By John M. Swomley | December 2010
Christian Ethics Today
A massive political campaign is underway in an effort to achieve religious and political control of crucial American policies and institutions, an effort which the popular press and television have virtually ignored. It was inspired by the Vatican and has been carried out over a period of years under the supervision of the National Council of Catholic Bishops. The bishops have created the impression that they speak for 59 million Catholics, which makes them a formidable political force, able to influence or intimidate presidents and other public officials.
For example, they had an important and close relationship with President George Bush. Within a month after Bush took office, he included all five of the U.S. cardinals in meetings at the White House and, thereafter, Cardinals Bernard Law of Boston and John O’Connor of New York spent overnights at the White House as guests of the president.
Doug Wead, a special assistant to the president, was quoted in the December 29, 1989, National Catholic Reporter as saying that Bush “has been more sensitive and accessible to the needs of the Catholic Church than any president I know of in American history.We want the Church to feel loved and wanted, and we want them to have input.” That relationship and input was maintained through the cardinals. Wead also boasted that “this administration has appointed more Catholic cabinet officers than any other in American history.” There were, however, a number in the Reagan administration, as well.
The bishops organized their political campaign in 1975 and outlined it in an internal pastoral letter for Catholic officials and organizations. It is an ambitious campaign aimed at controlling judicial appointments, Congress, and other national and state political offices. In his book Catholic Bishops in American Politics, Catholic writer Timothy A. Byrnes calls the bishops’ plan the “most focused and aggressive political leadership” ever exerted by the American Catholic hierarchy.
This political campaign, which has been organized around the issues of abortion and certain forms of birth control, has wider implications. The ability to control political and judicial offices on one doctrinal issue can and will be used on other matters, such as aid to parochial schools to the neglect of public schools and use of welfare legislation to provide funds for the charitable activities of churches, among others.
In their plans, the bishops list twenty major Catholic organizations-such as the Knights of Columbus, the Catholic Press Association, the Catholic Physicians’ Guild, and the Catholic Lawyers Association-then begin to “explain political strategy and discuss how each group may participate.” This involves getting “the National Organizations to inventory their internal political capabilities systematically by means of their own government relations” and to “establish a communications structure from Washington to the national office of each organization to activate support for the political program.”
A primary focus of the bishops’ campaign is judicial appointment, so as to reverse Supreme Court decisions that legalize abortion. “Efforts should be made to reverse the decision, to restrain lower courts from interpreting and applying [Supreme Court decisions] more aggressively and more absolutely than the Supreme Court,” the plans dictate. The bishops also “urge appointment of judges” who can be counted on to oppose abortion.
They have already been successful in that only anti-abortion judges were appointed during the Reagan and Bush years-not one single pro-choice judge was named to the bench. Today, over 70 percent of our federal judges are basically anti-abortion, as are at least four Supreme Court justices.
In order to influence the appointment of judges, it was necessary for the bishops to influence or control other branches of government. So a threefold strategy was “directed toward the legislative, judicial, and administrative areas.” This meant that “all Church sponsored or identified Catholic national, regional, diocesan and parochial organizations and agencies [must] pursue the three-fold effort.”
When Ronald Reagan was elected president, a major effort was made to influence him, especially at the point of foreign policy. The only popular press coverage of this was a feature by Carl Bernstein in Time magazine on February 24, 1992. Bernstein reported that “the key administrative players were all devout Roman Catholics”: CIA Chief William Casey; National Security Advisors Richard Allen and William Clark; Secretary of State Alexander Haig; Ambassador at Large Vernon Walters; and Reagan’s first ambassador to the Vatican, William Wilson.
Time also reported that, “in response to concerns of the Vatican, the Reagan Administration agreed to alter its foreign aid program to comply with the church’s teachings on birth control. ‘American policy was changed, as a result of the Vatican’s not agreeing with our policy,’ Wilson explained. ‘American aid programs around the world did not meet the criteria the Vatican had for family planning.'” The Agency for International Development “‘sent various people from [the Department of] State to Rome,’ said Wilson, ‘and I’d accompany them to meet the president of the Pontifical Council for the Family, and in long discussions they finally got the message.'” The Vatican was directly involved through Pio Laghi, its apostolic delegate to Washington, D.C., with the Catholic members of Reagan’s team, according to the Time article.
According to Dr. R.T. Ravenholt, presidential candidate Jimmy Carter made a deal on August 31, 1976, with a group of Catholic bishops headed by Archbishop Joseph Bernadin in which the bishops, by agreeing not to endorse Carter’s opponent, Gerald Ford, received major concessions in terms of Catholic political appointees who dismembered and crippled the State Department’s family planning programs. Ravenholt, who was serving as director of AID’s global population program, was removed.
