WASHINGTON -- In a matter of days, Father C. John McCloskey III will quietly perform rites in which two more converts enter the Roman Catholic Church.
This latest ceremony at Catholic Information Center will not draw the attention of the Washington Post. But that happened last year when Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas entered the fold. Some of McCloskey's earlier converts also caused chatter inside the Beltway -- columnist Robert Novak, economist Lawrence Kudlow and former abortion activist Bernard Nathanson.
"All I am doing is what Catholic priests must do," said McCloskey. "I'm sharing the Gospel of Christ, offering people spiritual direction and, when they are ready, bringing them into the church. ... It's a matter of always proposing, never imposing, never coercing and merely proclaiming that we have something to offer to all Christians and to all people.
"Call it evangelism. Call it evangelization. It's just what we're supposed to do."
But words like "conversion" and "evangelism" draw attention when a priest's pulpit is located on K Street, only two blocks from the White House. The flock that flows into the center's 100-seat chapel for daily Mass includes scores of lobbyists, politicians, journalists, activists and executives.
So it's no surprise that McCloskey's views have appeared in the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, USA Today and elsewhere. His feisty defense of Catholic orthodoxy has landed him on broadcasts with Tim Russert, Bill O'Reilly, Paula Zahn, Greta Van Susteren and others.
This is a classic case of location, location, location.
McCloskey feels right at home. The 49-year-old priest is a native of the nation's capital, has an Ivy League education and worked for Merrill Lynch and Citibank on Wall Street before seeking the priesthood through the often-controversial Opus Dei movement. He arrived at the Washington center in 1998.
In addition to winning prominent converts, McCloskey has bluntly criticized the American Catholic establishment's powerful progressive wing, tossing out quotations like this zinger: "A liberal Catholic is oxymoronic. The definition of a person who disagrees with what the Catholic church is teaching is called a Protestant."
Many disagree. Slate.com commentator Chris Suellentrop bluntly said that while the urbane priest's style appeals to many Washingtonians, ultimately he is offering "an anti-intellectual approach. All members of the church take a leap of faith, but McCloskey wants them to do it with their eyes closed and their hands over their ears."
It is also crucial that McCloskey openly embraces evangelism and theconversion of adults from Judaism, Islam and other world religions. Formany modern Catholics this implies coercion, manipulation, mind controland, thus, a kind of "proselytism" that preys on the weak. In recentdiscussions of overseas missionary work many Catholics have suggestedthat they no longer see the need to share the faith with others andinvite them to become Christians.
The bottom line: Protestants do evangelism. Protestants try to convertothers. In the wake of Vatican II, Catholics have outgrown this kind ofwork.
"That's pure trash. That's a false ecumenism," said McCloskey. "That'ssimply not Catholic teaching. The Catholic church makes exclusivetruth claims about itself and cannot deny them. It doesn't deny thatthere are other forms of religion. It doesn't deny that these otherforms of religion have some elements of truth in them. ..."But we are proclaiming Jesus Christ and where we believe he can bemost fully found and that's the Catholic church. We cannot denythat." This issue will become even more controversial as America growsmore diverse.
Meanwhile, the number of nominally Christian adults who have not beenbaptized is rising. The children and grandchildren of what McCloskey calls the "bourgeoisie Catholics" are poised to leave the church. Soon,their fading ethnic ties will not be enough. Their love of old schoolsand sanctuaries will not be enough.
"This country is turning into Europe," he said. "People have gotten to the point where they are saying, 'Why bother even being baptized? We don't believe any of this stuff anymore.' I am encountering more people that I need to baptize, because their parent's didn't bother to do that, even though they were nominal Christians.
"In Europe that is normal and this is what is headed our way."