From Wall Street to the Ivy League

Father John McCloskey, a former banker and stockbroker, is a priest of the Prelature Opus Dei. He recently spoke with Register correspondent Raymond de Souza.

De Souza: You are now a priest of Opus Dei, which seeks to form laypeople to live their Christian vocation in the world. You did that yourself before you were ordained, in the financial world of Wall Street. How did you combine your Christian vocation with working on Wall Street?

Father McCloskey: On Wall Street I think I made the combination the way any Christian would, making a commitment to a deep interior life of prayer and sacrifice, and combining that with professional competence and excellence. It is possible to give oneself — to make a sincere gift of oneself — just as readily on Wall Street as in the seminary or a monastery.

Did you find the world of Wall Street distracting to living the Christian life?

There are particular challenges in the nature of Wall Street. You are at a pace of activity that is much more rapid than most working environments. There are temptations to avarice and sensuality in any profession, but naturally those temptations can be greater when incomes are much higher.

The other challenge is that you are dealing with a good that is completely fungible — it's not like selling a car or a tape recorder.

You are dealing with an asset that is the dearest to most people, not in a bad sense, because money is something people need to provide for their families and their future. There is a more serious obligation on the part of a serious Catholic on Wall Street to realize that you are dealing with people's livelihoods, not merely selling them a product that may or may not work.

Did you find that besides the higher incomes, there are also temptations to look at the world in a non-Christian way?

You can fall into what the Holy Father has referred to as “economism.” There is a greater temptation because you are immersed in a world of rates, income statements, and earnings. It's a question of perspective and a question of detachment. You must realize that if you are a serious Catholic you have to bring your Christian perspective to the world in which you are immersed. It's probably a more dangerous world to be immersed in, so it is all the more important for dedicated Christians to be working in it.

Catholic social teaching quite obviously addresses the world of production. The world of finance is removed somewhat from that world. Does Catholic social teaching suitably address the world of finance?

There is an expression in Wall Street, that we “underwrite” the company. The manufacturing companies and, increasingly, service companies of the world would not be able to reach their consumers to the same extent, whom they are presumably serving and not just enticing to consume, unless they had finance. Those companies would not be able to grow, expand, and raise the standard of living.

So in itself, finance is basically neutral, tending toward good. The only thing that can make it evil is when the motivation is greed or exploitation, which certainly can take place. In other words, there can be great tragedies when the dignity of the human person is not placed at the heart of the financial world. But if that concept is kept in mind, if we are looking to serve our clients, i.e., companies that in turn are serving human persons, then there is certainly nothing the matter with finance, in fact, quite the contrary.

A large and increasing number of people have their savings in the financial markets. Does that open another avenue for serving people?

Yes, and more responsibility. If a person has their goods in real estate or farms, when bad times come then it may be easier to survive, because shelter and food are still the basic necessities. The reality is that those who in our century placed their investments in financial goods have done extremely well. There are ups and downs, but progress has happily continued. A Christian involved in the financial world ought not to feel guilty about encouraging people to invest, as long as that investment is not speculation, but true investment.

Was is it difficult to leave the financial world for the priesthood?

I was already a dedicated member of the Prelature of Opus Dei as a layman, so it was not as difficult as it may have been for others to do so. I was already leading a life dedicated to God, hopefully, of prayer, sacrifice, and apostolic outreach inside my profession. So it was not particularly difficult because I, like all of us, hopefully, should love our work but also be detached from it.

I suppose you could also say that I was dedicating myself in the priest-hood to selling a better product, on which the returns are infinite.

You write a fair number of articles and reviews that appear throughout the Catholic press. Why do you do this?

It's communication and therefore an opportunity to evangelize by reaching a wide readership. Also, I would much rather write than talk. I feel that if you have ideas that are worthwhile, the only way to test them is in the marketplace — to see whether the article is accepted, how it is received, whether it has a shelf life after it is written.

A famous person once said that you write when you cannot not write. That means you have something to say, and that's when I started writing. I thought that I had something to say, and instead of imposing my views on the poor person sitting across from me, I would rather write it down and see if it has any value in the market.

You say that you write when you have something to say. In the last 15 years there has been a rapid growth in Catholic publishing, both books and periodicals. Are Catholics finding something new to say to the culture in North America?

Yes. A lot of that has to do with Pope John Paul II, both as an instrument and as a cause. What we are seeing right now is the true implementation of Vatican II, 30 years after it took place. As a result of that, there is a whole generation of Catholics who are ignorant of their faith and doctrine. Consequently, there is a pent-up hunger for authentic Catholic teaching.

The old instruments, pre-Vatican II, or even recent post-Vatican II, are no longer adequate. So there are people, on their own, and for the most part lay initiatives, coming up with their own ideas. At the same time, I should mention that, unfortunately, a lot of these new publications have cross-subscriber lists, so we cannot be too optimistic. There are 60 million Catholics in the United States and perhaps all these magazines together have 150,000 subscribers. There is an awful lot of room to reach the masses, and over time that might be done more through the media of television, radio, or the Internet, rather than print publications.

