Napa Institute gathers US church's well-heeled and high-ranking devout

Cardinal James Harvey leads a eucharistic procession July 24 during the Napa Institute in Napa Valley, Calif. (Photos courtesy of the Napa Institute/Neezar Samara)

Napa Valley, Calif. — The Napa Institute is a remarkable mix of religious retreat, networking opportunity, strategy session, wine-tasting vacation, immersion catechetics, pep rally and keyhole glimpse at the U.S. traditionalist Catholic superstructure.

Held at the elegant Meritage Resort and Spa in Napa in late July, it is a gathering of the well-heeled and the high-ranking of both church and economic achievement. It does not pretend to be "big tent" Catholicism, although its outlook is expansive.

Napa Institute participants -- officially 366 at this year's fourth annual July 24-27 -- are conservative, knees-on-stone-floor, pious Catholics. The people I met there -- and those I knew before attending -- are good people. Fun. Solid. Caring. Well-read and well-educated. Very serious about their Catholic faith. "Devout," to use the media's default word.

And savvy.

The institute's target audience is clearly spelled out in its strategic plan for 2014-16: "bishops [who want] to get away and reflect on critical issues in the company of other Catholics"; "Catholic professionals (diocesan staff, leaders of Catholic apostolates or institutions)"; and "affluent Catholic leaders who love the Church and want to be better informed to support and carry out the mission of the Church."

Visit EarthBeat, NCR's new reporting project that explores the ways Catholics and other faith groups are taking action on the climate crisis.

The aim is a mobilization to better equip these Catholics for their role in "the next America," a phrase used by Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput in a 2010 essay in the journal First Things. The essay inspired the formation of the Napa Institute.

"The next America" is broadly defined as a secular culture with little time for religious questions and even less interest in hearing what Catholic teaching might bring to bear in the public forum.

A central institute mantra is that attendees are being instructed and inspired, fine-tuned and focused to boldly defend Catholic principles in the civic arena. Marquee issues include defense of religious freedom, traditional marriage and the unborn.

Meanwhile, the institute also provides those who pay the registration fee -- $1,700 this year, $2,000 next year (room and travel not included) -- access to high-ranking churchmen. And it provides a setting for organizations -- such as colleges, pro-life organizations, Catholic media outlets and religious orders -- to place their apostolates and financial needs in front of those who have means.

Napa Institute officials generously allowed this reporter to attend the plenary and breakout sessions at no cost.

In 2014, the list of accessible ecclesiastics included two U.S. cardinals, plus more than a dozen bishops and archbishops.

The cardinals were William Levada and James Harvey, respectively the immediate past prefects of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and the papal household.

The archbishops included the president of the U.S. bishops' conference, Joseph Kurtz of Louisville, Ky., as well as Chaput, Salvatore Cordileone of San Francisco and Thomas Wenski of Miami.

As institute co-founder and organizer Tim Busch told first-timers during an orientation session, "in-your-face Catholicism" would be the order of the day.

It was. But it was often Catholicism closely aligned to what many might associate with another era -- solemn liturgies, nuns in full habit, a muscular emphasis on confession, a hint of triumphalism in the air. Rosary, benediction, exposition of the Blessed Sacrament, eucharistic procession.

Deeply devotional and traditionalist Catholicism was the point. On each of the four main days of the conference (Thursday through Sunday) there were at least five Masses one could attend, with the opportunity on all but Sunday to celebrate the Eucharist in Latin -- in either the extraordinary (Tridentine) form or the novus ordo.

Space and time were reserved each day for persons to take part in the rite of reconciliation ("confession" in the program) and spiritual direction.

Attendees will tell you that these sacramental and pious practices help nurture habits of holiness and a reverence for the church, its teaching authority, and its doctrines, as well as the grace to follow them. Many lament what they see as a church culture that does not better engender this.

The institute's website summarizes, "By leading participants to a deeper understanding of the truth behind the faith, the Napa Institute emboldens Catholics to live and defend their faith with a peaceful confidence that is borne out of solid formation, fellowship and spiritual enrichment."

Compelling apologetics

The "solid formation" element is impressive. This year's 11 plenary gatherings and myriad breakout sessions featured well-prepared speakers and scholars who delivered articulate presentations on the conference's three themes -- faith and reason, economic justice, and faith and beauty.

