Resurgence of the Catholic Political Right under Trump
A company has been formed to provide legal and financial expertise for the anticipated start-ups of other right-wing Catholic organizations. Diocesan foundations – capable of moving political “dark money” - have more than doubled their assets since Trump’s election. A British publication, looking for increased revenues, has entered the growing market for right-wing Catholic journalism.
These demonstrate a confidence that Catholics are capable of influencing future elections. They are energized by their 2016 triumph in recapturing the Executive Branch with a trusted and powerful ally.
Trump controls 137 executive agencies and 268 units in the Cabinet affecting every area of life in the United States. Trump is also able to appoint large numbers of the 870 federal judges: nine on the Supreme Court, 179 on the courts of appeals, 673 for the district courts and nine on the Court of International Trade. Additionally, a two-thirds supermajority is needed in both houses to override a Trump veto of any legislation.
House Democrats recently passed H.R. 1. The bill requires Super PACs and “dark money” political organizations to make the names of their donors public and provide information on how they spend their money. Although Mitch McConnell won’t introduce the bill in the Senate, Democrats are prioritizing this issue and want to pass it if they manage to win back the Senate or the White House in 2020.
The bill, however, leaves intact religious organizations’ ability to keep the names of their donors secret; their income and expenditures can remain hidden. So the Catholic Religious Right has increased their influence and political clout.
Napa Legal Institute
The NLI, created at the end of 2018 by the Napa Institute, “acts as an incubator for new Catholic apostolates and other organizations,” stated Josh Holdenried, NLI executive director. “Topics we’re interested in addressing include corporate governance and structure, entity formation, tax exemption, IRS compliance, and other non-litigation legal and financial issues,” Holdenried stated.
The NLI claims to have a religious purpose: “to protect and advance the missions of nonprofit organizations aligned with the Catholic faith,” although “those who seek our help do not necessarily need to be expressly Catholic, but their mission and values must be aligned with the Catholic faith in the areas that matter,” explained Holdenried. For this reason, “we will look to our Ecclesiastical Advisor, Bishop Robert Vasa of the Diocese of Santa Rosa (CA) to ensure that alignment is clear when necessary,” Holdenried said.
Vasa once called Obamacare “positively evil due to its funding of abortion” (which it does not) and stated same-sex marriage was “gravely sinful” and involved “unnatural sexuality.”
Holdenried, however, has no religious background. He was formerly with The Heritage Foundation, “a right-wing think tank. Its stated mission is to formulate and promote public policies based on the principles of ‘free enterprise, limited government, individual freedom, traditional American values, and a strong national defense.’” He was also legislative correspondent for GOP Representative Alan Nunnelee of Mississippi. “Having lived and worked in D.C. for over half a decade, I’m able to add to NLI and Napa Institute’s strategic network through my on-the-ground experience," Holdenried said.
“Opus Dei pursues the Vatican’s agenda through the presence of its members in secular governments and institutions and through a vast array of academic, medical, and grassroots pursuits. Its constant effort [is] to increase its presence in civil institutions of power. [T]heir work in the public sphere breaches the church-state division that is fundamental to modern democracy,” noted Gordon Urquhart, author of The Pope’s Armada: Unlocking the Secrets of Mysterious and Powerful New Sects in the Church. “Opus Dei uses the Catholic Church for its own ends which are money and power …. Its members form a transnational elite. They seek to colonize the summits of power. They work with stealth – ‘holy discretion’ – and practice ‘divine deception,’” Robert Hutchison wrote in the introduction to his book, Their Kingdom Come: Inside the Secret World of Opus Dei.
Members of the NLI Board of Directors include:
- Leonard A. Leo, who “can take credit for installing four Supreme Court justices”- John Roberts, Samuel Alito, Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh. It was Leo who prepared Trump’s “list of judges and the people that he’s put on the bench.” Leo is on the board of directors of Opus Dei’s Catholic Information Center located two blocks from the White House. The Center is “a rallying point for ultra-conservative Catholics eager for a voice in the secular halls of government power” and “advances a hard-right political agenda.”