You note that much of this work is done by the laity. Do you find though, that often Catholics expect a priest or nun to be on hand to lend some kind of authority?

Happily, less and less so. Unhappily, the reasons why: Catholics who are faithful and knowledgeable about their faith often realize that the priests and nuns presented to them are, at times, not necessarily faithful to the whole teaching of the Church, and in that sense, have a healthy distrust of what they hear. They want to compare what they hear to the gold standard of the magisterial teaching, as opposed to just accepting it on the authority of a priest or religious man or woman. We are moving beyond that, and I think it is very healthy.

In an ideal situation then there would be more lay initiatives?

Absolutely. The true lay initiative is going to be on the level of one-on-one. The ultimate lay apostolate is not initiatives in terms of the media and all those wonderful things, but on the level of friendship, in family life and personal witness and example, as it was with the first Christians.

Recently there was a conference in Denver on the Church and the new communications technologies.

Father C. John McCloskey III

Personal: Age 45; native of Washington, D.C.; ordained Aug. 30, 1981.

Current positions: Chaplain and director of the Catholic Information Center for the Archdiocese of Washington; U.S. representative of the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross in Rome.

Education: Bachelor's degree in economics from Columbia University; doctorate in sacred theology from the University of Navarre, Pamplona, Spain.

Background: Associate chaplain at Princeton University's Aquinas Institute; adjunct professor at the New York Archdiocesan Catechetical Institute; financial consultant and banker in New York's financial district; author of some 40 articles and book reviews for leading Catholic and secular publications such as Forbes and The Wall Street Journal.

How important is it that the Church adapt itself to these new modes of communication?

It's reality. It's not important, it's just reality. Whether it was the quill, or the ship, or the printing press, or the computer chip, the Church has used all the available instruments for evangelization.

However, without being in any way apocalyptic or chiliastic, we are in a period when the Gospel will be made accessible to all the human beings on the earth through computer technology. There already are perhaps 1 billion people who have access in one way or another to the worldwide web, and it's growing exponentially. These people are one or two clicks away from hearing Peter, or his Church, and authentic doctrine without all the intermediaries that have always been necessary.

So it's essential, but it's not a question necessarily of planning for it, but of being aware of what is going on and then utilizing it. The Church traditionally does not go ahead of the curve,but remains a little behind it, and that's healthy, because we need to test what is available to see what can be trusted. Remember, the Church is not the Pope and the bishops and the hierarchy, but is it all of us. There are a billion Catholics, and as members of the Church, they will on their own initiative, with the grace that comes from the sacraments of initiation and fed by the Eucharist, see the opportunities to evangelize through these new means of communications.

Cardinal Lustiger commented recently about the danger that these new technologies could be de-personalizing (see “Life in the Virtual Culture,” Register April 12-18). Do you share that concern?

It will only be de-personalizing if the persons using it are de-personalized. It is a means, not an end. Ultimately, the Church is incarnational, which means that anyone who is going to be brought to a greater level of intimacy with Christ and the Church is going to have to do that through the sacraments and personal contact with priests and other human beings.

So as long as people are aware of the dignity of the human person, the centrality of the family, and the necessity of the sacraments, then the Internet will be used as an instrument to bring people to each other, rather than as a shield to remain apart or to guard anonymity. Christianity is not about anonymity. It is about the fact that Christ has called you by your name. So this is just a means to reach people who otherwise would not be reached.

This is wonderful moment. A well-known economist at Columbia University, Robert Mundell, says the Church is the ultimate supply-side institution. We have the means of grace and the sacraments. We have a standard and a hierarchy. We are better poised than any institution because we have one truth to communicate to all people. But we are going to continue using donkeys too, because the world is not going to be transformed that quickly.

You are chaplain of a center of Opus Dei in Princeton. Is the university environment a hospitable place for Catholicism?

It all depends on the university. Almost unquestionably, in the elite universities, the environment is generally not hospitable to Catholicism. I refer to it as the most exotic pagan mission territory in the world when I write to my friends in Kenya, Nigeria, or Singapore.

The values of the secular elite university are so radically anti-Christian. They are the culture of death. They are the harbingers of the culture of death. They create the culture of death. This is where the seeds are planted. You can see what is coming down the line by just looking at the atmosphere there now: hedonistic, naturalistic, secularistic.

However, as St. Paul was in Athens, we have to be there. These are where very gifted young men and women are, and we can make a difference. There are conversions, there are vocations, there are reconciliations. It is not a question of being pessimistic but realistic. It's like reading Romans 11 when you look at the state of a normal college campus. We must not be discouraged, but realize that this is raw paganism.

What is it like to be a priest at what you describe as the heart of the culture of death?

It's a lot of fun, and challenging, because the students are at that point in life when they are looking for answers. Many of them are jaded, many of them are materialistic, but a certain percentage of them are looking for some ideals. The opportunity to expose them to Christ and his Church, to Christian orthodoxy, to Maritain or Gilson, Peguy, Claudel, Benson, Knox, Newman, Chesterton, Belloc — it is an absolute joy to do so. To show them what is supernatural; to show them something that, while found in this life, has its end in the next — it is very, very rewarding, as long as you don't have any illusions about great material success in the near term.

