WASHINGTON — Hillary Clinton’s campaign team members are taking to social media and news outlets to rebut charges of anti-Catholicism, but critics say private emails released this month by WikiLeaks reveal a level of hostility toward faithful Catholics shared by people in Clinton’s inner circle.
And some of the key players involved — including John Podesta, Clinton’s campaign manager, and Jennifer Palmieri, the campaign’s communications director — are Catholics themselves.
“When you say you want to create a revolution inside someone’s religion, that’s not just a matter of idle chatter. And this is not a volunteer from Missouri or a low-level staff employee. This is the chief campaign manager for Hillary Clinton and her campaign manager speaking disdainfully about Catholics,” said Bill Donohue, president of the Catholic League, who has called on Clinton to fire Podesta.
At press time, the Democratic Party’s candidate for president had yet to respond.
Charles Camosy, a moral theologian at Fordham University who sits on the board of Democrats for Life of America, also told the Register that the leaked emails betray a working assumption among Clinton’s campaign team that “thinking Catholics” automatically favor “radical reform” to put the Church more in line with a secular political point of view.
“In reality, some of the most educated, careful, smart, thoughtful, kind people I know are traditional Catholics who would politely shake their heads at these assumptions,” Camosy said. “Many are converts to the faith, often drawn to it by the very things those who wrote these emails find ‘backwards.’”
In 2012, Podesta — a longtime political operative in Washington, D.C., who served as President Bill Clinton’s chief of staff and ran the Center for American Progress, a socially and economically liberal think tank, before joining Clinton’s campaign — responded to an email from an activist who suggested a “Catholic Spring” was needed to get the Church to change its teaching on contraception, abortion and same-sex “marriage.” The activist called upon Catholics to demand the end of a “middle ages [sic] dictatorship” and promote “respect for gender equality” in the Church.
Podesta, who at the time was still at the Center for American Progress, responded to the inquiry by saying, “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. Like most ‘Spring’ movements, I think this one will have to be bottom up.”
At the time of the leaked emails, Catholics United was headed by James Salt. Salt also serves on the board of directors of Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good.
Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good was headed by Alexia Kelley from its founding in 2005 until 2009. Since then, she has served as the senior adviser and deputy director in the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, as well as the Health and Human Services’ Center for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. She currently serves as president and CEO of Foundations and Donors Interested in Catholic Activities, a Catholic grant-making organization.
Writing in October 2008 about pro-Democratic lobbying undertaken by Catholic law professor Doug Kmiec in that year’s presidential campaign, Archbishop Charles Chaput commented that “his activism for Sen. Obama, and the work of Democratic-friendly groups like Catholics United and Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good, have done a disservice to the Church, confused the natural priorities of Catholic social teaching, undermined the progress pro-lifers have made, and provided an excuse for some Catholics to abandon the abortion issue instead of fighting within their parties and at the ballot box to protect the unborn.”
Palmieri, Halpin and Kaine
In 2011, John Halpin, a Catholic who is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, wrote to Podesta and Palmieri, who was also then at the think tank, about “powerful elements of the conservative movement” who were “all Catholic,” describing them as a “bastardization of the faith” and saying that “they must be attracted to the systematic thought and severely backwards gender relations.”
The leaked emails show that Palmieri responded, “I imagine they think it is the most socially acceptable, politically conservative religion. Their rich friends wouldn’t understand if they became evangelicals.”
Podesta did not respond to the thread.
The Clinton campaign has declined to confirm or deny the leaked emails’ authenticity and instead has tried to shift the focus to the Russian government, which is suspected of being behind the hacking of the email accounts to influence the 2016 elections.
Still, the emails have generated enough controversy in the Catholic community that the campaign team dispatched Sen. Tim Kaine, the Democratic vice-presidential nominee, to the Sunday morning news talk shows to provide damage control.
“I’m very, very serious about my Catholicism, and Hillary views that as a real asset. And we’ve talked about our faith lives, as she asked me to be on the ticket with her,” Kaine said on ABC’s This Week.
More Damage Control
Podesta told E.J. Dionne, The Washington Post columnist who is also a Catholic who views the Church through the lens of Kaine and Podesta, “As a lifelong practicing Catholic, I take very seriously the social and moral teachings of the Church.” Podesta also took aim at Trump, the Republican presidential nominee, for his earlier clash with Pope Francis on immigration, saying that Trump “may want to apologize for his attacks on Pope Francis before he levels attacks against us.”
