By Kevin Jones
A group that has been tied to the idea of a “Catholic Spring” revolution in leaked emails may have tried to intimidate pastors at Catholic Churches in Florida during the last presidential election.
Ahead of the 2012 elections, the group Catholics United sent a letter to Florida pastors saying it was monitoring for reputed illegal political activity in Catholic churches – which state Catholic leaders saw as an effort to silence the Church.
An internal message to Catholic pastors from the Florida Conference of Catholic Bishops said the letter was inaccurate and appeared to be “an attempt to silence pastors on issues that are of concern to the Church this election season.”
James Salt, then-executive director of the group Catholics United, had sent the Oct. 22, 2012 letter to priests in Florida, claiming to have recruited “a network of local volunteers to monitor parishes and document the nature of all partisan activity taking place there.”
Catholics United is back in the news with the publication of a February 2012 email exchange involving John Podesta, Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton’s present campaign manager.
Podesta indicated that the groups Catholics United and Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good had been created for moments of controversy involving Catholic bishops, like the religious freedom controversy over federally mandated contraceptive coverage in health plans. He said the two groups lacked leadership for such a role.
Using a phrase of his interlocutor, progressive leader Sandy Newman, Podesta suggested a “Catholic Spring” could be organized within the Church. The phrase invokes the imagery of the so-called Arab Spring uprisings.
Salt’s letter later that year claimed there had been “numerous IRS violations” in Florida Catholic parishes such as partisan references during homilies, political endorsements printed in church bulletins, and the distribution of partisan literature in church parking lots. He told pastors that Catholics United had retained a law firm to help protect them and their parish community from losing tax exempt status.
Catholics United had previously tussled with the group Priests for Life in the 2008 elections, claiming the group was partisan and had trained thousands of activists to place political literature on churchgoing Catholics’ cars.
Salt invoked the U.S. bishops, telling pastors, “As you know, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has a very clear prohibition against any sort of partisan activity taking place within Catholic parishes.”
The Florida Catholic bishops’ conference, however, responded that activities to “raise awareness of issues and promote political responsibility” do not jeopardize tax exempt status. It referred to the Florida Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Election and Political Activities Guide for guidance.
Chris Hale, who became executive director of Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good in December 2013, told CNA he respected his predecessors’ work, but he suggested his group’s perspective has changed.
“I think that the previous leadership of Catholics United was looking to the signs of the time and figuring out how to best protect parishioners in the pews and make sure they heard a message that was consistent with the social teaching of the Church,” he said Nov. 2.
“That being said, I don’t think that message that was taken in 2012 should be crafted in 2016,” he added. “I’m of the opinion that pastors should speak freely, priests should speak freely from the pulpit about the issues pertaining to Catholics in this election.”
Hale voiced hope priests would do so “in a way that would represent the totality of the Church’s social teaching,” adding “no pastor should feel threatened in any capacity that their First Amendment rights should be infringed.”
According to Hale, Catholics in Alliance and Catholics United effectively merged in 2015.
James Salt is currently a board member of Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good. He previously served in faith outreach for the Kansas Democratic Party, did messaging work under then-Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, and served on the 2012 Democratic Party Platform Committee.
Salt’s 2012 letter asked Florida pastors to “protect your parish from losing its tax-exempt status” by taking a pledge, titled “Keep Politics Out of Our Pulpits.” He said this would demonstrate pastors’ commitment and help ensure their parish is free from “any illegal political activity.”
The reputed pledge solicited the pastor’s name and house of worship. It asked that pledges be sent to the Catholics United Education Fund in Washington, D.C. The education fund, whose Pennsylvania affiliate Keystone Catholics is now an arm of Catholics in Alliance, was the 501c3 arm of Catholics United.
For its part, the Florida Catholic bishops’ conference recommended that pastors not sign the pledge.
The response to the Catholics United letter and pledge was written by Michele M. Taylor, who at the time was the state Catholic conference’s associate director for communications. The internal response was published on the website of the Diocese of Orlando without the knowledge of the Catholic conference.
Taylor recounted the situation to CNA in October 2012.