- Alan E. Sears, founder of the Alliance Defending Freedom, designated a “hate group” by the Southern Poverty Law Center for its anti-LGBTQ ideology, including its efforts to ban same-sex marriage and recriminalize homosexuality domestically and abroad. Sears and his wife “were invested as a Knight/Dame of the Equestrian Order of St. Gregory the Great by Pope Francis, the highest award given by the pope to a layperson.” Investiture “is given in recognition of extraordinary service to the Vatican.”
- William Mumma, CEO of Becket, a Religious Right legal group “redefining religious liberty” as the “primary legal and public relations strategy” to “resist the advance of LGBT equality and restrict women’s access to reproductive care.”
- Michael Warsaw, CEO of EWTN Global Catholic Network, the largest religious media enterprise in the world. Candidate Trump granted the Eternal Word Television Network, which reaches 290 million households in more than 145 countries and territories, an exclusive interview. He “appealed to Catholic voters and other voters of faith, saying that his rival Hillary Clinton will be hostile to them.” It aired on Oct. 27, in the final days before the election.
While Trump won the Evangelical South and rural states as expected, “persuading white Catholics was especially important in Rust Belt states that helped hand the president his 2016 Electoral College victory - namely, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin…. All three states are home to counties with some of the highest densities of Catholic congregations in the country, with some boasting 21 or more.”
Trump’s 2020 reelection campaign is planning a victory in these same states: Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin because Catholics are still the largest single denomination in the U.S. According to polls conducted in January, "52% of white Catholics who attend Mass weekly approve of Trump, as do 45% of those who attend services less often." However, only 39 percent of the general population approved of Trump.
NLI’s parent, the Napa Institute, has the tax status of a religious organization. It was founded in 2010 by Timothy R. Busch “to help business men and women and evangelical leaders remain influential within a more secular America.” Busch is chairman of the NLI board and still heads the Napa Institute.
An attorney, he is founder of the Busch Firm that specializes in "high net-worth" estate planning as well as representing religious organizations. He is CEO of a company that manages hotels and resorts and is founder of the Trinitas wine company.
He funds the Busch School of Business at the Catholic University of America, the only institute of higher learning directed by the U.S. bishops. The Busch School of Business and Napa Institute co-hosted a three day conference with political and religious leaders October 3-5, 2018. The speakers included:
- Carly Fiorina, 2016 Republican candidate for president:
- Arthur Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute, “an influential right-wing think tank that advocates for lower taxes, fewer protections for consumers and the environment, and cuts to the social safety net”;
- Steve Green, the president of Hobby Lobby, known for the landmark Supreme Court decision, Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, that allowed private for-profit corporations to be exempt from government regulations the owners reject based on their religion. The Green family was granted a private audience with Pope Francis in 2014 who inquired “How the (Supreme Courtt) case was progressing?”
The 2017 three-day conference at the Catholic University of America sponsored by the Busch School of Business and the Napa Institute headlined Charles Koch as the main speaker. Koch is a major contributor to the Busch business school. Koch is also co-founder with his brother David of Americans for Prosperity, “a billionaire-funded organization that has pushed U.S. politics to the right. It is intertwined with, and rivals in size, the Republican Party itself. AFP has quietly pushed behind the scenes for many of the most important conservative victories across the nation.”
Busch is also active in other conservative Catholic organizations, including Legatus, an organization of ‘top-tier’ Catholic executive which “offers a unique support network of like-minded Catholics who influence the world marketplace.”
The Purpose of the Religious Right
Let’s be clear. The Religious Right was created by the intentional melding of organized religion and the Republican Party. In the late 1970s, it was a brilliant plan to take advantage of not only – at that time - the prestige of, and respect for, religious leaders for the benefit of the GOP, but also to provide unlimited dark money for political campaigns. Long before PACs and Super PACs were standard funding sources for political operatives, all religious organizations were/are as legally financially opaque as they wish to be. As an added bonus, big donors even receive a tax deduction for their contributions.