Meanwhile, Clinton spokesman Brian Fallon took to Twitter to defend Palmieri, writing: “Latest faux controversy out of @Wikileaks hack: Accusing Jen Palmieri, who is Catholic, of being anti-Catholic.”
Joshua Mercer, political director at CatholicVote.org, told the Register, however, that it is notable that Palmieri has not defended her remarks, only claiming that she does not remember them.
“When Halpin called Catholic teaching ‘backwards,’ Palmieri sure didn’t challenge him on that,” Mercer said. “In fact, she questioned the motives of conservatives who converted to Catholicism.”
Mercer added that the Clinton campaign “certainly” wants the email story to go away, and quickly.
“They hope that Tim Kaine’s interview will be the final word on it,” Mercer said. “But why is Hillary Clinton still employing Jen Palmieri? If those comments were said about any other religious group, her spokeswoman would have resigned. And is Hillary Clinton okay with John Podesta starting front groups to agitate Catholics against their shepherds? Americans look to their president to unite the country, and these divisive attacks only sow discord.”
Clinton’s allies and other observers have argued that the emails do not reveal any anti-Catholic sentiment, but rather a sort of ideological struggle between “progressive” and “conservative” Catholics in the years before Pope Francis’ pontificate.
Stephen Schneck, director of the Institute for Policy Research & Catholic Studies at The Catholic University of America, defended the Catholic bona fides of Halpin and Podesta, telling the Register that both are “cradle Catholics who remain serious about their faith” and who have been outspoken in their excitement about Pope Francis.
Said Schneck, “Podesta has attended an event or two hosted by my Institute for Policy Research & Catholic Studies. Halpin and I have talked on a few occasions about how our faith informs us in our policy work to address poverty and immigration.”
“The impugning of the reputation of either of these gentlemen as anti-Catholic is the worst kind of political gamesmanship. Such character assassination should be out of bounds, even in this nasty election,” said Schneck, who served as national co-chairman of Catholics for Obama in 2012. Schneck is not associated with the Clinton campaign and has not endorsed any candidate this year.
However, while little about Palmieri’s Catholic faith has previously been documented, Podesta and Halpin are both on record as being Catholics with views that conflict with Church teaching.
In a 2005 forum at the Pew Research Center, Podesta joked that he and Dionne shared a “fondness for all things liberal Catholic.” Podesta said he attended Mass at Holy Trinity Church in Georgetown and that he had been involved in “an unprecedented conversation about the future of the Catholic Church and the role of the Church in politics.”
“I attend Mass; I take Communion. It’s a source of strength for me. I think it’s really what makes me a progressive,” said Podesta, who added that there were issues where he disagreed with the Church, “like many Catholics.” Podesta also said that moral values defined him as a Catholic and enabled him to stand his ideological ground in political battles.
Halpin, who is not on the Clinton campaign, responded to ThinkProgress, a news website that promotes socially and economically liberal politics, to defend himself against charges of anti-Catholic bias. Halpin said he grew up Catholic, attended a Catholic university and had his children baptized by their Jesuit uncle, adding that they went to Catholic school when they were young.
“I’m certainly not the best Catholic around, and I have some criticisms of Church doctrine, but my Catholic upbringing and education helped to shape my own progressive values and perspective on politics and society,” Halpin said.
Donohue, of the Catholic League, told the Register that Clinton’s Catholic advisers are using the Catholic label to boost their credibility while sowing division in the Church and trying to manipulate public opinion to believe that there is a legitimate Catholic voice in the public square that supports a liberal agenda of pro-abortion and pro-same-sex “marriage.”
Donohue called it a “stunning moment” in American politics, where advisers with animus toward orthodox Catholics are advising the presidential nominee of a major political party.
“Bigotry is measured by words and deeds. It doesn’t turn on the demographic characteristics of the person,” Donohue said. “If their message is bigoted, then it’s bigoted. If their deeds are bigoted, then they’re bigoted.”
Mercer, of CatholicVote.org, said he found it a “mystery” as to why Catholics in Clinton’s inner circle would disparage fellow Catholics. Quoting Archbishop Chaput’s remarks following the disclosures of the emails, Mercer said their actions have already caused “considerable damage.”
“I find the disparaging of Catholics to be disappointing,” Mercer said. “But I’m more alarmed by the underhanded way John Podesta created these Catholic front groups to sow divisions in our Catholic family. That’s very troubling.”
Register correspondent Brian Fraga writes from Fall River, Massachusetts.
Catholic News Agency contributed to this report.