‘Catholic Spring’ Email Leak: American Ideals at Risk, US Bishops Warn

Archbishop Joseph Kurtz, president of the U.S. bishops’ conference, responded to the leaked email exchange involving Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman, John Podesta.

The U.S. Capitol building
The U.S. Capitol building (photo: trekandshoot via Shutterstock)

WASHINGTON — Following a leaked email from prominent political actors about a possible “Catholic Spring” movement to plant “seeds of the revolution” within the Church, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has rebuked interference in the Church and a political discourse that marginalizes the faithful and demeans women.

“There have been recent reports that some may have sought to interfere in the internal life of the Church for short-term political gain,” said Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville, Kentucky, the U.S. bishops’ conference president. “If true, this is troubling both for the well-being of faith communities and the good of our country.”

“In our faith and our Church, Christ has given us a precious gift. As Catholics, we hold onto our beliefs because they come to us from Jesus, not a consensus forged by contemporary norms,” he said Oct. 13.

“We also expect public officials to respect the rights of people to live their faith without interference from the state,” the archbishop continued. “When faith communities lose this right, the very idea of what it means to be an American is lost.”

Archbishop Kurtz did not directly mention the controversy over a leaked email exchange from Feb. 10-11, 2012, between Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton’s current campaign manager, John Podesta, and Sandy Newman, president of the progressive organization Voices for Progress.

Newman appears to have initiated the email exchange, titled, “Opening for a Catholic Spring? Just musing.” He cited the controversy over Catholic objections to mandatory coverage of contraception in employers’ insurance plans, which would force Catholics to provide drugs, including some abortion-causing drugs, which they recognize as sinful and unethical.

“There needs to be a Catholic Spring, in which Catholics themselves demand the end of a middle ages [sic] dictatorship and the beginning of a little democracy and respect for gender equality in the Catholic Church,” Newman said, asking whether contraception coverage could be a rally point for such a movement.

Newman told Podesta he has a “total lack of understanding of the Catholic Church,” adding, “Even if the idea isn’t crazy, I don’t qualify to be involved, and I have not thought at all about how one would ‘plant the seeds of the revolution,’ or who would plant them. Just wondering …”

Podesta’s email suggested that two political organizations were intended for such advocacy.

“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,” he said. “Likewise Catholics United. Like most ‘Spring’ movements, I think this one will have to be bottom up.”

Podesta suggested consultation with Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, former lieutenant governor of Maryland and daughter of Robert F. Kennedy. Townsend has served on the board of the National Catholic Reporter and gave a 2008 keynote address to the national conference of Call to Action, which dissents from Church teaching on issues of sexuality and women’s ordination.

The emails were released by the anti-secrecy site WikiLeaks as part of an ongoing leak of emails reputedly hacked from Podesta’s email account. Podesta has echoed rumors that Russian intelligence officials were responsible for the hack. He has further alleged that some of the emails may not be authentic.


A Time for Reflection

For Archbishop Kurtz, the controversy was a time to reflect on the state of political life.

“Politicians, their staffs and volunteers should reflect our best aspirations as citizens. Too much of our current political discourse has demeaned women and marginalized people of faith,” he said. “This must change. True to the best hopes of our Founding Fathers, we are confident that we can and will do better as a nation.”

He encouraged Catholics and all people of goodwill to be “good stewards” of the rights of Americans.

“The Gospel is offered for all people for all times. It invites us to love our neighbor and live in peace with one another,” the archbishop continued. “For this reason, the truth of Christ is never outdated or inaccessible. The Gospel serves the common good, not political agendas.”

The political players involved in the email exchange have had great influence. Newman, the originator of the “Catholic Spring” suggestion, once hired a young Barack Obama to run a voter registration project in Illinois in 1993.

Podesta is past president of the Center for American Progress think tank and served as chief of staff for President Bill Clinton.

In recent years, the Center for American Progress has taken hundreds of thousands of dollars in grants from the Arcus Foundation to “reclaim” religious freedom as a progressive value that “includes LGBT equality and women’s reproductive health and rights.” The Center for American Progress also hosts Episcopal Bishop V. Gene Robinson as a senior fellow. The first openly gay bishop’s 2003 election as bishop of New Hampshire caused massive rifts within the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion.

Christopher Hale, the current executive director of Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good, told CNA Oct. 12 that the emails “do not reflect the mission of the organization.”

“I’ve think we’ve proven during my time here that we are a strong messenger for the full social magisterium of the Catholic Church,” he said. “We fought against the HHS mandate; we fought against Planned Parenthood when the tapes were released in 2015. We fought time and again for the dignity of the unborn child.”

“If our job is to be a front group for the Democratic Party, then we’re doing a pretty terrible job at it,” Hale said.

Hale acknowledged that, in the past, the organization has received funding from philanthropist and liberal activist George Soros. He claimed that the organization has not received a grant from Soros in 10 years.

Catholics in Alliance’s associated group Catholics United, however, has taken funds from wealthy LGBT activists such as the Gill Foundation, founded by the wealthy businessman Tim Gill, and billionaire heir Jon Stryker’s Arcus Foundation. Grant listings and annual reports from the foundations show grants from 2012 through 2015.


HHS Mandate

The Newman-Podesta emails concerned the Obama administration’s Department of Health and Human Services’ rule, first announced in late 2011, that health care plans must include coverage for sterilization and contraceptives, including some drugs that can cause abortions. The move caused widespread outcry among Catholics across the political spectrum. The Obama administration has gradually made various purported accommodations that have appeased some objectors.

Hobby Lobby, which is owned by a Christian family with objections to abortifacient contraceptives, successfully challenged the rule. It won a 5-4 Supreme Court decision in 2014 that said religious-freedom protections apply to closely held private businesses.

However, some Catholic organizations, dioceses and other nonprofits are still challenging the HHS mandate on religious-freedom grounds, including the Little Sisters of the Poor and CNA and the Register’s parent organization, the EWTN Global Catholic Network.

In a May 2016 unanimous decision, the Supreme Court sent the Little Sisters’ case back to lower courts, and their case is still pending, though opponents of the HHS mandate took encouragement from the decision.