The only requisite for religious leaders and organizations to maintain their non-political status was/is not to endorse a candidate by name. So “moral” values were selected that would energize conservatives to political activism and get-out-the-vote. The Republican Party became the “pro-life” and “family values” champions.
Paul Weyrich, along with fellow Catholics Terry Dolan and Richard Viguerie, and Howard Phillips, a Jew who had converted to evangelical Christianity, established the Moral Majority in 1978 to be led by Southern Baptist pastor Jerry Falwell. Other Evangelical churchmen followed. Weyrich, once referred to as the most powerful man in America, also founded The Heritage Foundation, the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), and many other organizations that became weapons for the neoconservative domination of the right-wing.
Since Catholic bishops are normally only replaced when they retire or die, it took over a decade for Pope John Paul II, with the advice of his allies in the Reagan Administration, to create a majority of U.S. prelates dedicated to the Republican Party. The American Catholic Church then directed their resources to denying women and LGBTQ persons their human rights. Unlike Evangelicals, the bishops speak with a unified, and therefore more powerful, national voice. Additionally, no other religion has a global network capable of moving dark money thanks to protections provided under separation-of-church-and-state laws in the West’s financial centers.
“Catholic foundations have been growing - and multiplying - at near-record rates over the past two years,” stated a February report by the Wilmington Trust, a wealth advisory firm. “The total assets for all surveyed Catholic foundations more than doubled since the last report in 2016, expanding from $4.6 billion to $9.5 billion in only two years,” according to the study. "The growth rate was not just on the investment side, but the fundraising was also significant," said Walter Dillingham, the author of the study entitled "Catholic Foundations Continue to Advance in the United States."
Catholic foundations are separate financial entities but still “connected” to a diocese. https://cruxnow.com/church-in-the-usa/2019/02/25/catholic-foundations-show-continued-growth-throughout-2017-2018/ As such, they have the same financial opacity as the dioceses. Not only is there now an additional five billion dollars plus of hidden funds available to the bishops, but also all foundation monies are sheltered from any settlements for clerical child sex abuse.
It is likely that Catholic bishops will use at least some of these resources for political purposes.
Nearly every state has a “Catholic Conference” for political lobbying directed and supported by the local bishops. For example, in 2018 the New York Catholic Conference lobbied in the state capital for tax credits for private schools and to block passage of legislation favoring the victims of clerical sex abuse.
On Feb. 19, over a thousand Catholics “from every one of Minnesota’s 90 state senate districts, gathered in Saint Paul for a day-long event … organized by the Minnesota Catholic Conference (MCC). MCC Executive Director Jason Adkins described the day as “a fantastic experience of helping people overcome their fear of the [political] process.” Participants met with state legislators on non-controversial subjects as an introduction to political activism.
On March 20, three chairmen of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) wrote letters to the U.S. House and Senate in public opposition to the Equality Act introduced by Democrats on March 13. The Act “would add anti-discrimination protections for sexual orientation and gender identity to existing protections for race, color, national origin, sex, disability and religion.” The bishops wrote that the Act “would impose sweeping regulations to the detriment of society as a whole” charging it would “regulate thought, belief, and speech; explicitly retract religious freedom” and “threaten charitable services.”
The same day, Cardinal Timothy Dolan, chairman of the USCCB’s Committee on Pro-Life Activities, called for the Supreme Court to “do the right thing and uphold our fundamental right to free speech” when it decides a case involving a Democratic-backed law on crisis pregnancy centers. The case will consider if the California law that went into effect in 2016 “violates the U.S. Constitution by requiring the state’s 200 crisis pregnancy centers to inform their clients about the availability of free or low-cost abortion and contraceptive services and provide a referral number for them.” The law also requires “that unlicensed facilities post a notice acknowledging that they are not a licensed health care provider.”
