John Podesta’s Catholic connections

The secret is out. As part of Wikileaks’ ongoing leak of the emails of John Podesta, a 2011 email exchange between Podesta and a fellow named Sandy Newman was released. Ordinarily, nothing could be less interesting than the shop talk of a couple of veteran Democratic operatives. However, this email exchange is interesting because it states—it doesn’t suggest, it states—that Podesta was involved in setting up Catholic organizations that, well, putting it charitably, advocate essentially for Democratic viewpoints within the Church. The exchange implies, in fact, that these groups have as a goal undermining the Church’s hierarchy and doctrine. As Podesta’s boss advances toward the White House, the exchange takes on new relevance. And it ultimately ought to give Catholics very serious pause when they evaluate organizations claiming to represent constituencies in the Church.

You can read the whole exchange at Wikileaks, but the thrust of it is this: Newman was complaining to Podesta about the perceived intransigence of the Catholic bishops on the Obamacare contraceptive mandate. Newman called for a “Catholic Spring,” a reference to “Arab Spring” and other similar movements, which conceivably would involve rank-and-file Catholics rising up and demanding that the Church change its infallible teaching regarding contraception. Podesta responded to Newman with something very interesting; he says, “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.” (Emphasis supplied.) A staff reporter from the Catholic Herald provides a very good overview, too, of the emails and the implications.

Podesta is, of course, a major figure in Democratic politics. Currently, he is a top official in Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign. But, before that, he was a player in Bill Clinton’s administration, finally becoming White House chief of staff toward the end of Clinton’s presidency. After that, he was a Democratic lobbyist and think-tank boss. But he remained in the Clintons’ orbit. And when Hillary Clinton announced her current—potentially successful—bid for the presidency, he came on board as the campaign’s chairman. In other words, John Podesta has been a very heavy hitter in Democratic circles for a very long time. And there is, therefore, every reason to believe that Podesta knows what the Democratic establishment has and has not done as far as establishing so-called astroturf (i.e., fake grassroots) organizations. We are not inclined to dismiss Podesta’s statement out of hand.

Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good, which purports to be “[p]romoting Pope Francis’s politics of inclusion throughout the United States,” is led by Christopher Jolly Hale. It takes a range of positions, and generally tries to stake out a pro-life position within the Democratic Party. Catholics United, which does not appear to be a going concern at the moment, was the project of Chris Korzen and James Salt. Based upon publicly available information, it seems to have been largely an advocacy outreach by the Democratic Party to Catholics. For his part, Chris Hale has put out a predictably outraged statement, which reads in part:

When I woke up this morning, I never thought our organization would get caught up in WikiLeaks drama.

Prominent commentators have used a stolen e-mail from 2011 (while I was a 21-year-old college student) about our organization in an attempt to impugn both our integrity and our organization’s work.

So let’s set the record straight: every day, my colleagues and I work tirelessly to promote the social mission of Pope Francis and the Catholic Church in American politics, media, and culture. 

Politics is messy. Lived faith is messy. So this work isn’t always easy. You’re bound to make everyone mad at least once.

(Italics in original; emphasis supplied.) It is, of course, ironic that Hale would claim the mantle of Pope Francis, who, while archbishop of Buenos Aires, was locked in more or less perpetual combat with the president of Argentina. But, for reasons well known to any reader of Semiduplex, the first thing progressive dissenters do when they want to enervate the Church’s teachings is wrap themselves in Francis’s mantum.

But back to the matter at hand. It may be worth noting that at no point in the press release does Hale actually deny Podesta’s statement that Catholics in Alliance was founded by Democratic operatives to advance a Democratic agenda inside the Church. He just claims that he was in college when Podesta wrote the email. This is, of course, a non sequitur. One has very little to do with the other. At any rate, as leader of the organization, Hale ought to know—the Catholic Herald was able to find out, any rate—that Catholics in Alliance was founded in 2005 by Tom Periello. (One assumes that Chris Hale was in high school or whatever then.) Currently its chairman is a man named Fred Rotondaro. The Catholic Herald reports that both Periello and Rotondaro are senior fellows in Podesta’s think tank. In other words, in addition to Podesta having some authority by virtue of his position in Democratic politics, solid reporting shows that Catholics in Alliance was founded by people very close to Podesta. To put it in legal terms, the circumstantial evidence corroborates very strongly Podesta’s statement.

