By Kevin J. Jones
A reputed “Catholic Spring” group played a key role in influencing Barack Obama’s controversial 2009 Notre Dame speech, and its campaigns “broadened the agenda” of Catholic voters to see abortion as just one of several election issues.
This is according to a leaked memo attributed to George Soros’ Open Society Foundations.
The group, Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good, was founded in 2005. While early backing from billionaire financier George Soros’ philanthropic network was previously reported, a 2009 memo leaked earlier this year seems to provide the foundations’ view of the group’s early activities.
“CACG has helped to transform Catholic values in the mainstream media and in the public discourse on religion and politics, thereby thwarting previously successful attempts by the conservative movement to use religious faith for partisan advantage,” said the memo.
The memo, dated Sept. 22, 2009, is attributed to the Open Society Foundations’ U.S. Programs’ Democracy and Power Fund. The memo, apparently a series of grant proposals, was posted to the website DCLeaks.com.
According to the memo, Catholics in Alliance played “pivotal roles” in 2009 during “critical Catholic moments” like President Barack Obama’s 2009 Notre Dame commencement speech.
President Obama’s controversial speech at the University of Notre Dame included the bestowal of an honorary degree on the new president. The action had drawn criticism from dozens of bishops who said it caused scandal and confusion. The bishops cited U.S. bishops’ 2004 document “Catholics in Political Life,” which said that Catholic institutions should not honor those who “act in defiance of our fundamental moral principles.”
Bishop John D’Arcy, who at the time headed the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend, objected that the university in his diocese honored someone “whose activities both as president and previously, have been altogether supportive of laws against the dignity of the human person yet to be born.”
The Open Society Foundations memo praised Catholics in Alliance for “reframing” the abortion debate in terms of reducing abortions.
“Indeed, this reframing is where the group has showed some of its most successful policy influence within the new Obama administration: the President made this reframing the centerpiece of his much anticipated Notre Dame speech,” the memo said.
The memo lists Catholics In Alliance for the Common Good under the section “grassroots organizing and civic engagement.” It indicates the group received at least $450,000 in financial support from the massive George Soros philanthropy network from 2006-2010, when the foundations also operated under the name Open Society Institute (OSI).
The group is currently in the public eye because the site Wikileaks has posted alleged 2012 emails involving Hillary Clinton campaign chief John Podesta, who appears to state that Catholics in Alliance was founded to aid a “Catholic Spring” political revolution within the Church.
Christopher Hale, who became Catholics in Alliance’s executive director in late 2013, distanced himself from accusations he and his colleagues aimed to split the Church.
“We don’t concern ourselves with the internal politics of the Catholic Church,” Hale told CNA Oct. 17.
“I think that it’s important to distinguish the work of organizations from those who funded it or used to fund it,” he added. “No organization funders agree 100 percent with its activity.”
Catholics in Alliance has become more critical of powerful abortion groups in recent years
“I want to state categorically that we are pro-life. If anyone has doubts about that commitment, ask Planned Parenthood,” Hale said.
The group broke with many political progressives by criticizing Planned Parenthood following the release of investigative videos appearing to show the abortion provider breaking laws in selling harvested fetal tissue and body parts from aborted unborn babies.
According to the 2009 Open Society Foundations memo, Catholics in Alliance drew criticisms from pro-abortion rights groups like Catholics for Choice for its efforts to “play down abortion rights and reframe the debate in terms of reducing the number of abortions.”
“We believe that CACG’s reframing may actually be one of its strengths,” said the memo.
The Soros network typically supports abortion rights. The memo added: “We will continue to monitor this issue, but at this time feel that CACG’s position on choice is not at odds with OSI priorities.”
Catholics in Alliance’s politics-related actions also drew praise from the grantmaker.
“Unlike in 2004, CACG and the progressive faith community in 2008 provided a consistent counterpoint to the religious right-wing’s message in key media stories,” the memo said. “Importantly, CACG broadened the agenda of Catholic voters.”
Hale discussed Catholics in Alliance’s current view of the abortion debate.
“Catholics should definitely consider abortion as central component of the social teaching of the Catholic Church. But it is fair to say that it’s not the only issue,” Hale told CNA. “While abortion is very important to Catholic conscience, it can’t be the only issue,” he said.
“We’re proudly pro-life. That means more than pro-birth.”
Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good has spoken up about a wide variety of political issues, criticizing the parties and platforms on both sides of the aisle. However, it has drawn criticism for its general avoidance of criticizing Hillary Clinton by name, while it has criticized Donald Trump on numerous occasions.
The Open Society Foundations’ memo said the group filled an important vacuum by “providing a progressive voice for Catholics.” It claimed that the group’s outreach to Catholic voters in 2006 and 2008 resulted in a situation where the Catholic population believed that “abortion is not the overriding issue at the ballot box” but took into account the moral questions of the economy, health care, fair wages and a just immigration policy.