For example, Jesuit Fr. Robert Spitzer, the institute's co-founder and president, delivered one of the most compelling apologetics for the existence of God and the ensuing path to worshiping Jesus in the Catholic church (in about a half hour) that I have heard. Spitzer is a former Gonzaga University president who now heads the Magis Center of Reason and Faith in Garden Grove, Calif.

Other presentations included:

  • Jonathan Reyes on "The Church and Economic Justice Through the Centuries." Reyes, former head of Catholic Charities in the Denver archdiocese, now heads the U.S. bishops' Department of Justice, Peace and Human Development.
  • Scripture scholar Tim Gray's "The Bible and Economic Justice." Gray is a Napa Institute board member and president of the Denver-based Augustine Institute.
  • Poet Dana Gioia's "The Great Divorce: Catholicism and the Arts." Gioia was chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts from 2003 to 2009.
  • Author Joseph Pearce's "How Literature Shapes the Christian Character." Pearce directs the Center for Faith and Culture at Aquinas College in Nashville, Tenn.

An 11-DVD collection of the plenary presentations, as well as some liturgies and breakout sessions, has been compiled, a cooperative effort with Eternal Word Television Network, which recorded the addresses and has already aired some. Videos of the gathering were on the EWTN website. Many are also accessible on YouTube.

Interestingly, not one of the Napa plenary addresses was delivered by a woman. Nor were any of the breakout sessions female-led. There was a "special panel" on "Faith and the Feminine Genius in the Public Square." The facilitator and the four panelists were women, two of them mother superiors. It was scheduled concurrently with nine other breakout sessions.

The Napa Institute's genesis seems largely rooted in Legatus, an organization of "top-tier" Catholic executives in which Busch is active.

Launched by Domino Pizza magnate Tom Monaghan in 1987, Legatus "offers a unique support network of like-minded Catholics who influence the world marketplace and have the ability to practice and infuse their faith in the daily lives and workplaces of their family, friends, colleagues and employees," explains its website.

Underline "like-minded" and "top-tier" and "ability to practice and infuse." Legatus does not recruit the manager of the local grocery store, but rather the grocery store chain's CEO or owner.

The founding president of the Denver Legatus Chapter, John Saeman, and his wife, Carol, raised eyebrows in late November when they penned a Washington Post op-ed that said their belief in Pope Francis' vision of Catholic social teaching motivates their activities in Catholic charities and also motivates their financial support for Freedom Partners, a nonprofit founded by billionaires Charles and David Koch to defend the free market system.

"For us, promoting limited government alongside the Kochs is an important part of heeding Pope Francis's call to love and serve the poor," the Saemans wrote.

Legatus' more than 4,000 members in more than 80 chapters embrace a traditionalist orthodoxy. These financial leaders are very aware they have the resources to make flourish what they subsidize. No bones made about it.

Same in Napa. It was self-evident that sponsors and their many booths were there to be seen and heard and, with luck, find patrons. Every plenary session had a sponsor that was given a few minutes at the beginning to make a pitch. These appeals were universally informative and well-done.

"Platinum" sponsors included Legatus, the Pontifical North American College, FOCUS (Fellowship of Catholic University Students), Ignatius Press, the National Organization for Marriage and the Papal Foundation.

The Papal Foundation's chief operating officer William Canny urged "giving until it hurts" to the organization, and a Foundation supporter* seemed to make it clear that doing so can pave the way to special access to places within the Vatican and perhaps even the opportunity to meet the pope. 

It should be mentioned that the Napa Institute's high-energy co-founder, Busch, is also founder and CEO of the Irvine, Calif.-based Pacific Hospitality Group, which owns and operates the four-star-plus Meritage, site of the annual assembly.

Faith and finances

Is staging a high-end conference at his own resort a conflict of interest for Busch? Or is it a conscientious coalescing of resources that allows the organization to "comp" some clergy and religious, as well as provide subsidized registration for others? A bit of both?

The mesh of finance and faith life are part and parcel of the institute. Take, for example, the promotion and generous access to Napa-based Trinitas Cellars' wine offerings during the institute. Founded by Busch and his wife, Steph, in 2002, Trinitas operates a major tasting facility at the Meritage. Trinitas CEO is now the Buschs' son, Garrett, who oversees winery management with his wife, Betsy.