“Our pastors had received faxes from Catholics United telling them that their activities would jeopardize 501c3 status,” Taylor said. “We disagree with that. As long as their activities are within the guidelines that we put out from this office, they’re fine.”
In an Oct. 30, 2012 press release, Catholics United misidentified the source of the Catholic response, wrongly claiming it came from the Diocese of Orlando. The group portrayed the diocese as refusing “to keep partisan politics out of its pulpits.”
“In this election year, and especially in a swing state like Florida, lay Catholics have been inundated with nasty political attacks,” Salt said, claiming that the Orlando diocese was encouraging “political games.”
“This request was apparently out of line for the diocese. It’s a shame Orlando Catholics have to endure this type of politicking in their churches,” he added.
The issue of Catholic messaging was on the mind of politico John Podesta, according to other emails posted to WikiLeaks and attributed to his email account.
In a Nov. 4, 2012 email, one Jon Schnur wrote Podesta that he was concerned about many Catholic churches that “may be giving highly problematic messages to parishioners/voters today.” In the email, written the Sunday before Election Day, Schnur said he was especially concerned about churches in the states of Ohio, Wisconsin, Colorado and Pennsylvania.
Schnur, whose wife is Catholic, said he thought the parish he attended in New Orleans that weekend was “over the top.” He worried this messaging could be well-organized in the Catholic Church, “even if they would argue somehow doesn’t cross political lines.”
He asked Podesta whether there was any sense of this in the Obama campaign.
“Anything can be done about it? In terms of respected Catholic validators, microtargeting, etc. in key heavily Catholic areas in swing communities?”
Podesta replied Nov. 5, 2012:
“I think the campaign is dealing with it as best they can. Catholics United and Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good have also done a bunch of work in relevant places. For the people who I sit with in the pews, it kind of goes in one ear and out the other.”
Schnur was not identified, though a man of the same name is a past education adviser to president Obama and now heads an education policy consultancy. CNA contacted him for comment but did not receive a response by deadline.
Hale told CNA he thought letters like Salt’s were particular to Florida. He suggested that the Podesta email referred to work like the Catholics in Alliance 2012 voting guide. The group did some organizing in Ohio and worked to ensure Catholic voting access.
After the 2012 elections, on Nov. 21, Salt again criticized the bishops.
“It’s a shame that rather than being pastors to their flock, many bishops have decided to engage in divisive political games,” he said. “Hopefully, this election is a wake-up call for the bishops, and a strong reminder to cut their partisan ties and get back to serving the Gospel mandate of helping the poorest and most vulnerable.”
According to Hale, skeptics of Catholics in Alliance’s past should look at its current work.
“I would say that time and again we’ve shown ourselves to be solid practitioners of the gospel in public life and we do it in a way that challenges everyone without exception,” he said. “I can tell you since I’ve been in charge in December 2013 that we’ve promoted the social mission of the Church, without exception.”
Hale’s group has drawn criticism for its avoidance of criticizing Hillary Clinton by name. However, he maintained, “We get criticism all the time from the left and the right for not falling in line.” He pointed to the group’s support of the Hyde Amendment when it was opposed by the Democratic Party platform.
Last year, the group also criticized Planned Parenthood in the wake of undercover videos appearing to show its staff and leaders engaged in the illegal sale of aborted babies’ body parts and tissues. Its actions drew a critical response from Catholics for Choice, a pro-abortion rights front group.
Though Catholics United no longer exists in name, its influence is still remembered in 2016.
After the Podesta emails became public, Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia recounted his 2008 encounter with two unnamed leaders in Catholics United.
“Both men were obvious flacks for the Obama campaign and the Democratic Party – creatures of a political machine, not men of the Church; less concerned with Catholic teaching than with its influence,” he said Oct. 13. “They hoped my brother bishops and I would resist identifying the Church with single-issue and partisan (read: abortion) politics.”
“Thanks to their work, and activists like them, American Catholics helped to elect an administration that has been the most stubbornly unfriendly to religious believers, institutions, concerns and liberty in generations,” the archbishop said.