Conservative Catholics Stoking a ‘Fire’

Times Staff Writer

The shipment of 1,000 specially designed white rosary beads and “chastity commitment” crosses is expected to arrive Friday, just in time for the 13th annual National Catholic Family Conference next weekend in Anaheim.

Along with the $20 rosaries and crosses that range from $8 to $15, those attending the conference can spend $17 on a two-CD set containing 20 rosary meditations on purity. All are designed to encourage teenagers and their parents to pray daily -- to Jesus through his mother, Mary -- for a chaste Catholic life, including no sex outside of marriage and a commitment to actively oppose abortion.

“The Catholic faith is a hard faith to live in, but it’s a great faith to die in,” said Barbara McGuigan, president of Voice of Virtue International, a lay ministry based in Orange County that sells the products. “An unrepentant impure person cannot enter the kingdom of God. Our eternal destiny is at stake.”

That sort of uncompromising statement of traditional theology is part of the point of the conference, which organizers hope will draw a record 9,000 participants from across the country to the Anaheim Convention Center next Saturday and Sunday. Last year, 5,800 people attended the event. The event has moved to Anaheim after being held in Long Beach for years.


Hearing speakers like McGuigan and choosing from nearly 50 sessions, those who attend “are going to get what the church teaches in a very convincing way,” said Terry Barber, president of the Catholic Resource Center, a lay ministry based in West Covina that sponsors the conference. Conference topics include “How to Keep Your Kids Catholic,” “Extra Ecclesia Nulla Salus: Outside the Church, There Is No Salvation” and “A Message to Our Separated Brethren: America’s in Trouble.”

“We’re talking about speakers who are on fire,” Barber said.

The resource center started 24 years ago, distributing tapes of Fulton J. Sheen, the bishop from Syracuse, N.Y., whose radio and television broadcasts espousing traditional theology made him a prominent figure in the Catholic Church until his death in 1979.

Today, the conferences operate with the permission of the local bishop, who reviews the topics and occasionally asks that a controversial presentation -- such as one dealing with apparitions -- be stricken from the program.

The ministry’s independent nature and conservative theology bother some in the U.S. church.

“It’s troubling to me that there’s this move to create a parallel culture,” said Father Thomas Rausch, a theology professor at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles.

“What they are really saying is that they’re not getting true teachings of the church” in their home churches. “And that’s too bad. It reflects a loss of confidence they have in the leadership of the church.”

Barber doesn’t disagree.

“People are not getting the teachings of the church” at the local parishes, Barber said. “We’d like to go out of business. We’re just trying to respond to a need the church has: giving [parishioners] convincing reasons for their faith and giving them hope.”

This year’s conference will kick off with Scott Hahn, a former Presbyterian minister who is a regular on the Catholic bestsellers’ list with such books as “The Lamb’s Supper: The Mass as Heaven on Earth” and “Rome Sweet Home.”

Other speakers include Alex Jones, a former Pentecostal pastor in Detroit who converted to Catholicism -- along with 64 of his congregants -- on Easter 2001, and Father Michael Manning, the only Catholic priest with a show on the Trinity Broadcasting Network, which generally features Protestant charismatics.

Ramona Rosales, 37, of Burbank said a Catholic Resource Center conference gave her hope for her troubled marriage.

She and her husband had two children at the time, and had tried counseling and long talks with friends, only to be given the same advice: “Give it up. You have done everything you could do.”

“We couldn’t find anyone who would tell us to fight for our marriage and family,” Rosales said. Then she and her husband attended a conference in 1994 and heard the speakers relay advice from the apostle Paul: Wives, submit to your spouse. Husbands, love your wife like Christ loves the church, even to the point of dying for it.

“God’s clearly given us a blueprint for marriage,” said Rosales, who now works with her husband full time for the ministry. She said she didn’t bristle at the biblical advice, which differs from contemporary notions of equal marital partnerships.

“It was like the scales were lifted from my eyes,” she said. “Both of us had given in to a lot of secular notions of putting ourselves first instead of our marriage. I have no doubt that without a conference, we would be just another sad statistic.”

Barber, 46, said the organization, along with its sister ministry, St. Joseph Communications, now has 37 employees and takes in about $5 million a year. Communal prayers are said in the office each workday at noon and 3 p.m., times when the phones are put on hold.

Today, the ministries’ emphasis is on Catholic evangelism through radio broadcasts, books, tapes, speakers and conferences that both promote an orthodox view of the faith and give a detailed defense of Catholic traditions, a discipline known as apologetics.

Barber, a former real estate broker, uses a business model that offers a gift -- say, a book or videotape -- to hook customers, who then get follow-up letters asking for donations.

“We get more money from giving away things than we would by selling them,” said Barber, who hung a 40-foot-long sign on the center’s West Covina building inviting drivers on the adjacent San Bernardino Freeway to stop in for such a gift.

Last year, the ministry gave away 15,000 video copies of “The Splendor of the Church,” author Hahn’s response to the Catholic sexual abuse scandal.

Hahn, Barber and others involved with the Catholic Resource Center believe that the laity will bring reform to the Catholic church, scandalized with molestations by priests, cover-ups of the crimes by bishops and divisions over doctrine.

“Every 500 years, the church goes through a purification because it walked away from the cross of Christ,” Barber said. “We have had an infiltration into the church.... The smoke of Satan has entered the church. By that I mean liberalism.”