It takes a certain kind of chutzpah for an entity that has long meddled in politics to turn around and complain about others meddling in its politics. In a video statement released on Tuesday, Archbishop Joseph Kurtz, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholics Bishops, complains about unsubstantiated WikiLeaks Clinton campaign staff emails that referenced the need for lay Catholics to seek reform within the church, linking it to the hierarchy’s “religious liberty” fight:
At this important time in our nation’s history, I encourage all of us to take a moment to reflect on one of the founding principles of our republic – the freedom of religion. It ensures the right of faith communities to preserve the integrity of their beliefs and proper self-governance.
In the email exchange between Sandy Newman of Voices for Progress and Clinton campaign manager John Podesta, Newman references the Catholic hierarchy’s opposition to the contraceptive mandate in the Affordable Care Act despite the fact that 98% of Catholic women have used birth control and muses about the need for a “Catholic spring”:
There needs to be 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. Is contraceptive coverage an issue around which that could happen. … I have not thought at all about how one would ‘plant the seeds of revolution,’ or who would plant them.
To which Podesta answers:
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 for now. Likewise Catholics United. Like most Spring movements, I think this one will have to be bottom up.
In response, Kurtz tells the Catholic faithful:
There have been recent reports that some may have sought to interfere in the internal life of the Church for short-term political gain. If true, this is troubling both for the well-being of faith communities and the good of our country.
So by Kurtz’s reckoning, it was fine for the Catholic hierarchy to meddle in politics, threatening to stampede Catholics away from President Obama in the 2012 election if he didn’t back down from requiring all employers—even those who hold Catholic beliefs or are “Catholic” nonprofits—to provide contraceptive coverage in the name of comprehensive preventive care for women, in order to maintain control over Catholics who might stray from church doctrine. But it’s not okay for lay Catholics like Podesta to try and organize lay Catholics to pressure the church to modify doctrine.
And, it should be noted, that other progressive Catholic groups like Catholics for Choice criticized Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good for trying to lure center-right Catholics back to the Democratic Party by jettisoning its support for reproductive rights:
Though the group tries to avoid discussing reproductive rights, when pressed, its message on abortion is far from moderate, very often mirroring the extreme anti-choice stance of the bishops and ultra-conservative Catholic organizations.
Regardless of the fact that CACG was trying to soften the Democratic Party’s support for abortion rights, Kurtz’s justification for his double standard is that his priorities “come to us from Jesus”:
…not a consensus forged by contemporary norms. The Gospel is offered for all people for all times. … For this reason, the truth of Christ is never outdated or inaccessible. The Gospel serves the common good, not political agendas.
By conflating the bishops’ political agenda—preventing the normalization of insurance coverage of contraceptives to maintain some kind of stigma on their use—with Christ’s Gospel message, which I’m pretty sure doesn’t mention The Pill, he’s able to suggest that the bishops’ politicking not only falls under the rubric of “religious liberty,” but that their position is immutable because it comes from you-know-who.
By that count, Donald Trump’s disastrous performance at last night’s Al Smith dinner was itself the logical endgame of the bishops’ long-term meddling in politics. While the dinner is often cast as a light-hearted charity event, a chance for the opposing presidential nominees to show their civility and rise above partisanism, nothing could be further from the truth. The dinner, like the hierarchy itself, has long been politicized, especially around the issue of abortion.
- 1984: Walter Mondale skips the dinner in favor of debate prep. He’d crushed a somnambulant Ronald Reagan in the first of their two debates and clearly hoped to put him away in the second. His request that running mate Geraldine Ferraro go in his stead is refused by Cardinal John O’Connor, who is in the middle of a bitter feud with Ferraro over her assertion that the Catholic Church’s position on abortion wasn’t “monolithic.” Reagan crushes it at the dinner and at the following debate and wins reelection.
- 1996: President Bill Clinton isn’t invited after clashing with the Catholic hierarchy over his veto of a bill to ban the mythical “partial-birth” abortion.
- 2004: In the middle of a polarizing fight with John Kerry over his pro-choice stance, the hierarchy declines to invite either Kerry or George W. Bush because it could “provoke division and disagreement.” Kerry goes on to lose the Catholic vote—the first major party Catholic candidate since John F. Kennedy to do so.
No other position—not support of the death penalty, cuts to social safety net programs or enthusiastic military incursions—has caused the bishops to shun candidates. At the same time, many bishops have been happy to sway Catholics toward an increasingly polarized and polarizing Republican Party over the issues of abortion, same-sex marriage and “religious liberty.” In fact, the loudest chorus of boos for Trump last night came when he said Clinton was only “pretending not to hate Catholics” based on the WikiLeaks emails, which isn’t much of a stretch from Kurtz’s statement.
And Trump’s closing lines were a paean to the priorities of the Cardinal Dolan-Kurtz wing of the church:
We can also agree on the need to stand up to anti-Catholic bias, to defend religious liberty and to create a culture that celebrates life.
The Catholic bishops have been happy to play politics and support Republican candidates who gave the working class the short shrift as long as they opposed abortion, giving rise to the disaffected faction that fueled the rise of Trump. White tie or not, he’s their golem every bit as much as he’s the GOP’s.