Fr. C. John McCloskey, director of the Washington archdiocese's Catholic Information Center, likens his current job to his pre-ordination experience hawking stocks on Wall Street.
"I'm a salesman for the church," said the 49-year-old Opus Dei priest.
Some of the nation's 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.
"It's 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, McCloskey's connections, telegenic manner and proximity to Washington's 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 church's sex abuse scandals.
One element of the Washington native's success: He knows his product. The Catholicism he preaches is as black and white as his cassock and Roman collar.
Can church teaching on capital punishment and abortion be equated? "No, they are incommensurable. Abortion is homicide, murder, whatever you want to call it. There is no wiggle room whatsoever in terms of that." By contrast, Pope John Paul II's opposition to the death penalty "has not taken away the perpetual teaching -- nor can it, I think -- of the church . that capital punishment is something that can be imposed by the state." What options are available to Cath-olic couples who use artificial contraception? "The best case scenario for them is to go to church every Sunday and not receive Communion. The worst-case scenario is [to say] we disagree with a fundamental teaching of the Catholic church, which is not going to change, and ...go somewhere else."
Are church teachings on economics and social welfare a barrier to conversion for free-market conservatives? "No, they shouldn't be for anybody," said McCloskey. "I think an extreme libertarian would have hard time being a Catholic in that regard, and I think a Marxist would have a hard time being a Catholic, but there's a very large middle in terms of . what are the right decisions in bringing social justice to a society."
Are there any circumstances under which a faithful Catholic politician could support civil union for gay couples? "It opens the door to anything from incest to bestiality," said McCloskey. "The whole question is: What is a family?
McCloskey's 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 Dei's 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 center's small chapel (dedicated to St. Josemaria Escriva, Opus Dei's founder) for 12:05 Mass. Eucharistic adoration follows in the afternoon.
The priest's one-on-one work with potential converts does not, McCloskey said, fall outside the church's 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. "It's 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 I've received outside [the RCIA framework], I've 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. It's hard to say." One common element: "A majority of them on moral issues . are strongly aligned with what the church teaches."
"I'm not into politics," said McCloskey. "I'm into helping transform people into serious Christians. The only way we're 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 won't keep up the fiction that they're Catholic when they don't know their faith."
And of the Catholics in public life who favor abortion rights, or are open to gay civil unions? "It's 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 don't know. I don't know if they go to Mass on Sunday, I don't know if they go to Communion, I don't know if they go to confession. All I know is that on the most basic policy issue . they're 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.