WASHINGTON (CNS) — Too much of the political discourse during this election year “has demeaned women and marginalized people of faith,” the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops said Oct. 14.
“This must change,” said Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz of Louisville, Kentucky. “True to the best hopes of our Founding Fathers, we are confident that we can and will do better as a nation.”
“Politicians, their staffs and volunteers should reflect our best aspirations as citizens,” he said.
The archbishop’s statement came at the end of a week of fallout over controversies involving the presidential campaigns of Republican nominee Donald Trump and Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.
One controversy involved NBC’s Oct. 9 leaking of a 2005 audio clip of Trump making lewd sexual remarks about women. The other involved an Oct. 11 release by WikiLeaks of what it said was an email chain among top officials from Clinton’s campaign discussing how many powerful conservatives in the U.S. are converts to Catholicism, which one email called “an amazing bastardization of the faith.”
“I think his comments are utterly disgusting, but I have no other choice than to vote for him,” said Gail Buckley, who attended a meeting of the Catholic Leadership Conference in Denver in early October, where Trump sent a letter to Catholics gathered there saying: “I will be there for you. I will stand with you. I will fight for you” on pro-life and other issues.
Buckley, who is president of the leadership conference as well as president and founder of Catholic Scripture Study International, said she asked Clinton to also address the group, but her campaign declined the invitation. Buckley said she does not trust Clinton and “would never support a candidate who promotes abortion and same-sex marriage and threatens my religious liberty.”
Joseph Cella, founder of the National Catholic Prayer Breakfast, who serves as a liaison between a Catholic advisory group and the Trump/Pence ticket, said he found what Trump said “repulsive and undignified and cannot be condoned or defended,” but he also said that the Republicans were the only candidates who would “defend the right to life” as well as religious freedom.
Even before the Oct. 9 presidential debate and the airing of the video and audio, Trump seemed to be struggling with Catholics for their vote, according to a PRRI poll released in late August. The poll showed him down 23 points, 55-32, against Clinton.
The letter Trump sent out to Catholic Leadership Conference members gathered in Denver in early October seemed “like a desperate Hail Mary pass,” said John Gehring, Catholic program director at Faith in Public Life, an advocacy group in Washington.
“Trump is struggling with Catholic voters for a reason: Anti-immigrant nativism, crude sexism and making an idol of wealth are not Gospel values,” Gehring said to CNS in an email interview. “Pope Francis reminds us that building a culture of life isn’t about a single issue and that everything is connected. Catholics also want to hear about creating an economy of inclusion, dignity for refugees and addressing the way climate change disproportionately hurts the poor. These are central life issues.”
CatholicVote.org said a day before the debate that even though it didn’t endorse Trump, it defended a lot of his positions. In an Oct. 8 statement on its website, it said that “in the recording, he brags about sexually assaulting women. Christians should not waste their breath defending them. The mere fact that this conversation is occurring in the context of a presidential campaign impoverishes us all.”
One of the leaked email chains criticized Catholics described as conservative for being “attracted to the systematic thought and severely backwards gender relations” of the Catholic Church.
Another chain suggested using contraception as a wedge issue and called for a “Catholic Spring” 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.
On Oct. 12, Catholic News Service sent an email to the Clinton campaign seeking comment, but there was no reply. A Time magazine story published online late Oct. 12 said Brian Fallon, a Clinton spokesperson, responded to the charges of anti-Catholicism, calling it a “faux controversy” courtesy of a WikiLeaks hack.
One of the leaked email chains was from 2011 and had as its subject “Conservative Catholicism.” The exchange was between Jennifer Palmieri, a Catholic herself, who is now Clinton’s communications director, and John Halpin, a fellow at the Center for American Progress. They discussed Rupert Murdoch, CEO of News Corp, a media conglomerate that includes Fox News in its holdings, and Wall Street Journal managing editor Robert Thomson having had their children baptized as Catholics.
“Many of the most powerful elements of the conservative movement are all Catholic — many converts. … It’s an amazing bastardization of the faith,” Halpin wrote in an email to Palmieri and John Podesta, Hillary’s campaign chairman who was chief of staff to President Bill Clinton and has been a counselor to President Barack Obama. “They must be attracted to the systematic thought and severely backwards gender relations and must be totally unaware of Christian democracy.”
Halpin added: “I imagine they think it is the most socially acceptable politically conservative religion. Their rich friends wouldn’t understand if they became evangelicals.”
Podesta, himself a Catholic, did not respond to their comments.
Other emails leaked by WikiLeaks included an 2012 email to Podesta from Sandy Newman, president of Voices for Progress. “This whole controversy with the bishops opposing contraceptive coverage, even though 98 percent of Catholic women, and their conjugal partners, have used contraception, has me thinking,” said Newman, referring to a now-debunked myth regarding artificial contraception usage among sexually active Catholic women. “There needs to be a Catholic Spring, 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.
“Is contraceptive coverage an issue around which that could happen?” he asked in a Feb. 10, 2012, email.
In response to Newman’s question, Podesta tells him: “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.”
WikiLeaks is a controversial nonprofit organization, headed by founder Julian Assange, that publishes secret information, news leaks and classified media from anonymous sources.
In response to the email exchanges published by Wikileaks, Philadelphia Archbishop Charles J. Chaput wrote in an Oct. 13 column for CatholicPhilly.com, the news website for the Philadelphia Archdiocese, that it “would be wonderful for the Clinton campaign to repudiate the content of these ugly WikiLeaks emails. All of us backward-thinking Catholics who actually believe what Scripture and the Church teach would be so very grateful.”
He also noted that the night these emails were released he received “an angry email” from a non-Catholic attorney experienced in Church-state affairs who told the archbishop he was offended by the emails and called them “some of the worst bigotry by a political machine I have seen.”
“At this important time in our nation’s history, I encourage all of us to take a moment to reflect on one of the founding principles of our republic — the freedom of religion,” Archbishop Kurtz said. “It ensures the right of faith communities to preserve the integrity of their beliefs and proper self-governance.
“There have been recent reports that some may have sought to interfere in the internal life of the Church for short-term political gain. If true, this is troubling both for the well-being of faith communities and the good of our country,” he said.
Christ “has given us a precious gift” in the Catholic faith and the Catholic Church, the archbishop said.
“As Catholics, we hold onto our beliefs because they come to us from Jesus, not a consensus forged by contemporary norms. The Gospel is offered for all people for all times,” Archbishop Kurtz said. “It invites us to love our neighbor and live in peace with one another. For this reason, the truth of Christ is never outdated or inaccessible. The Gospel serves the common good, not political agendas.”
He urged Catholics and all people of goodwill in the nation to be “good stewards of the precious rights we have inherited as citizens of this country.”
“We also expect public officials to respect the rights of people to live their faith without interference from the state. When faith communities lose this right, the very idea of what it means to be an American is lost,” he added.
— Rhina Guidos from Catholic News Service contributed to this article.