Something stinks about Hillary Clinton’s ‘anti-Catholic’ scandal

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Well, thanks to WikiLeaks, we now know that Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign is filled with liberal Catholics. I’m not talking about former Jesuit volunteer Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), Clinton’s running mate, or even Vice President Joe Biden, who has been stumping for Clinton.

Among the hacked private emails from the Gmail account of Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta are some comments that Podesta and Clinton communications director Jennifer Palmieri — both Catholic — made about reforming their church and about political conservatives, some of whom are also Catholic. One of the two email exchanges (so far) includes politically questionable language about Catholics and evangelical Christians.

Conservative critics, including Donald Trump’s campaign, are calling the emails anti-Catholic. That stretches the definition of "anti-Catholic" beyond any recognizable or reasonable meaning.

"If only on behalf of her Catholic running mate," Republican vice presidential nominee Gov. Mike Pence said at Liberty University on Wednesday, "Hillary Clinton should denounce those bigoted, anti-Catholic, anti-evangelical remarks and her campaign staff should apologize to people of faith and do it now." Joseph Cella, Trump’s chief liaison to Catholics, said the emails "reveal the depths of the hostility of Hillary Clinton and her campaign toward Catholics," and "the open anti-Catholic bigotry of her senior advisers, who attack the deeply held beliefs and theology of Catholics."

(Donald Trump, you’ll remember, is the candidate who picked a fight with the pope.)

The Trump campaign released a similar statement from a list of "Christian leaders, Catholic and evangelical," expressing their "outrage" over emails that "clearly ridicule, demean, and smear Roman Catholics and Evangelicals." Even though Clinton’s campaign chairman did not contribute to the most notorious email, the statement says, "Podesta’s refusal to raise any objection makes him equally party to this bigotry. It is inexcusable. It is shameful. It is un-American."

So these emails must be pretty bad, huh? Luckily, thanks to WikiLeaks and whoever broke into Podesta’s email account, you can read them for yourself. The first exchange is from 2011, between Palmieri, who was then president of the Center for American Progress Action Fund, and CAP Senior Fellow John Halpin, also a Catholic. Podesta says he isn’t sure the emails, believed to be pilfered by Russian hackers, are authentic, but Halpin says this email chain is real.

The exchange, headed "Conservative Catholicism," begins with Halpin commenting on a New Yorker article about conservative media mogul Rupert Murdoch, who does not appear to be Catholic, raising his and third wife Wendi Deng’s two children in the Catholic faith, and baptizing them ostentatiously in the Jordan River. Halpin says:

Friggin’ Murdoch baptized his kids in Jordan where John the Baptist baptized Jesus. Many of the most powerful elements of the conservative movement are all Catholic (many converts) from the [Supreme Court] and think tanks to the media and social groups. It’s an amazing bastardization of the faith. They must be attracted to the systematic thought and severely backwards gender relations and must be totally unaware of Christian democracy. [Halpin, via WikiLeaks]

Palmieri responds:

I imagine they think it is the most socially acceptable politically conservative religion. Their rich friends wouldn’t understand if they became evangelicals. [Palmieri, via WikiLeaks]

And Halpin shoots back:

Excellent point. They can throw around "Thomistic" thought and "subsidiarity" and sound sophisticated because no one knows what the hell they’re talking about. [Halpin, via WikiLeaks]

That’s it, the entire exchange. It’s understandable that evangelical Christians would bristle at Palmieri’s suggestion that wealthy conservatives in Washington, D.C., don’t consider evangelical Christianity "socially acceptable" — if I were an evangelical, I would think it rude — but it’s social commentary not a religious slur.

The stuff about Catholics is pretty clearly two liberal Catholics grousing in private about their more conservative co-religionists, the role of women in the church, and what they view as the political misuse of "subsidiarity." I don’t know the context for the exchange, but Halpin sent his recollection to ThinkProgress about his "admittedly offhanded" thoughts about the "perceived hypocrisy and the flaunting of one’s faith by prominent conservative leaders":

Now I don’t care that Murdoch and Thomson raise their kids Catholic. Catholics have great values and a Catholic upbringing provides good guidance about how to live one’s life. What I reacted to in my email, rightly or wrongly, was the grand public display of Catholicism from a right-wing billionaire who owns a media conglomerate, including Fox News, that routinely assaults the values of the poor, sows racial discord, and attacks immigrants. This seemed inconsistent with what I was taught about Catholic values, so I penned off an email to my other Catholic colleagues.

Likewise, the email I wrote is from April of 2011, just after Paul Ryan released his second budget plan proposing large tax reductions for the rich, severe cuts in social welfare spending, the privatization of Medicare, and the repeal of health care for millions of low-income people…. Rep. Ryan and other conservatives often defend their libertarian economic policies as consistent with the Catholic principle of subsidiarity, a dubious link that many Catholics reject…. So, I’m a progressive Catholic who was reacting in a private email to the arguments of leading conservatives who often misuse Catholicism to defend their agenda. Liberals can be just as guilty of this as conservatives. That’s what makes Catholic social teaching powerful — it doesn’t fit squarely within in any one party or ideological movement. [Halpin, ThinkProgress]

I find that explanation pretty convincing. Megyn Kelly at Fox News is among those who doesn’t. But as Democratic strategist Julie Roginsky pointed out on Kelly’s show, it’s not exactly fringe; most American Catholics generally agree with Halpin and Podesta.

In the second leaked email exchange, from 2012, Podesta responds to a note "musing" about an "opening for a Catholic Spring" from Sandy Newman, president of the liberal Voices for Progress. Newman, who is not Catholic and accurately acknowledges in the email his "total lack of understanding of the Catholic Church," asks about planting the "seeds of the revolution" 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," all in the service of getting the U.S. bishops to drop their opposition to the contraception mandate in ObamaCare. Podesta replied:

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. [Podesta, via WikiLeaks]

Podesta is a prominent lay Catholic suggesting he helped found lay Catholic groups to channel liberal Catholic action. That is probably irritating to some in the Church hierarchy, but is it really "anti-Catholic" or bigoted, as Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput argues? Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz of Louisville, Kentucky, the president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, had a more measured response to the emails on Thursday, alluding to "recent reports that some may have sought to interfere in the internal life of the Church for short-term political gain." Kurtz seemed to issue a gentle pox-on-both-houses rebuke: "Too much of our current political discourse has demeaned women and marginalized people of faith." And he said, "The Gospel serves the common good, not political agendas."

And that seems right. Palmieri literally does speak for Hillary Clinton now, but she did not in 2011, and Podesta was running a liberal think tank in 2012. If either one were running for religious office, their private views publicly exposed on Catholic theology and the role of women in the Church might be relevant, but trying to make a scandal of this internal Catholic spitballing has a high stench of serving a political agenda.