This year’s Napa Institute conference, held at the ritzy Meritage Resort and Spa in Napa, Calif., was something of a cultural, half-human, half-beast minotaur, according to my colleague Brian Fraga, who caught the short straw and watched the proceedings from a distance. The usual peddling of cultural fear that is the hallmark of the American right now mixes with the triumphalism that the US Supreme Court had overturned deer v. Wade.
“We live in a time when catastrophically bad ideas are circulating everywhere,” warned Msgr. James Shea, president of the University of Mary in Bismarck, North Dakota.
“Transgender is the latest manifestation of a long struggle to liberate us from nature itself, from the limits of human biology through technology and social change,” complained Aaron Kheriarty, ethics and policy researcher public.
The cultural sky is always down when conservative Catholics get together for a group fret, at least when it comes to matters of pelvic theology. And other cultural concerns—with moral significance and ripe for Christian scrutiny—never seem to make a difference: Whatever else you might say about a Napa Institute event, the rich don’t get sent away empty!
This year’s dire preaching was offset by excitement over the United States Supreme Court’s decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization. “The morale of Catholics has never been so high, and the reason: because Roe vs. Wade has been overthrown,” said an elated Tim Busch, owner of the Meritage Resort, co-founder of the Napa Institute and vowed to bring his brand of libertarian economics to the Vatican. Busch urged the group to take the pro-life struggle to all 50 states, but, unsurprisingly, Busch sees it as just a political fight. He is totally insensitive to the costs to culture and the communion of faith that his cultural warrior approach imposes.
Former Attorney General William Barr addressed the group, advising them to take a deliberate approach to the abortion issue as it moves through legislatures. But Barr repeated some of the historical nonsense he apparently believes about the American foundation.
“In my speech from Notre Dame, I basically pointed out that our great Anglo-American, liberal, democratic system, which required centuries of careful development from so many sources in the Western tradition, from classical Christian thought , the moderate Enlightenment, the British system and so on, in my mind reaches its highest expression in the American Constitution. And, it is founded on the foundation of Christianity. It supposes a robust people animated by Christian moral values”, Barr said at the Napa event.
It’s nonsense on stilts, as I pointed out after his 2019 speech at the University of Notre Dame.
On the other hand, I was pleasantly surprised to hear Barr describe the work of former White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney as akin to that of a lion tamer in the cage with the lion. He specifically praised Mulvaney for his post-January. 6 place. (Mulvaney has distanced himself from Donald Trump.)
Barr also complained that Trump called him a RINO, a Republican in name only. The attempt to distance themselves from the former president does not excuse the years of complicity, but it is nevertheless preferable to the position of Raymond Arroyo and Laura Ingraham of slavishly following the scenarios that come from Mar-a-Lago.
The annual event always includes wine tastings and cigar receptions. At $2,700 a head, I hope the wines and cigars were pretty good. Other conservative Catholic groups, such as Legatus, Franciscan University of Steubenville, and Catholic University’s Busch School of Business, sponsor a luncheon or rosary during the conference. In a nod to clericalism, priests and religious get a 50% discount and bishops attend the event for free.
A reception this year caught my eye. One evening after the “Tastes of Eastern Europe – Stations and Pasture Dinner” event, there was a “private reception sponsored by the National Eucharistic Revival”. It’s curious. The National Eucharistic Revival is sponsored by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), that is, by men who have pledged obedience to the pope. The Napa Institute conference is known for the centrality it gives to pre-Vatican II Mass celebrations and it is well known to all bishops that the Holy Father is currently engaged in an effort to redirect part lousy ecclesiology produced by devotion to the old rite. Why would the episcopal conference organize a private reception during such an event at such a time?
They did not do it. Chieko Noguchi, director of public affairs at USCCB, told NCR in an email that the reception “was not an official USCCB event” and that “no USCCB funds were been spent”. Was Bishop Andrew Cozzens, chairman of the USCCB evangelism committee and resource person for the Eucharistic revival, independent?
Conservative Christians have every right to meet to fellowship. They have as much right to pursue pro-life political strategies as liberal Catholics have the right to pursue pro-immigration and pro-environment policies.
The problem with the Napa Institute’s approach is twofold. First, it carves out the parts of the Catholic moral imagination that don’t match their political views. There is no consistent life ethic here. Second, it reduces the struggle of faith, the interplay of grace and sin, to a political equation controlled by humans. There is no place for the divine, even less for an irenic divinity, poor and ready to accept unjust suffering.
These flaws can also be found on the Christian left, but at least the left isn’t gossiping about its political cutbacks while sipping expensive wine at a multimillion-dollar resort, rushing to cigar receptions and Tridentine masses. . The United States Constitution may not be the “highest expression” of Western thought, but the Napa Institute is the highest expression of a kind of Catholic Lite unique to conservative American plutocrats.
The most interesting dynamic on display at this year’s Napa conference was that their entire narrative hinges on the assumption of cultural decline. The world is still going to hell in a hand basket unless we repent and embrace their cultural fixes.
The Napa Institute involves as much whining as it does wine. Now they’ve won their long-sought goal, and they haven’t figured out how to adjust their storyline. They are like a cat that falls and does not land on all fours, a very rich but very wobbly cat. They have to wrestle with the following question: how do you maintain a culture of grievance when you hold a six-to-three majority on the Supreme Court?