I admit, I was not especially bothered by the now-infamous mockery of Catholics in the Podesta emails. I found it rather touchingly naive, actually, that apparently John Podesta and Sandy Newman imagined they were on to something new with their hope of a “Catholic Spring”, as though various Leftist organizations have not been involved in trying to shape Christian ideology and praxis since the nineteenth century. Touching, also, that so many Catholics were themselves unaware of this, and are now as alert for Podesta plants in the Church as conspiracy theorists are for chemtrails.
And hysteria, as usual, breeds hyperbole.
Contrary to the claims of Breitbart, John Podesta did not “found” Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good. Yes, there is a connection: CACG was founded by Tom Periello; its chairman is Fred Rotondaro; both of these men are senior fellows at the Center for American Progress, which in fact WAS founded by Podesta.
But now it would seem that Leftist plots are lurking in every shrubbery. Catholic Social Teaching? A Podesta plant! Seamless garment? Liberal heresy! Social justice? Pass the smelling salts!
Which means that we at the New Pro Life Movement are highly suspect, for daring to embrace the consistent life ethic espoused by our Catholic tradition, and for rejecting the idea that only a few values are “non-negotiable.” In spite of the fact that we in the organization arrived at this point largely through study of the teachings of the magisterium, now that the Podesta emails have been revealed, anything that doesn’t look like Buckley-style semi-Catholicism is obviously an infliltration.
I regret to say, it is not as exciting as you think. We never were approached by shadowy figures bribing us to subvert the faith. There is no secret lair where we meet to cackle maniacally over our sinister plots. All we did was read church documents, and talk to people who had experienced injustice and marginalization, and pay attention to the example of luminaries like Dorothy Day. In fact, we’re not even a Catholic organization: though we founders are Catholic, the organization is actually secular, and open to non-Catholics, non-Christians, even non-religious.
So we’re not secular liberals infiltrating the church; we’re crazy Catholics infiltrating secular society.
Of course, to add to the irony: right-wing infiltration of the church is also an issue, especially since the Eighties, when the term “conservative” finally lost the last residue of its original meaning, in America, and began to refer instead to right-wing individualist war-hawk liberal/libertarian capitalism, under the name of “neo-conservatism.” Michael Sean Winters writes, in the National Catholic Reporter:
In 1961, William F. Buckley published a critique of Blessed Pope John XXIII’s encyclical, Mater et Magistra, Mother and Teacher. Buckley’s article was entitled, “Going the rounds in conservative circles: ‘Mater, si, Magistra, no.’” The phrase came from a not-yet converted Garry Wills in a telephone conversation with Buckley. It was the first significant instance of public dissent from the magisterium of the Church by an American public intellectual. Note the date: 1961. Before the Second Vatican Council. John XXIII’s encyclical was not a fruit of the Council. It was based on a long line of Church teachings, rooted in the anthropology and ethics of St. Thomas Aquinas, and explicitly applied to modern social, economic and political circumstances beginning in 1891, with Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical Rerum Novarum. The basic threads of Catholic Social teaching were developed further by Pope Pius XI and Pope Pius XII.
For more than three decades neo-conservative Catholics like Michael Novak, George Weigel, and the late Richard John Neuhaus struggled mightily to demonstrate that there is a near perfect congruence between church teachings and the policies of the Republican Party. Even though these GOP apologists managed to win ears in the court of John Paul II and Benedict XVI, their project always seemed inherently implausible, given longstanding traditions in Catholic social thought criticizing unfettered capitalism. But now the goals of Catholic neo-conservatives are more than just unlikely: The entire Catholic neo-con agenda lies in ruins as Pope Francis makes demands for economic justice and environmental responsibility.
So, yes, both on the Right and the Left, schemers are involved in trying to shape the development of the church. Consider how many Catholic scholars and writers are employed by the Acton Institute, which advances a romanticized view of capitalism and religion in a cozy snuggle, to the ludicrous extent of speaking glowingly of the era of child labor. And Acton was founded by a priest, Fr. Sirico, who ought to have known better.
Except, most of us don’t know better. It is very difficult for us to maintain the delicate balance between assent to the church, and willingness to ask questions when things seem not to line up. And it is even more difficult for us to admit “hmmm, maybe I’m in dissent” – far easier to reconstruct the whole of the Christian ethos in the image of one’s own desires, and then put the blame on everyone else. I am inclined to this myself. I want a figure of Jesus who’s always on my side, so I can murmur to myself “thank God I am not like that poor, benighted capitalist/ banker / politician…”
The main problem with John Podesta – and, honestly, with most of us – is not that he hates the Church, but that he doesn’t understand it. He thinks it’s an ideology or a movement, something totally immanent, and thus shapeable by our machinations. Even those who ascribe to correct doctrines make this mistake – in thinking that the essence of the faith is all about correct doctrines, instead of about the Presence of Christ.
So, yes, most of us in the church are, I suspect, hoping to nudge it this way or that. And this isn’t wholly a bad thing, because we’ve seen just how much personal manipulation can have on the immanent, human element of the Church – and how much damage this can cause. But ultimately the Church as a channel of divine grace remains above all our political maneuvering.
And, no, we’re not a Podesta plant. No one is backing us. We’re not on George Soros’ payroll. If we were, I wouldn’t have all these damned student loans, and I’d be drinking a much fancier wine right now, wearing much cooler leggings.