Trinitas has a zinfandel named after Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI ("RatZINger," $35 a bottle) and a 2012 red labeled "Cabernet FRANCis" ($75 a bottle). Busch himself presented Francis with "Cabernet FRANCis" last April and says the pontiff has requested more.

The two products are part of what Trinitas (Latin for "Trinity") promotes as some of its "faith-based wines" which also include a "Psalms" white blend, a "Rose'ary" rosé, and a "Father Mathew Cabernet."

Another example is a promotion launched in November called Clergy Hospitality (www.clergyhospitality.org). A joint effort of the Napa Institute and the Pacific Hospitality Group, the program offers "a free night's stay for priests and bishops at one of our participating resorts," which for now are the Meritage and Busch's Bacara Resort and Spa in Goleta, Calif., near Santa Barbara.

"Our only requirement is that the priest or bishop say a daily Mass for the hotel in one of our chapels," states an explanatory email, pointing out that both the Meritage and Bacara have "fully equipped Roman Catholic chapels established by the ordinaries of the dioceses."

Those ordinaries are Santa Rosa Bishop Robert Vasa and Los Angeles Archbishop José Gomez. Both are members of the Napa Institute Ecclesiastical Advisory Board.

Last month, Busch and institute executive director John Meyer traveled to Rome for a biblical conference on the family, "saw Pope Francis and had dinner with many of our leading cardinals ... Levada, Harvey, Stafford, Wuerl and Schonborn," reports a Dec. 8 institute email. (Cardinal Christoph Schönborn of Vienna is a scheduled speaker for the July 30-Aug. 2, 2015, Napa conference. Topics will be "The Family," "Catechism and Culture" and "Faith and Reason: Moral Relativism.")

During the 2014 conference, the economic justice track was particularly interesting in light of the average participant's prosperity, the four-star-plus setting and Francis' 2013 apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium, which pulls no punches in its critique of unrestricted free-market economics and its exhortation for the people of God to seek lives of simplicity and service to the poor.

In private conversations and in open discussion during some breakout sessions, some participants pulled no punches about their displeasure with elements of Evangelii Gaudium, notably its unvarnished critique of any economic system that "tends to devour everything which stands in the way of increased profits" and where "whatever is fragile, like the environment, is defenseless before the interests of a deified market."

Part of the Napa Institute's three-year strategic plan is to expand beyond its annual summer conference by hosting "2-4 symposiums a year in collaboration with other institutions in the Midwest, South, and East."

The institute has organized three symposiums in the last two years:

  • In partnership with The Catholic University of America's new School of Business and Economics, the institute hosted an invitation-only gathering themed "Liberty and Solidarity: A Conference on Catholic Social Doctrine and the Economy" on the university's campus in Washington Sept. 24-25. Speakers included the business school's dean, Andrew Abela, who emphasized the economic value of the family. Cardinal Peter Turkson, president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, was present. The cost was $1,500 per person, exclusive of accommodations and travel.
  • On Oct. 15, the Third Annual Symposium and Dinner in New York was held in Greenwich Village and included presentations on the struggles of Christians in the Middle East and an address by Siobhan Nash-Marshall, the Mary T. Clark Chair of Christian Philosophy at Manhattanville College.
  • In September 2013, the institute convened a complimentary symposium at the University of Notre Dame, "Religious Freedom Under Obamacare: Can and Should For-Profit Businesses Claim Conscientious Objector Status?" Co-organizers included Notre Dame's David Potenziani Program in Constitutional Studies and its Tocqueville Program for Inquiry Into Religion and Public Life. Speakers included Bishop Robert Morlino of Madison, Wis., and William McGurn, a chief speechwriter for President George W. Bush and current editorial page editor of the New York Post.

The strategic plan also calls for fostering "other gatherings such as religious pilgrimages with intellectual content, spiritual engagement and fellowship."

In 2013, the institute sponsored a pilgrimage to the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City led by Gomez that promised "five-star accommodations" and "behind-the-scenes opportunity to venerate the miraculous image of Our Lady of Guadalupe on St. Juan Diego's Tilma."

A pilgrimage to the Holy Land scheduled for April 2015 has been moved back to April 2016.

Economic justice

The institute program in July focused on economic justice. Evangelii Gaudium set the backdrop.

Chaput directly addressed the exhortation in a talk titled, "Pope Francis and Economic Justice."

