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Playing God: A brisk critique of the US Catholic hierarchy for moving sharply to the right

Author chronicles how the Church has become politically powerful in recent decades but fails to speak to bishops or lay Catholics about their intentions

Playing God
Author: Mary Jo McConahay
ISBN-13: 978-1685890285
Publisher: Melville House
Guideline Price: £26.99

In May of last year the Catholic archbishop in San Francisco banned Nancy Pelosi, the city’s top politician at national level, from receiving the Eucharist over her support for abortion rights.

Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone argued that Pelosi’s “position on abortion has become only more extreme over the years”.

“After numerous attempts to speak with her to help her understand the grave evil she is perpetrating, the scandal she is causing, and the danger to her own soul she is risking, I have determined that the point has come in which I must make a public declaration that she is not to be admitted to Holy Communion unless and until she publicly repudiate her support for abortion “rights” and confess and receive absolution for her co-operation in this evil in the sacrament of Penance.”

The episode, reported worldwide, may have prompted questions from an international audience for the first time as to what the US bishops were trying to do.


Were they just highlighting the Church’s beliefs to its flock – including Pelosi and, indeed, Joe Biden? Or were some trying to put pressure on Catholic politicians to have Church teachings incorporated into US law?

A new book by US Catholic journalist Mary Jo McConahay, Playing God, argues that the 229-member United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has moved very much to the right.

She argues that a number of senior bishops are politically in lockstep with often extremely wealthy far-right figures not only on moral issues but in relation to other areas such as the economy, the Covid-19 pandemic and the environment.

McConahay contends that so great are the differences between senior American bishops and the Vatican under Pope Francis that it has “placed the US Church on the verge of schism”.

‘Christian nationalism’

The book argues actions of US bishops in, for example, undermining Covid rules during the pandemic and the combating of the environmental crisis as well as chipping away at government authority represent the “hallmark of surging Christian nationalism”.

McConahay suggests that US bishops have become enmeshed in – or are presiding over in some cases – a right-wing web which includes conservative non-profit organisations aimed at influencing Catholic youth, education and politics; ultraconservative media which are used as a platform; and law firms engaged in “religious freedom” issues by which is meant keeping and changing laws with the goal of establishing a “Christian nation”.

The book also deals not just with bishops but with other hugely influential figures such Leonard Leo of the Federalist Society – which played a key role in the appointment of conservative judges to the US Supreme Court, where six of the nine justices were raised Catholic – as well as businessman Thomas Monaghan who founded the Domino’s Pizza chain and industrialist Charles Koch.

It traces the story of Paul Weyrich, founder of the right-wing Heritage Foundation in Washington. It says Weyrich did more than anyone else to create the radical religious right. It says he brought Catholics and evangelical Protestants together as a voting bloc to support Christian principles.

At its heart, the book deals with an American church hierarchy, many of whom were appointed by Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict, moving to the right at a time when the Vatican under Pope Francis is heading in a different direction.

[The book] says some in right-wing Catholic circles promote the doctrinal position of ‘sedevacantism’ – that Francis is not a valid occupier of the Holy See given his political and economic philosophies

Francis’s first apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium, condemned the idolatry of money and suggested the financial system should serve, not rule – a philosophy very much at odds with that of the right-wing Republican conservatives to whom some bishops have allied themselves.

Similarly, the Pope’s encyclical Laudato Si, which called for the world to take action on global warming, did not go down well with some on the Catholic right.

The book suggests some conservative bishops are not thrilled with the 1960s reforms under Vatican II, particularly regarding the greater involvement of the laity and even the move away from the Latin Mass.

Trenchant criticism

It says some in right-wing Catholic circles promote the doctrinal position of “sedevacantism” – that Francis is not a valid occupier of the Holy See given his political and economic philosophies.

McConahay’s book is trenchant in its criticism of the US Catholic hierarchy. It contends, in essence, that bishops have failed to confront white Christian nationalism as a threat to both the church and the country as a whole.

However, while it is very readable, it is very much McConahay’s chronicle of how American Catholicism moved from being on the outside a century ago – under suspicion of the Anglo Saxon establishment – to being at the forefront of power today – but at a cost of moving away from the mainstream.

It does not attempt to seek any explanation from the bishops or the lay Catholics and non-Catholics for their actions.

At 227 pages, McConahay’s book is well researched but it is unlikely to be the final word on the American Church and its links to right wing Catholicism, politics and business.

Undoubtedly, several bishops are very conservative. Whether this is a passing phenomenon as a result of appointments from the pre-Francis papacies remains to be seen. Or does this herald a permanent shift in the thinking of US Church top figures who lead 73 million believers and also exercise control over a significant part of the American health system?

Martin Wall is Washington Correspondent of The Irish Times.

Martin Wall

Martin Wall

Martin Wall is Washington Correspondent of The Irish Times. He was previously industry correspondent