The memo claimed proof of the group’s success in post-2008 election poll results. It highlighted the large majorities of Evangelical and Catholic voters who told pollsters people of faith “should focus on all issues that are central to their values, rather than focusing on one or two issues.” As evidence the memo also listed poll results showing voters made the economy, Iraq, health care, and terrorism their top issues, while only 14 percent named abortion and 6 percent same-sex “marriage.”
Catholics in Alliance also drew praise for its use of “robust media, grassroots, and collaborative strategies” to educate and mobilize “voters of faith in support of social justice.” The memo said the group had gained attention through circulating local letters, producing radio ads, websites and op-eds, booking commentators on cable television, and in major news coverage
The memo said another critical Catholic moment the group influenced in 2009 was the release of Pope Benedict XVI’s 2009 encyclical “Caritas in Veritate,” but it did not specify any reasons for this claim.
The foundation memo said Catholics in Alliance fits into a broader strategy “to inspire greater public participation from mainstream and social justice oriented faith communities” on Open Society priority issues and also to “counter the outsize influence and impact of right-wing religious constituencies.”
Catholics in Alliance was mentioned in a recently leaked February 2012 e-mail exchange between Hillary Clinton’s present campaign manager, John Podesta, and Sandy Newman, president of the progressive organization Voices for Progress. They discussed the controversy over a federal rule requiring Catholic organizations to cover contraception.
Newman discussed the possibilities of a “Catholic Spring,” similar to Arab protests, to lead Catholics to demand “the end of a middle ages dictatorship and the beginning of a little democracy and respect for gender equality in the Catholic church.” Newman wondered how one would plant “the seeds of revolution.”
Podesta responded by saying, “We created Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good to organize for a moment like this.” At the same time, Podesta suggested it lacked the leadership to do so. He suggested former Maryland Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend be involved.
Newman replied to Podesta: “Great. I suppose it’s conceivable that a few organizers could spark a high-profile demonstration or two (a la Occupy [Wall Street]) that might turn out to be the spark. But it is indeed a puzzle to figure out why some events, usually with very little planning, ignite a movement no one would have predicted, while other, far better planned things fashioned by experienced organizers don’t.”
As of 2009, Catholics in Alliance organized local Catholic activists to promote public policy. It followed a media organizing strategy to promote the voices of religious leaders, and conducted “strategic coordination and support of the Catholic social justice movement,” the memo said.
The memo praised Catholics in Alliance’s role in immigration reform and in states affected by immigration raids. According to the memo, the group planned to offer media training and leadership training for Latino faith leaders, including the Academy of Catholic Hispanic Theologians, with a focus on immigration reform.
The memo named Catholics United as the group’s 501c4 sister organization. It claimed both groups had a combined membership of 60,000 and fundraising totals above $3 million as of 2009.
The memo also included a critical evaluation of Catholics in Alliance as an organization. It faulted the group for its alleged failure to incorporate and employ Latino Catholics, given demographic trends in Catholicism. The memo said the group was working to improve minority representation among Hispanics and people of color in its board of directors, its advisory council and its speakers’ bureau.
It said the departure of the group’s co-founder Alexia Kelley to join the Obama White House in 2009 left the group “without strong leadership.” Another co-founder, Tom Perriello, is mentioned in other documents in the Soros leak.
Another Soros foundations grantee, Faith in Public Life, is discussed in the 2009 memo for its role in media messaging on the University of Notre Dame controversy, stem cell guidelines, conscience protections for medical professionals, as well as issues like health care reform, climate change and immigration. Faith in Public Life is described as a partner organization for Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good.
The same document from the Soros foundations recommends a nearly $1.4 million grant to Podesta’s Center for American Progress and indicates previous Open Society Institute support for the center totaling nearly $5 million. It describes the Center for American Progress as “the most influential think tank in our funding universe.”
According to the memo, there is major foundation support for the center from the Carnegie Corporation of New York, the Humanity United Fund, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and the Ford Foundation, among others.
Other more recent documents leaked from the Soros foundations indicate the grantmaker aims to change Ireland’s pro-life laws against abortion as a model for Catholic countries. The grantmaker also took part in a $7-8 million dollar effort to respond to 2015 media reports appearing to show the abortion giant Planned Parenthood was involved in the illegal sale of fetal tissue and organs.
The Open Society Foundations did not respond to a request for comment on the document. It has previously said a number of internal documents were removed from “an online community that served as a resource for our staff, board members, and partners across the world.” It charged that the publication of documents was an apparent symptom of “an aggressive crackdown on civil society and human rights activists that is taking place globally.”