Who is more Catholic?

Daily Freeman (Kingston, NY) - - OPINION -

WASH­ING­TON >> To hear the many howls of protest from con­ser­va­tives, you’d think that a hand­ful of emails re­leased by Wik­iLeaks demon­strates that Hil­lary Clin­ton’s cam­paign is a nest of anti-Catholics. For­tu­nately for her, the emails, which are 4 to 5 years old, tell a far more in­ter­est­ing tale about the strug­gles in­side the Catholic Church in the pe­riod be­fore the as­cen­dancy of Pope Fran­cis.

All jour­nal­ism re­ly­ing on Wik­iLeaks should note our gov­ern­ment has ac­cused Rus­sia of try­ing to in­flu­ence the Amer­i­can elec­tion. Vot­ers need to be wary of Vladimir Putin’s ap­par­ent pref­er­ence for Don­ald Trump.

But given the storm the Catholic emails have pro­voked, read­ers might want to make up their own minds by con­sult­ing the full texts.

In one 2012 ex­change be­tween John Podesta, the found­ing pres­i­dent of the Cen­ter for Amer­i­can Progress and now Clin­ton’s cam­paign chair­man, and Sandy New­man, pres­i­dent of a group called Voices for Progress, New­man ex­pressed the anger of many lib­er­als at the time that con­ser­va­tive Catholic bish­ops were mak­ing the Af­ford­able Care Act’s con­tra­cep­tion man­date cen­tral to a cri­tique of Pres­i­dent Obama.

Among other things, New­man (who is not part of the Clin­ton cam­paign) called for a “Catholic Spring, 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.”

Of course many Catholics took of­fense, es­pe­cially at that “mid­dle ages dic­ta­tor­ship” line. Podesta didn’t com­ment on it. He re­ferred in­stead to pro­gres­sive Catholic or­ga­ni­za­tions formed after the 2004 elec­tion, when con­ser­va­tive bish­ops seemed to side with Ge­orge W. Bush.

“We cre­ated Catholics in Al­liance for the Com­mon Good to or­ga­nize for a mo­ment like this,” Podesta said, re­fer­ring to him­self and his pro­gres­sive Catholic al­lies. “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.”

Iron­i­cally, a “Spring move­ment” did arise in the church — but from the top, with Pope Fran­cis’ elec­tion in 2013. Also iron­i­cally: Many of the con­ser­va­tive Catholics in­clined to de­nounce the Clin­ton camp have been crit­i­cal of Fran­cis — it gives new mean­ing to the term “more Catholic than the pope” — while more lib­eral Catholics like Podesta have cham­pi­oned him.

I should say I’ve known Podesta for many years and of­ten heard him speak with af­fec­tion for the church. In re­sponse to this con­tro­versy, he told me in an email that as “a life­long prac­tic­ing Catholic, I take very se­ri­ously the so­cial and moral teach­ings of the church.” Turn­ing to Trump’s “as­ser­tion that His Ho­li­ness, Pope Fran­cis, was ‘dis­grace­ful’ for stand­ing up for im­mi­grants,” he said that Trump “may want to apol­o­gize for his at­tacks on Pope Fran­cis be­fore he lev­els at­tacks against us.”

The other ex­change, be­tween John Halpin and Jen­nifer Palmieri — both were at CAP then, both are Catholic, and Palmieri is now Clin­ton’s com­mu­ni­ca­tions di­rec­tor — was spurred by a re­port that Ru­pert Mur­doch and a top Wall Street Jour­nal editor had de­cided to raise their young chil­dren as Catholics.

Not­ing how many lead­ing con­ser­va­tives are Catholic, Halpin wrote: “It’s an amaz­ing bas­tardiza­tion of the faith. They must be at­tracted to the sys­tem­atic thought and se­verely back­wards gen­der re­la­tions and must be to­tally un­aware of Chris­tian democ­racy.”

Palmieri replied: “I imag­ine they think it is the most so­cially ac­cept­able po­lit­i­cally con­ser­va­tive re­li­gion. Their rich friends wouldn’t un­der­stand if they be­came evan­gel­i­cals.” Podesta was copied on the ex­change, but didn’t re­spond.

This doesn’t sound an­tiCatholic, un­less you see call­ing the church “con­ser­va­tive” as a slur. It’s a commentary on how wealthy peo­ple view evan­gel­i­cals. For his part, Halpin, who, like Palmieri, is Catholic, wrote Thurs­day that “my in­ten­tion in this pri­vate note was not to in­sult Catholics or peo­ple of faith.” He added: “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.”

The fac­tual bot­tom line is that in pri­vate cor­re­spon­dence, the two Clin­ton cam­paign of­fi­cials said noth­ing anti-Catholic, although they did not re­proach the crit­i­cal com­ments of their friends.

As a pro­gres­sive Catholic my­self, here are the lessons I draw.

Lib­er­als are free to crit­i­cize re­li­gion in gen­eral or par­tic­u­lar re­li­gions, but they should re­sist ca­sual put-downs of Catholics and Chris­tians that they’d con­demn if they were di­rected at other faiths.

Con­ser­va­tives in the Catholic hi­er­ar­chy need to pay at­ten­tion to Pope Fran­cis and pon­der the high costs of ty­ing a church with a rich tra­di­tion of so­cial teach­ing to the right end of politics.

E.J. Dionne is syn­di­cated by the Wash­ing­ton Post Writ­ers Group.

EJ Dionne Colum­nist

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