You wouldn’t expect Hillary Clinton’s staff and senior supporters to think very highly of conservative Catholics. But reading their own words, when they don’t think anyone else will ever see them, is still jarring.
“Many of the most powerful elements of the conservative movement are all Catholic (many converts) … They must be attracted to the systematic thought and severely backwards gender relations and must be totally unaware of Christian democracy.”
That exasperated outburst came from John Halpin, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, in an exchange with Jennifer Palmieri, Hillary Clinton’s director of communications.
Palmieri responded that she believes that many well-connected conservatives are Catholic because they think it’s “the most socially acceptable politically conservative religion. Their rich friends wouldn’t understand if they became evangelicals.”
We learned about this conversation when WikiLeaks recently dumped thousands of emails pilfered from John Podesta, a long-time ally of the Clinton family and chairman of Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign.
Halpin and Palmieri’s comments were written back in 2011, long before Mrs Clinton second run for the presidency. Even so they were revealing.
But the WikiLeaks hack also contained an even more intriguing exchange, between Podesta himself and Sandy Newman, founder and president of a liberal charity called Voices for Progress.
On February 10, 2012, Newman wrote to Podesta, rankled by US bishops who opposed mandatory coverage of contraception by insurance companies. “There needs to be a Catholic Spring,” he said, “in which Catholics themselves demand the end of a Middle Ages dictatorship and the beginning of a little democracy and respect for gender equality in the Catholic church.”
He continued: “I have not thought at all about how one would ‘plant the seeds of the revolution,’ or who would plant them. Just wondering…”
Podesta, who is a practising Catholic, responded: “We created Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good to organize for a moment like this. But I think it lacks the leadership to do so now. Likewise Catholics United. Like most Spring movements, I think this one will have to be bottom up.”
It’s hardly surprising that liberal activists would create organisations devoted to left-wing goals. But these comments should open up fresh debate about the use of religious groups for political ends – and the often close relationship between a small circle of powerful Democrats and liberal Catholic groups.
Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good (CACG) was founded in 2006 to promote Catholic social teaching. The organisation’s current executive director, Christopher Hale, has responded strongly to the controversy, declaring in a press release that “contrary to what others have said, my colleagues and I would never try to divide the Church against itself for political ends”.
In a telephone interview with the Catholic Herald, Hale said that he became the leader of CACG in December 2013, and that whatever the group’s origins, he wants to “challenge the orthodoxies” of both sides so they can be “better stewards of the common good.”
He added: “The language of the alleged stolen emails does not represent what we’ve done at CACG under my leadership.”
Still, the organisation’s closer relationship to the Democratic Party in its early years is undeniable. The group’s first chair was Elizabeth Frawley Bagley, an important Democratic Party fundraiser; her late husband, the tobacco heir Smith Bagley, was an influential figure in Democratic politics as a donor, fundraiser and strategist. He was also president of the Arca Foundation, a left-wing charity opposed to many aspects of traditional Catholic teaching. In 2006, Arca had the same address as CACG.
One of CACG’s earliest employees was Chris Korzen, who worked as its director of communications. Along with James Salt, Korzen co-founded Catholics United, the other group Podesta mentioned in his leaked email. Hale said that since 2015 the two organisations have merged. They now operate as one entity under his leadership.
After their founding, both groups were active in promoting public policy that conservative Catholics and the Church hierarchy oppose. They were supporters of President Barack Obama’s healthcare legislation, for example, which bishops rejected for its possible funding of abortion and contraception mandates.
The groups also worked together during the 2008 election season, when many Catholic voters were torn over the Democratic Party’s support for abortion.
In 2010, CACG apparently went dormant, closing its offices and ceasing most activities, as a member of its advisory board told the Catholic News Agency at the time. The group has since resumed its mission, operating out of an office in Washington, DC.
Since then, CACG has broken with the Democratic Party on several occasions, opposing the federal mandate for contraception coverage and asking why Democrats won’t speak out over Planned Parenthood’s alleged sale of baby body parts.
The Podesta emails point to a more radical origin, however. CACG in particular received ample funding from billionaire financier George Soros, who controls a vast charitable empire dedicated to progressive causes and Democratic politics.
In 2005-6, for instance, Soros’s Open Society Institute (now known as Open Society Foundations) gave $50,000 a year to CACG. In 2007-8, the sum rose to $100,000 per year.
However, Hale insists that “since I have been with this organisation, we haven’t received money from the Open Society Institute or Foundations”. Soros’s foundation often gives money to left-leaning Catholic groups – most controversially, Catholics for a Free Choice, whose pro-abortion stance places it outside the Church.
There’s nothing illegal about any of these connections or donations. But they reveal the influence Soros and a small circle of donors have over smaller progressive groups.
They also reveal how readily the Catholic Left takes money from secularist groups and individuals like Soros, an atheist whose only possible interest in religion is political expediency.
This summer, a group called DC Leaks revealed that Soros’s Open Society Foundations (OSF) donated $650,000 to two groups: PICO Network and Faith in Public Life (FPL). The leaked documents show OSF’s desire to leverage Pope Francis’s visit to the US in September 2015 – both to push the Church leftwards and influence the 2016 presidential election. “In order to seize this moment, we will support PICO’s organising activities to engage the pope on economic and racial justice issues, including the influence of Cardinal Rodriguez, the pope’s senior advisor,” one document says.
An OSF memo from February 2016 lays out a plan to urge “buy-in of individual bishops to more publicly voice support of economic and racial justice messages in order to begin to create a critical mass of bishops who are aligned with the Pope.”
The documents disturbed many conservative Catholics. Fr Robert Sirico, founder of the Acton Institute, wrote that Soros has only “crass political intentions” toward Catholics he sees as “useful idiots”.
Many high-ranking Catholics feel the same. Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia, generally regarded as a conservative, has criticised CACG. And this month, he recalled a 2008 meeting with Catholics United activists, whom he described as “obvious flacks for the Obama campaign and the Democratic Party – creatures of a political machine, not men of the Church, less concerned with Catholic teaching than with its influence.”
Other bishops may not be so worried, however. Podesta has friends in the hierarchy; he’s also a visiting professor at the Catholic Georgetown University, which indicates that he is pretty well embedded in institutional Catholicism.
The reaction to the WikiLeaks revelations is turning into something of a litmus test: Catholic liberals play them down while conservatives play them up. As such, the affair is yet more evidence of the “culture war” within American Catholicism – a war that, with Pope Francis’s award of a cardinal’s hat to the broadly progressive Archbishop Blase Cupich of Chicago but not to Archbishop Chaput, the liberals believe they are winning.
But wherever the bishops are placed on the theological and political spectrum, WikiLeaks have surely made life harder for all of them. We now know that the Democratic Party is targeting Catholic opinion, operating through activist groups whose religious credentials are open to question. The term “Trojan Horse” is being bandied about.
This information was not supposed to come out. Now that it has, the pressure on the American Church to disclose its precise relationship with these groups is certain to intensify.