The legislative branch of government, according to the bishops’ plan, requires a more complex organization to cover every congressional district. Immediately after the campaign plan was formulated in 1975, the bishops began to “establish in each diocese a Pro-Life Committee to coordinate groups and activities within the diocese with respect to federal legislative structures.” This committee “will act through the diocesan Pro-Life Director, who is appointed by the Bishop to direct pro-life efforts in the diocese.” The committee also included a congressional district representative to “develop core groups with close relationships to each Senator or Representative [and organize a] grass roots effort in every Congressional district.” Whenever there is a “House Recess Schedule,” the plan “makes the task of visiting the representative in his/her district both imperative and achievable.”
At the congressional level, the bishops already have a staunch supporter of the Vatican in Henry Hyde. As chair of the House Judiciary Committee, he has taken the initiative in promoting an anti-abortion amendment to the U.S. Constitution. It is Hyde who recently promoted the failed Istook amendment, which would have made government funds available for religious organizations. In 1996, Hyde also chaired the Republican Party’s Platform Committee, which has consistently given fetal life rights superior to those of pregnant women.
In each state, there is also a state coordinating committee to work on state politicians and legislators-the bishops have neglected nothing. They ask Catholics to “elect members of their own group, or active sympathizers, to specific posts in all local party organizations.” In other words, the bishops have established an organization in each parish, diocese, state, and on other levels in an effort to take control of American politics, knowing full well that most Americans do not vote and are often not informed of religious groups’ determination to achieve their political goals.
The funding for this political effort comes from the bishops’ own budget, which even five years ago in 1993, provided $1.8 million-more than three times the next largest budgeted item. However, other major sources of funding include the Knights of Columbus and wealthy Catholic donors, such as the owner of Domino’s Pizza and the Coors beer family. A number of Foundations with Religious Right agendas have also now joined in this parade.
Another aspect of the bishops’ plan is their ecumenical effort to organize Protestant evangelical churches as “front” groups, so as to avoid anti-Catholic criticism or recognition that there is a Catholic campaign to control politics. At this level, they have been highly successful in bringing into their campaign the Southern Baptist Convention, the Mormons, and numerous other groups led by Protestant media religionists, including Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, and James Kennedy, and lay leaders, including Missouri Senator John Ashcroft of the Assemblies of God.
Although the bishops have an extensive publicity network, they are quite content to let these Protestant groups get major attention in the public press, so long as they serve Vatican interests. The combination of these groups, together with the Catholic pro-life organizations, are loosely known as the religious right wing. These individuals and groups are represented formally or informally by such organizations as the Council on National Policy, the Christian Coalition, and organizations founded by Catholic right-wing leader Paul Weyrich: the Heritage Foundation and the Free Congress Foundation. They oppose separation of church and state, reproductive freedom for women, family planning, and equal rights for gays and lesbians and, in general, favor aid to parochial schools or home schooling over adequately financed public schools. On this latter issue, although a majority of Catholic children, especially lower-income Catholics, attend public schools, no cardinal or bishop is an outspoken advocate or defender of public education. It is not a Vatican priority or concern and, on all of the above issues, the Catholic and Protestant right wingers are united.
It is ironic and perhaps significant that the Christian Coalition is being investigated on the extent to which their contributions are illegal, since they claim to be a wholly religious organization not involved in politics. Meanwhile, the Catholic Church and Catholic organizations which are clearly involved in political activity have not been so investigated.
There is a very large group of progressive Catholics who are pro-choice and favor birth control, equal rights for women, religious liberty, and public education; in general, they support candidates with such views. However, they are not organized politically so as to espouse or give support to progressive politicians. Nevertheless, they provided the margin of votes for the Clinton-Gore reelection ticket in the twelve most heavily Catholic states, even though the bishops strongly attacked Clinton for his veto of a late-term abortion bill and in quiet ways supported the Republican ticket. This demonstrates that the bishops do not speak for all Catholics and that politicians who are not intimidated by the bishops’ campaign can often win against those who do yield to the bishops’ political efforts.
Still, the threat to America posed by the Catholic bishops and their Protestant allies is very great. At the very least, their efforts could lead to some form of shadow theocratic government, such as in southern Ireland where the bishops collectively are known as the “purple parliament.”
What is required to counter this is a clear expose of the Catholic bishops’ campaign and their collusion with the Protestant right wing, which they assisted in organizing, coupled with a strong counter-offensive in defense of church-state separation. It should also be obvious that organizations which depend upon an independent judiciary and judicial defense of the Bill of Rights cannot be effective if the separation of church and state is eroded and congressional majorities are dominated by the religious right wing.
New strategies, new organizations of progressive voters, and more grass-roots education must become the order of the day. Until that happens, it is essential to alert everyone about the Catholic campaign for America and its Protestant allies.
John M. Swomley is professor emeritus of social ethics at St. Paul School of Theology in Kansas City, Missouri
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