Billionaire George Soros’ Open Society Foundations sought to use Pope Francis’ 2015 visit to the U.S. to influence the 2016 elections and cultivate influence within the Catholic Church, according to leaked documents attributed to the major grant makers.
The documents said $650,000 in funds were committed for the foundations’ grantees PICO Network and Faith in Public Life to respond to the fall 2015 papal visit. The foundations said they “placed a bet” in early 2015 that the grantees would “be able to make the most of his trip.”
“In order to seize this moment, we will support PICO’s organizing activities to engage the Pope on economic and racial justice issues,” said the documents.
The documents, published on the site DCLeaks.com, appear to be May 2015 and October 2015 board meeting books of the foundations’ U.S. programs division and a Feb. 9, 2016, memo on the U.S. programs’ Opportunities Fund.
“By harnessing the papal visit to lift up the Pope’s searing critique of what he calls ‘an economy of exclusion and inequality’ and his dismissal of ‘trickle down’ theories, PICO and FPL will work to build a bridge to a larger conversation about bread-and-butter economic concerns and shift national paradigms and priorities in the run-up to the 2016 presidential campaign,” said the May 2015 document.
The October 2015 document said the Pope’s visit was an opportunity for the two grantees to focus on refugees, migrants, over-incarceration and immigrant rights, “while also bringing new energy into the 2016 presidential conversation.” The February 2016 memo said the funding allowed organizations to maximize the impact of the Pope’s visit to emphasize “the humanity of prisoners, immigrants and the poor.”
The texts suggested this activity would include using the influence of Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga and sending a delegation to the Vatican to allow the Pope to “hear directly from low-income Catholics in America.” Cardinal Maradiaga, the archbishop of Tegucigalpa, Honduras, coordinates the council of cardinals advising Pope Francis.
Deeply influential, the Open Society Foundations are involved in many domestic and overseas activities.
Their funding for the papal-visit efforts supported the work of Faith in Public Life in media framing and public-opinion activities, including a poll on Catholic voters, Pope Francis and income inequality. The efforts aimed to secure media coverage for the message that fighting inequality is “pro-family.”
The Open Society Foundations planned to host a November 2015 “Francis effect” briefing for funders, including the Ford Foundation, that would feature its two grantees, labor unions and the National Domestic Workers Alliance.
The February 2016 memo said the funded activity aimed to secure “buy-in of individual bishops to more publicly voice support of economic and racial justice messages,” with the aim that this would begin to create, in the memo’s understanding, “a critical mass of bishops who are aligned with the Pope.”
“PICO and FPL have been able to use their engagement in the opportunity of the Pope’s visit to seed their position in the long-term project of shifting the priorities of the U.S. Catholic Church to focus on issues of injustice and oppression,” the memo said.
According to the memo, the Pope invited PICO to help plan the Third World Meeting of Popular Movements.
“Resistance to this inside the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has been stark, and grantees are engaged in a live fight with a faction of the Church that seeks to curb the Pope’s influence on social-justice issues,” the memo claimed.
The documents are not always accurate. The memo erroneously indicated the World Meeting of Popular Movements would take place in 2016, rather than 2017.
It added that Faith in Public Life and PICO can strengthen the foundations’ program goals if they can “shift the U.S. Catholic Church to be a voice on behalf of the poor and communities of color.” The memo said this is a long-term process that is “now under way.”
A spokesperson for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops declined to comment on the story.
An Open Society Foundations spokesperson responded to CNA on Aug. 30, saying, “The Pope has personally championed many of the social-justice issues we work on at the foundations. We saw his visit as an opportunity to further discussion and policy debate on those issues.”
The foundations characterized the document leak, which some have attributed to Russian intelligence, as “a symptom of an aggressive assault on civil society and human-rights activists that is taking place globally.”
The PICO Network told CNA that the Open Society Foundations was “one of many individuals and foundations” that supported its work on income inequality, immigration reform and criminal justice, “highlighted by Pope Francis and championed by the U.S. Catholic Church for many decades.”
“We are pleased that our efforts in conjunction with the Pope’s historic visit to the U.S. helped to share and advance his mission and message about the importance of the Catholic Church and people from all faiths standing with the poor and the powerless,” PICO said.
The network said it continues to work with the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace and the U.S. bishops to advance Catholic social teaching. This includes a planned convening of the World Meeting of Popular Movements in the U.S. in 2017.
PICO did not answer questions about the alleged conflict within the U.S. bishops. It said Cardinal Maradiaga has supported its work with Central American faith communities for 10 years and spoke at a PICO launch event for its “Year of Encounter With Pope Francis” in early 2015.
PICO, founded in 1972 by Jesuit Father John Bauman, describes itself as a nationwide network of faith-based organizations. It claims 1,000 member institutions in 17 U.S. states and claims success in increasing access to health care while improving public schools, affordable housing and neighborhood safety.
The other grantee involved, Faith in Public Life, has at times undermined the U.S. bishops.
When the bishops launched their first religious-freedom event, “Fortnight for Freedom,” in 2012 to protest Obama administration mandates violating Catholics’ religious freedom, Faith in Public Life Catholic program director John Gehring spread talking points against the bishops.
Other Open Society Foundations documents discuss its backing for Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good, whose first contact with the foundations was in 2006.
It also backed the petition site Faithful America in order to mobilize “progressive faith voices.” The site has sometimes targeted Catholic bishops and organizations that stand by Catholic teaching.
Other leaked documents appear to show the Open Society Foundations contributed $1.5 million to support Planned Parenthood’s $7-$8 million lobbying response to videos allegedly proving the abortion provider was engaged in the illegal sale of fetal body parts. The foundations are also funding pro-abortion rights groups to target Ireland’s pro-life law as a potential model to end abortion restrictions in other Catholic countries like Poland.
The Catholic Legal Immigration Network is among the foundations’ many grantees.