"The Holy Father knows poverty and violence. He knows the plague of corrupt politics and oppressive governments. He's seen the cruelty of human trafficking and other forms of exploitation. He's seen elites who rig the political system in their favor and keep the poor in poverty," Chaput said.

He added: "When we Americans think about economics, we think in terms of efficiency and production. When Francis thinks about economics, he thinks in terms of human suffering. We're blessed to live in a rich, free, stable country. We can't always see what Francis sees."

Other presenters and participants articulated a similar line -- that Francis was not necessarily chastising the U.S. economic system in Evangelii Gaudium, but rather less regulated, more freewheeling markets.

Chaput was candid: "I should make a couple of obvious points about Francis. The first is that not everyone's happy with him."

"What Francis says about economic justice may be hard for some of us to hear," the archbishop explained. "So we need to read the Holy Father's writings for ourselves, without the filter of the mass media. Then we need to open our hearts to what God is telling us through his words."

Later in the address, Chaput added, "In matters of economic justice, Francis' concerns are the same as Benedict's and John Paul II's, and Pius XI's and Leo XIII's. He understands economic matters through the lens of church teaching in the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church."

During one of the bishops' panel discussions, Wenski also alluded to the challenges to understanding and articulating the Francis papacy, quipping that the current pontiff has at times "given heartburn to priests, bishops and a good number of the faithful."

Wenski underscored the importance of embracing Francis' insistence on a concrete, person-to-person evangelization that rests on Catholics' walking in faith with others and being an example of Christ-like living more than preaching or verbal catechizing. "Too many of our bishops" can appear "too cerebral," he said, "and instead of sounding like Jesus, they sound like the Pharisees."

"What concretely does Francis believe about economic justice?" Chaput asked, then answered: "He's never offered his systematic thoughts about it or the policies that promote it. And, frankly, we can sense some ambiguity in his thinking. When he calls for a better distribution of wealth among social classes, he doesn't say how this should be done and what a proper distribution would look like, or who will decide who gets what. But he'd probably say that he's giving us the principles of a rightly ordered social and economic life as the Catholic church understands them, and that the church gives to laypeople, and especially those called to public service, the job of best applying those principles in each nation."

Is that last, long sentence code for a government-dominated economic system? Chaput did not say that. But way more than a handful of Napa attendees obviously had heard Francis that way.

During an "Economic Justice Roundtable" following his address, Chaput said church teaching sees a fundamental role for government in establishing economic justice, while at the same time not trumping "individual freedom" or "having government make decisions" proper to individuals.

While Chaput pointed out that church teaching is "not Republican or Democratic," it is fair to say Democrats in the Napa crowd would be rare. Ample evidence of that was on display during a lunch when 2012 GOP presidential contender, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, delivered a campaign ferverino in which he entreated those present to dedicate themselves to the "conservative movement." He received a sustained, standing ovation.

In his address on Scripture and economic justice, Gray said the jubilee year legislative texts that are found in Deuteronomy and Leviticus lay the groundwork for understanding how to address "breaking the cycle of poverty." And, Gray underscored, the Sermon on the Mount stands as the "Magna Carta of social justice."

"If we lost all of the New Testament," Gray said, "and just had the Sermon on the Mount, it would be sufficient to live a Christian life well, and know who we should be as Christians."

Catholics need to "look poverty, addiction and brokenness in the face" and embrace that "social justice is not just one thing among many, but at the heart of evangelization," Gray said.

In short, the scholar said, the Scriptures leave no wiggle room for serving both God and mammon, for looking away from the poor, for not sharing "in proportion" to one's state in life, even if it is meager.

Meager did not apply at the Napa Institute. However, struggling with the most moral use of affluence did, and heads in the audience nodded when Gray said, "The number one impediment to generosity is fear of the future."

To overcome that, he said, a person must develop a "filial trust" in God and believe what Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount about not being anxious because "your Father knows your needs."

MORE: EWTN an ambitious media partner for the Napa Institute

*An earlier version of this story incorrectly attributed a statement to Canny that was made by a foundation supporter during the same presentation. NCR apologizes for this error.

[Dan Morris-Young is NCR West Coast correspondent. His email address is dmyoung@ncronline.org.]

This story appeared in the Dec 19, 2014-Jan 1, 2015 print issue under the headline: ‘In-your-face Catholicism' .

Join the Conversation

Send your thoughts and reactions to Letters to the Editor. Learn more here

Advertisement