huge Impact of Conservative Action
Ironically, the grand and devastating denunciation has the opposite effect on those outside the progressive (or ultra-progressivist) box. Her extensive description of the work of key figures like Paul Weyrich, Richard Viguerie, Phyllis Schlafly and others reveals how effective and brilliant they were in organizing the fight in favor of family, marriage, the unborn and other critical issues of the religious right.
As a babyboomer who lived through the era she describes, Mary Jo McConahay recounts with vivid detail the huge impact of conservative action in ways rarely acknowledged by the religious left. Instead of collusion and conspiracy, a more balanced reader will recognize cooperation, coalition-making and networking that managed to overcome obstacles, win elections, install judges, establish media networks and think outside the box. All these things occurred legally and peacefully; no one broke the law.
Conversely, the religious left comes across as outmaneuvered, outspent and inept in the face of such effective action. Perhaps it is an attempt to claim that victimhood which is such a great part of the leftist narrative. She even makes oppressive conservative entrepreneurs like the non-Catholic Koch brothers (one of whom was pro-abortion) overshadow liberal donors like George Soros and Bill Gates.
The author is careful not to affirm unorthodox opinions about abortion or other social issues. However, she does criticize those who hold orthodox positions. For example, she notes with irritation that the bishops “rejoiced at the Supreme Court’s June 2022 decision that the Constitution of the United States does not confer a right to abortion.” She criticizes that “they want to see their own moral principles become the law of the land.” This activism endangers laws that guarantee “rights to contraception and same-sex marriage.”
At the same time, she swears fidelity to Pope Francis and severely criticizes anyone who strays from his path. However, her selective papal fidelity does not apply as much to the “anti-communist Pope John Paul II” or the “ultra-traditionalist Benedict XVI.”
A Mask of Orthodoxy
All pretext of orthodoxy, however, comes unraveled when touching more sensitive issues. The theological shallowness of the work is influenced much more by the Jacobin musings of National Catholic Reporter writer Michael Sean Winters than the serene syllogisms of Saint Thomas Aquinas. Reviewer Feldman notes that her criticisms “sound distressingly similar to old-style Protestant attacks on Catholicism” that focus on the contents of the Faith and not the political positions and connections she claims to expose.
Like all good feminists, she cannot resist weighing in on what she calls “one of the most vexing issues in the Roman Catholic Church,” which is women’s roles, including ordination as deacons and priests.
Not even Pope Francis’s opposition can overcome her zeal for this cause. She reasons that if public opinion polls in the United States favor woman priestesses, then the Church must change. It is only a small matter of modifying canon law.
Indeed, her favorable reporting on excommunicated female Catholics claiming to be priests (and bishops) leaves no doubt about her heterodox positions, opposed to official Church teaching. She applauds their courage and decision “no longer to wait for the Church to come around.”
A Class Struggle Perspective
The author would vehemently deny the claim that the book adopts a Marxist dialectic of class struggle. However, the Marxist perspective is defined by seeing everything through the prism of power, class and money. The book’s contents leave the reader no way to escape this conclusion.
The book is framed around oppression, money webs, money trails and ESG investment. It develops all the talking points of the American left, from Critical Race Theory to climate change. Tom Roberts, National Catholic Reporter’s former editor, and others on the Catholic left gave it rave reviews.
The most tragic perspective of the book is this strictly political focus that tends to reduce the Church to a social-justice-promoting NGO. The Church has a political component, as does any organization involved with people. However, this aspect should not blind readers to the essential role of the Church.
Absent from the narrative is the notion of the Church as the Mystical Body of Christ. Any discussion of the Church should be oriented toward sanctification and salvation—a discourse found in the traditional-minded Catholics condemned in this book. There are no tender references to Christ and the Blessed Mother that serve as points of unity to oppose the division so much a part of the Marxist dialectic. Instead, there is a suffocating brutal materialism closed to spiritual and sublime things that speak of God.
Maybe that’s the problem. Playing God should include God in the discussion.