More Podesta: Hey, who's up for a Catholic Spring to reject church's "middle ages dictatorship"?

If anything, a second e-mail chain on Catholicism from the hacked archives of John Podesta might be even sillier than the earlier release. In that thread, Center for American Progress fellow John Halpin ranted about the supposed lack of interest that conservative Catholics have in the 19th-century advent of “Christian democracy.” This new e-mail thread suggests a lack of awareness of Martin Luther. It does, however, reveal the intent behind Podesta’s efforts to organize progressive Catholics, and it’s not all about American politics.

In this new thread from 2012 with the subject header “opening for a Catholic spring? just musing …”, Voices for Progress president Sandy Newman tells Hillary Clinton’s now-campaign chair that the time has arrived for an uprising against the church’s “middle ages dictatorship and the beginning of a little democracy[.]” The inspiration for this call is the USCCB’s opposition to the HHS contraception mandate, of course:

This whole controversy with the bishops opposing contraceptive coverage even though 98% of Catholic women (and their conjugal partners) have used contraception has me thinking . . . 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. The Bishops will undoubtedly continue the fight. Does the Catholic Hospital Association support of the Administration’s new policy, together with “the 98%” create an opportunity?

Of course, this idea may just reveal my total lack of understanding of the Catholic church, the economic power it can bring to bear against nuns and priests who count on it for their maintenance, etc. Even if the idea isn’t crazy, I don’t qualify to be involved and I have not thought at all about how one would “plant the seeds of the revolution,” or who would plant them. Just wondering . . .

Well, it is crazy, for reasons we’ll get to in a minute. Podesta then 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. I’ll discuss with Tara. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend is the other person to consult.

Far be it from me to put a damper on grassroots democracy, but that’s not the Catholic Church — that’s congregationalism. The raison d’être of the Catholic Church (and other Orthodox churches) come in part from its lineage of apostolic succession. Christ anointed the Apostles with the charism of leadership for His church, and Peter specifically to hold the keys to the Kingdom. The leadership passes to those called to the office of bishops by the Holy Spirit, who works through the other bishops to discern that charism. In this way, the Holy Spirit works through the bishops working together with the Pope (in the Catholic church) to ensure against doctrinal error and provide sustainability for the Church.

It’s safe to say that not everyone agrees with these doctrines. Martin Luther and Henry VIII, acting independently (and at odds with each other), produced the Reformation schism which rejected those principles, setting off not just the Protestant expansion but an avalanche of other denominations as well. Many of those do operate on a democratic basis, either through direct election of leaders from the laity or a representative democracy that uses church elders to perform the same function. But again, that’s not the Catholic Church.

Furthermore, the description of this as a “middle ages dictatorship” is laughable on its face. If anything, it’s a structure from the Roman period, not the middle ages. But even more, how can the leadership of a voluntary organization be credibly described as a “dictatorship” in the first place? Those who want a Christian denomination where popular perspective determines doctrine and practice have plenty of choices for their exercise of faith. The church does not force people to be Catholic, and usually leaves their adherence to doctrine as a matter for private confession — at least until the point that it cause public scandal. If democracy is a higher value than Catholic teachings, well, the door is right over there, although we’d prefer people of all political stripes to recognize that Catholicism has room for people across the political spectrum.

On the topic at hand (contraception and the government mandate to distribute it), it’s almost certainly true that most Catholics have at one time or another chose against church teaching to use it. That doesn’t make the doctrine false, nor does it mean (a) that Catholics disagree with it in principle or (b) they think it’s legitimate to force Catholics to participate in it against their will. The teachings on contraception relate directly to the doctrine of sacramental marriage being a model of the creative power of the perfect self-giving love of the Trinity. (That being said, the Catholic Church understands that their biggest problem here is poor efforts at catechism on marriage.) As to contraception outside of marriage, well … there are bigger issues at play in that equation. Again, not everyone agrees with this view, and there are a lot of denominations that might fit one’s value system better.

Thus, the call for a “Catholic spring” is nonsense on stilts, and highly insulting, especially given its obvious reference to the popular uprisings against brutal Arab dictators like Moammar Qaddafi and Bashar al-Assad. Rather than rebuke Newman for this, though, Podesta assures her he’s working to undermine church leadership on doctrine and practice with his organizing efforts in the US. That’s certainly a clarifying position when it comes to pronouncements from Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good and Catholics United, but probably not terribly surprising either. Say, how does Tim Kaine feel about that?

Perhaps even more than the first e-mail chain, this exchange demonstrates a level of hostility toward the Catholic Church as a whole, not just the “conservatives” within it. These leaders of the progressive movement clearly see the Catholic Church as a threat to their political position. It’s time for Catholics to see progressive activists in that light as well.

Addendum: My friend Matt Schlapp, chair of the American Conservative Union, issued a statement earlier today about both e-mail threads calling for the firing of both Podesta and Jennifer Palmieri:

When the cameras are off and the doors are closed, to have senior Clinton campaign officials and advisers call practicing Catholics “backwards,” to mock a Saint of the Church like St. Thomas Aquinas, or to make fun of the baptizing of one’s children, demonstrates to voters who the real bigots are in this race.

The campaign has pushed a central theme to paint her opponent and his supporters as bigots.  It is important for voters to understand that the Clinton campaign – when in private – expresses breathtaking anti-Catholic bigotry.

Hillary Clinton tells us she likes to “go high,” but she and her campaign are as low as a snake’s belly.  If Mrs. Clinton does not fire these advisers immediately, she will have no moral authority on the issue of prejudice in our society.

Catholic Vote has also called for Palmieri’s resignation. Don’t hold your breath, though.