Why Catholic Bishops are Allies of Trump
During his first trip abroad, President Trump met with Pope Francis. According to the Vatican statement, Trump and the pontiff spoke of their “joint commitment in favor of life, religious liberty and freedom of conscience,” code words for restricting women’s reproductive healthcare and discriminating against LGBTQ persons.
“A bold new effort by the Trump administration to build an international coalition to restrict access to abortion and contraceptives, and promote traditional values about the family globally,” was reported on March 15. The event introducing this coalition “included representatives of dozens of nations in town for a key women’s rights conference at the United Nations.” A film was shown “which takes aim at the West’s ‘ideological colonization’ of Africa through interviews with women who experienced side effects from contraception or who regretted having abortions.”
“Ideological colonization” is a phrase Pope Francis has used dozens of times in referring to efforts by the West to impose “liberal sexual ethics” on poorer nations: abortion, contraception, same-sex marriage.
The event was sponsored by C-Fam, short for Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute, which has been designated as a hate group based of their harsh anti-LBGTQ positions. C-Fam was founded by Austin Ruse, an admitted member of Opus Dei.
It was also reported after the Trump/Pope Francis meeting that the pope looked forward to “serene collaboration” between the U.S. government and the U.S. Catholic Church “in the fields of healthcare, education and assistance to immigrants.”
The Trump Administration provides tax-payer funding to Catholic health services via the White House Faith and Opportunity Initiative and to Catholic schools through initiatives by his Dept. of Education (also here and here).
Although the pope and his bishops use pro-immigration rhetoric, immediately after Trump’s election, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) promised to “honor and respect the laws of this nation." They mirrored what Pope Francis had said earlier in November 2016: “Migrants should be treated according to certain rules, because migration is a right, but one which is highly regulated. If a country is only able to integrate 20 [refugees], let’s say, then it should only accept that many.” the pope told reporters.
Additionally, while over 800 faith communities provide sanctuary for immigrants, the U.S. Catholic Church does not even though “Catholic parishes, schools, hospitals, nursing homes and other organizations operate an estimated 70,000 buildings.” In fact, Pope Francis has sponsored only six refugee families despite the Vatican owning “thousands” of apartments in Rome.
The British Catholic Herald “hopes to tap into U.S. conservative Catholic pool”
The right-wing London-based newsweekly, the Catholic Herald, created a new U.S. edition in mid-November. “Since not many Catholics in Britain are conservative, the Herald was fishing in a very small pond in the U.K.," said Catherine Pepinster, a commentator on religious affairs who believes the publication hopes to gain more subscribers and thus, ad revenue, in the U.S. https://www.ncronline.org/news/media/uks-catholic-herald-hopes-tap-us-conservative-catholic-pool
The Herald’s owners, “British hotelier Sir Rocco Forte and the once-jailed newspaper magnate Lord Conrad Black, are political conservatives who have publicly supported the campaign to leave the European Union. Forte is a sponsor and patron of the Bruges Group, a euroskeptic organization that was instrumental to the Brexit vote's success in 2016.”
The U.S. Herald’s office shares a suite in Washington D.C. with the Ethics and Public Policy Center and the Faith and Reason Institute, “both conservative think tanks with prominent Catholic leaders.” The EPPC is still headed by George Weigel, one of the Religious Right’s founding theocons.
The EPPC board of directors includes Robert P. George, former adviser to Pres. George W. Bush. Deal Hudson, another theocon, once remarked, “If there really is a vast, right-wing conspiracy, its leaders probably meet in George’s basement.” George founded Princeton University’s James Madison James Program. “It functions in many ways as a vehicle for conservative interests.” It is funded in part by Opus Dei.
Also on the EPPC board is Leonard A. Leo, busy transforming the U.S. judiciary into the branch of government most influenced by Opus Dei.
For the sake of our nation, we can only hope that the above enterprises, their leaders, associates and allies fail to win in the 2020 and future elections.
Betty Clermont is author of The Neo-Catholics: Implementing Christian Nationalism in America.