For some reason, Hale neglects to mention this in his press release. Of course, if his best argument is that he was in college when Podesta’s close associates set up an organization Podesta claimed to have set up, we can understand why Hale wouldn’t want to talk about it. But no problem ever went away by ignoring it, and Hale most certainly has a problem.

And Hale’s problem is not limited to the founding of the group. He claims that Catholics in Alliance has no intention of dividing the Church against itself. However, that is not quite the same thing as saying that Catholics in Alliance does not seek to contradict the doctrine of the Church of Rome. In fact, whether Catholics in Alliance exists to undermine the doctrine of the Church is something you’ll have to judge for yourself, after reading the press clippings the group makes available so kindly on its website. Certainly Rotondaro himself, as the Catholic Herald reports, has taken positions in stark contrast to the Church’s, not only on contraception but also on women’s ordination (Hale, of course, is an enthusiastic supporter of deaconesses) and homosexual behavior. In this context, Hale says,

Many of our fellow Catholics disagree with some of our politics. And they should. That’s a sign of a healthy culture within the Church.

But I can say with strong conviction that we love our Catholic faith and the Church. Contrary to what others have said, my colleagues and I would never try to divide the Church against itself for political ends.

Judge us by our fruits. We’ve time and again challenged both Democrats and Republicans—often at some political cost—to be better stewards of the common good.

You can question our politics, but don’t ever question the sincerity of our faith or our love of the Catholic Church.

(Italics in original; emphasis supplied.) We agree with Hale, “The proof is in the pudding.” (Italics in original.)

Furthermore, we know, from other revelations, that other people in Podesta’s circle have not an enormous amount of use for the Church’s teachings. Addie Mena, a reporter for Catholic News Service, has reported on another of Podesta’s emails leaked by Wikileaks. In a 2011 email exchange, John Halpin and Jennifer Palmieri complained about conservative Catholics. Halpin is apparently a senior official at Podesta’s think tank. Palmieri is Hillary Clinton’s communications director. Halpin complained that conservative Catholics bastardized the faith and simply threw around Thomism and subsidiarity to appear clever. Palmieri attributed even less elevated motives to her coreligionists. At some level, it is not a surprise that these men and women are essentially progressive Catholics who are not hugely impressed with the Church’s traditional teachings. Just as the First Things crowd seeks a fusion between Catholics (and others) and the Republican Party, these people seek a fusion between Catholics and the Democratic Party. Of course, while a faithful Catholic has a passing hard time being a good Republican, a faithful Catholic simply cannot be a good Democrat.

One could assume that much. But what the Wikileaks releases indicate goes beyond mere contempt on the part of Democratic elites for the Church’s traditional teaching. It suggests that Democratic operatives have set up organizations in an attempt to bring the Church’s teaching in line with Democratic orthodoxy. These operatives are now in the circle of a woman who is, if the polls are to be believed, quite likely to be the next president of the United States. Do they intend to use these organizations to advocate for President Hillary Clinton’s policies? We already know that Clinton wants to advance the cause of abortion and contraception in the United States by repealing the life-saving Hyde Amendment. The bishops are sure to resist. Will White House employees use their connections with organizations like these, or any others that just happen to spring up, to urge Catholics to resist the Church’s teachings on these points. It is a frightening picture, to say the least. Bishop Richard Umbers, the auxiliary bishop of Sydney, Australia, and a prelate who understands social media, puts the matter succinctly in a tweet, calling the idea of a “Catholic Spring,” “[w]orrying signs of a desire for state interference in church creed & organisation.”

At the very least, Catholics now have good reason to be suspicious of advocacy groups that come along—claiming to represent “ordinary Catholics” or Pope Francis or any other constituency—who ultimately propound positions contrary to the settled teachings of the Church. Catholics are, of course, used to dissenters in our midst; indeed, the history of the Church since, oh, 1962 or so, has been one long process of dissent and reaction. But we have always assumed that progressives dissent simply because they do not actually like the Church all that much, and seek to make a church for themselves as doctrinally coherent and vibrant as the liberal Lutherans, the Anglicans, or the United Methodists. However, all of this suggests that some dissenters might have altogether more worldly motives.

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