Do you sense a desire for spiritual things among students at the university?

No. Unfortunately, I deal with a very rarefied group of people. Many of them come from very small families marked by contraceptive selfishness. Many of their parents have not had more children precisely in order to send them to the Ivy League, so they are programmed from an early age to seek for success. Hedonism, prestige, security, power, and ambition are the standards by which they live. When you are 18, 19, 20, you consider yourself immortal, so you do not have the possibility of near-death experiences to sober you up.

So I would say no, there is not any great spiritual longing on this campus. It's our job, my job and others, to try to awaken it for those who have the capacity to grasp it. We have to preach the Gospel, to present it to them, and then count on the action of the Holy Spirit to open their minds and hearts.

In a practical sense how does a campus chaplain go about that?

Perhaps some of your readers can look at my Web page ( and read there several articles in which I write a whole program on how to do a campus ministry.

Campus ministry is about two things: catechetics and evangelization. It is not about community, because you are not dealing with a community, but rather a changing group of people who come in and out. It is necessary to teach college students what the Church teaches, and evangelize in the sense of introducing them to Jesus Christ. The measure, over time, will be participation in the sacraments and liturgical life, and the number of students who, as a result of their contact with the college chaplaincy, have gained a knowledge of their faith which is on the same level as their knowledge of their secular studies.

Has the Church taken up the challenge of evangelization in the elite universities?

It's a difficult time. I don't know if the people in the hierarchy of the Church understand the importance of these institutions. It's easy not to understand, given that most priests come from Catholic school and seminary systems. And given the scarcity of priestly vocations and the other diocesan needs, it is not always easy to spare the most outstanding priests, or even to prepare them by further studies for that function. I believe that, after the seminary, the college chaplaincy is the single most important thing in a diocese. I do not believe that it is given that priority in most dioceses — unfortunately, to my mind.

These people are going to be the leaders in the world, and also, understood correctly, in the Church — not in taking on clerical functions, but in taking leadership roles in the diocese and the parish. These people in the colleges are the best educated and the most ready to take up leadership positions, which is how we transform the culture. So the seminary and college chaplain-cies are right at the top of my list for reevangelization.

The Holy Father has written that the world is “growing tired of ideology and opening itself to the truth” (Crossing the Threshold of Hope). Do you see evidence of this at the university?

Yes, begrudgingly. The universities, because they are so ideologically-oriented, are the last ones to find out. But the reality is that Marx is dead, Freud is on the mat, Darwin is suffering body blows and may have a concussion at some point, or better, brain death.

It is the end of modern ideologies, and we are into a wholly different situation. We are witnessing, as the Holy Father said in 1976 (before becoming Pope), the ultimate battle between good and evil. At the same time as the ideologies are ending, we are getting raw paganism, hedonism, secular humanism — whatever you want to call it. So what is being set up is the culture of death, to be countered with what the Holy Father calls the civilization of love and truth. The universities hide under the mask of ideology, but when you come down to something like deconstructionism, which says that nothing has meaning, that is the last gasp of ideology.

This battle between good and evil can be a great adventure, but it also raises the possibility of heavy casualties, doesn't it?

There is the possibility, like the first Christians, not of martyrdom, which is too strong a word, but certainly of being confessors. For a Catholic, those battle scars and wounds are worn proudly, for they are to our glory in heaven.

Any recent books that you would recommend to our readers?

Yes, two in particular. One is The Rise of Christianity, by Rodney Stark, which is now available in paperback and has become a surprise bestseller. It is a sociologist looking at how we did it the first time around, and is to my mind a very interesting model of how we are going to do it again, in the first century of the next millennium. Another fascinating book is The Clash of Civilizations, by Samuel Huntington, which talks about the fault lines in post-nation-state and post-ideological world politics. Those divisions tend to go along ethnic, cultural, and religious grounds. It can help us understand the Church's foreign policy vis-à-vis China, Islam and the West, having won a triumph over communism. It is important for Catholics to stand back and look at the Church and the world in the broader historical and cultural context.

Which saints do you propose to men and women today?

The great saint to my mind is not one most people point to: St. Thomas More. There is not enough devotion to him, not enough interest in him, not enough reading about him. A man who was a father, who had two wives — having been a widower — and a number of children. He was a writer, a diplomat, a high state official, a top-notch court lawyer, a novelist, and a man of great wit, humor, graciousness, and sophistication. At the same time, he was a man of great devotion, piety, and mortification. He enjoyed and loved the world but was detached from it, and was willing to die for a principle, for his convictions and beliefs. With all due respect to St. Maximilian Kolbe or St. Thérèse of Lisieux or many other wonderful saints, even though he lived 500 years ago, he is much more a saint for our present moment than anyone else I can think of.

—Raymond de Souza