The Catholic email scandal is no scandal

by Michael Sean Winters

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When Wikileaks announced it had damaging documents that would harm the candidacy of Hillary Clinton -- "change the whole complexion of the race," predicted longtime GOP operative and longtime Trump confidant Roger Stone -- I was worried, but not overmuch. I hoped that most people knew Julian Assange, who runs Wikileaks, was an anarchist and would consider the source. Then, I remembered that Trump had managed to secure the nomination of a major party from "most people" in the GOP, and I grew worried. I should not have been. 

The supposed "bigotry" towards the Catholic Church exposed in the emails of Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta, released by Wikileaks last week, is nothing of the sort, despite the best attempts of some to make it so. This whole controversy is simply an effort, a stupid effort, to stop Clinton's ascent to the White House. I say stupid because crying "wolf" is never a smart political or cultural strategy and, besides, anyone who is genuinely concerned about bigotry could not possibly be supporting Trump. This is about Republican operatives who hold the portfolio for Catholic outreach doing their part to ingratiate themselves with Trump.

There were several comments in the emails that caused a stir. One was from a non-Catholic who thought there needed to be a "revolution" within the Catholic Church. Podesta responds by mentioning the creation of Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good and Catholics United. Those organizations were founded in the wake of the 2004 election during which prominent bishops like the Archbishop of St. Louis at the time, now Cardinal Ray Burke, said he would not permit Democratic presidential candidate Sen. John Kerry to receive communion in his archdiocese and Archbishop Charles Chaput, then of Denver and now in Philadelphia, hurled frequent criticisms at the Massachusetts senator with not much in the way of objection to President George W. Bush or his war. Neither group ever extended its influence beyond the Beltway, which is always the key to long-term success within the Beltway, but the effort to create these organizations flowed from a concern by many Catholics that our Church had been turned into an arm of the Republican National Committee. Many, including myself, felt that this conflation of Catholicism with Republicanism was bad for the nation's politics and really, really bad for the Catholic Church.

So, what is the problem? I thought we lay Catholics were supposed to bring our Catholic faith into the public square? The problem is that there are some in the Church, clerics and laity, who thought they owned the Church and certainly they ambitioned to be the only voice of the Catholic Church in the public and political arena. Bishops like Burke, Chaput, Naumann, and Aquila may state their case with different points of emphasis but they aim at the same result: To be a good Catholic in America today means voting for Republicans. (See NCR's editorial posted this morning.)

Additionally, there are people who have become pilots through the estuary where politics and the Church meet, people like Carl Anderson, who was Catholic liaison in the Reagan administration and now heads the Knights of John Paul II, oops, I mean Columbus, and former Vatican ambassador Jim Nicholson, now a Trump surrogate. Anderson funds a variety of right-wing projects and Nicholson is always good for a quote: He said the Wikileaks emails "offended me as a Catholic -- it left me gasping to hear them say these things in such a shameful, callous way." Huh? Political operatives talking about politics? Imagine that.

The other email exchange getting a lot of attention, and what is offending Nicholson, was between John Halpin at the Center for American Progress and Jennifer Palmieri at the Clinton campaign. Both Halpin and Palmieri are Catholics and neither has ever struck me as the self-hating kind, so the charge of bigotry seems misplaced. As for the charge of speaking in a "shameful" or "callous" way? Discussing the prominence of some Catholics in the conservative political movement, Halpin wrote, "It's an amazing bastardization of the faith." He added, "They must be attracted to the systematic thought and severely backwards gender relations and must be totally unaware of Christian democracy." One Catholic political operative talking about the intersection of religion and politics to another Catholic political operative? Again, this is not news.

The real question, however, is not if this is news but if it is true. Has the right-wing attempt to co-opt Catholicism for the Republican Party been a bastardization of the faith? Was Halpin right? Yes, and in two regards, one that is commonly acknowledged and the other of which is more important but less often grasped. First, conservative Catholics have every right to be Republicans, to try and play their faith in ways that correspond to their conscience, to reach conclusions that might differ from that of more liberal Catholics. They sometimes leave aside certain concerns that I think are central to the relevance of our faith at this time in history, but as Halpin said in explaining the context of the email, there are those on the left who do the same. The bastardization came when conservative Catholics claimed theirs was the only acceptable application of faith. Second, by aiding the reduction of faith to morals, these conservative Catholics have unwittingly been agents of the very same secularization they claim to oppose. As soon as our faith is no longer about the empty tomb of Jesus Christ, it has no claims to authority and people will walk away.

If you are looking for a contemporary example of bastardization of the faith, listen to this audio of Marjorie Dannenfelser, head of the pro-life political organization Susan B. Anthony List, one of Trump's most fluent shills. She is talented at selling her snake oil to be sure, and no moral qualm will keep her from supporting the Donald. Her organization has done more than any other to blow up the bi-partisan pro-life coalition in Congress, which had been successful at defending the Hyde Amendment that Dannenfesler is so concerned about.  In the 2010 election, Susan B. Anthony List equated a vote for the Affordable Care Act with a vote for federally funded abortion, which it was not. This lie was effective and, as a consequence, some very important pro-life Democrats did not win re-election, a loss that is felt more deeply than ever as the prospect of a Congress in Democratic control looms. Note to bishops: If Dannenfesler is on the stage at next January's March for Life, refuse to attend. She harms the cause you care about more than any pro-choice advocate ever could. 

This leads to one observation I have from reading the leaked emails: Clinton's team is a lot smarter than their GOP counterparts and the U.S. bishops are well advised to stop listening to the people who have tried to drag them into the rabbit hole of opposing all gay rights, of refusing to cut a deal on the contraception mandate, and of misrepresenting the religious liberty issue time and time again.

Alas, some bishops won't listen. Archbishop Charles Chaput posted this column at his archdiocesan newspaper. He again employs this strange, and morally suspect, rhetorical device of putting some of the nasty things he wants to say into the mouths of others and does it twice: 1) "I received the following angry email myself, this one from a nationally respected (non-Catholic) attorney experienced in Church-state affairs" and the archbishop goes on to quote from said email about the "bigotry" of the Podesta exchange; and 2) a friend describes the choice facing voters in November this way: A vulgar, boorish lout and disrespecter of women with a serious impulse control problem; or a scheming, robotic liar with a lifelong appetite for power and an entourage riddled with anti-Catholic bigots." Who talks this way? Weren't we all taught as teenagers that invoking someone else's words to distance ourselves from the taint of leveling such a harsh charge, while nonetheless repeating that charge, is cowardly? 

More importantly, why is Chaput writing these political columns every week? Is he auditioning for a gig as a talking head at Fox News? I don't get it. Does he realize how pitiful it sounds when he complains about his loss of influence and writes, "The cultural damage done by the current White House has -- apparently -- made courting America's bishops unnecessary." Cultural damage? As opposed to Nixon? Vietnam? Reagan's blessing excessive displays of wealth?

Halpin called it when he wrote "So, I'm a progressive Catholic who was reacting in a private email to the arguments of leading conservatives who often misuse Catholicism to defend their agenda. Liberals can be just as guilty of this as conservatives. That's what makes Catholic social teaching powerful  --  it doesn't fit squarely within in any one party or ideological movement." If only some of our lay conservative friends recognized this. If only all of our bishops recognized this.

[Michael Sean Winters is NCR Washington columnist and a visiting fellow at Catholic University's Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies.]

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