On Wednesday, a flurry of conservative outlets and pundits seized on a new batch of emails published by WikiLeaks, declaring that an exchange allegedly penned by a Hillary Clinton campaign staffer is “anti-Catholic.”
The emails were sent to John Podesta, Clinton’s campaign chair, but the exchange occurred between Jennifer Palmieri, Clinton’s current communications director, and John Halpin, a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress,* a liberal think tank. During the back and forth — which have not been officially confirmed and which took place in 2011 — Halpin said, “Many of the most powerful elements of the conservative movement are all Catholic (many converts) from the [Supreme Court] and think tanks to the media and social groups.”
“It’s an amazing bastardization of the faith,” he added. “They must be attracted to the systematic thought and severely backwards gender relations and must be totally unaware of Christian democracy.”
Palmieri then allegedly responded that some conservatives are Catholic because they think it’s “the most socially acceptable politically conservative religion.”
Donald Trump’s campaign in particular latched onto the emails, declaring them to be “anti-Catholic” and holding a conference call with press to denounce them. During the call, Jim Nicholson, a Trump surrogate and former U.S. Ambassador to the Vatican, said the emails “offended me as a Catholic—it left me gasping to hear them say these things in such a shameful, callous way.” Other Trump surrogates then demanded that Clinton fire Palmieri, and uneven Trump supporter Newt Gingrich implied that the exchange was the product of “arrogant left-wing atheists.”
The Trump campaign’s response to the leaks, however, did not appear to acknowledge that Halpin is himself Catholic, or that the majority of American Catholics lean progressive on many issues. ThinkProgress reached out to Halpin for comment. This is his response.
I’m Catholic. My parents are Catholics. I went to a Catholic university. My kids were baptized by their Jesuit uncle and went to Catholic school when they were young. I have conservative Catholic family members. They don’t always agree with my views and I don’t always agree with theirs. But I have always respected people with deeply held religious views and enjoy learning from others with different theological perspectives.
I’m certainly not the best Catholic around and I have some criticisms of Church doctrine, but my Catholic upbringing and education helped to shape my own progressive values and perspective on politics and society.
Now, as a result of apparently hacked emails to my former boss, John Podesta, and misleading reporting about these emails, I’m being falsely accused as an anti-Catholic bigot. With no knowledge of me or my work or my past, people are sending me lovely notes ensuring that I “will burn for eternity in Hell” only after they’ve “pissed on my grave” and “prayed for my damnation.”
Although I cannot authenticate any of the other emails in this hack, I did write this one. If the news organizations promoting stories on this email had bothered to look into the context of the email exchange, it would be clear that my intention in this private note was not to insult Catholics or people of faith, but rather in an admittedly offhanded manner, to make a fleeting point about perceived hypocrisy and the flaunting of one’s faith by prominent conservative leaders.
I’ll provide that context here.
My email to my colleagues was in response to an article in The New Yorker by Ken Auletta on Rupert Murdoch. The author starts off with an account of “an exclusive 18-page spread” in another magazine covering the baptism of Murdoch’s children in Jordan, with celebrities attending including Nicole Kidman and Ivanka Trump, and then proceeds to talk about Murdoch’s relationship with then-managing editor of the Wall Street Journal, Robert Thomson.
Now I don’t care that Murdoch and Thomson raise their kids Catholic. Catholics have great values and a Catholic upbringing provides good guidance about how to live one’s life. What I reacted to in my email, rightly or wrongly, was the grand public display of Catholicism from a right-wing billionaire who owns a media conglomerate, including Fox News, that routinely assaults the values of the poor, sows racial discord, and attacks immigrants. This seemed inconsistent with what I was taught about Catholic values, so I penned off an email to my other Catholic colleagues.
Likewise, the email I wrote is from April of 2011, just after Paul Ryan released his second budget plan proposing large tax reductions for the rich, severe cuts in social welfare spending, the privatization of Medicare, and the repeal of health care for millions of low-income people — all ideas promoted by Thomson’s newspaper and all concepts that were in my mind and in public discourse at the time. Rep. Ryan and other conservatives often defend their libertarian economic policies as consistent with the Catholic principle of subsidiarity, a dubious link that many Catholics reject. Subsidiarity is a valuable concept for both progressives and conservatives shaping public policy. Anti-poverty and other social welfare efforts are best handled in smaller, more communal settings. But Catholic social teaching is clear that subsidiarity is not the same thing as federalism and central governments play an important role in helping those in need and advancing societal goals. Policies based on subsidiarity must also be balanced with principles of solidarity and the common good.
So, I’m a progressive Catholic who was reacting in a private email to the arguments of leading conservatives who often misuse Catholicism to defend their agenda. Liberals can be just as guilty of this as conservatives. That’s what makes Catholic social teaching powerful — it doesn’t fit squarely within in any one party or ideological movement.
This email wasn’t an exposition on the nature of people’s faith or an expression of contempt for people of faith. It was simply a fleeting reaction from within the Catholic tradition to something I read. That’s the context of this email, none of which has been reported in media accounts that erroneously accuse me of being an anti-Catholic bigot in an attempt to attack my former colleagues for political purposes.
All the individuals in this email chain are respectful and tolerant people who are being unfairly slandered in a fake scandal based on out-of-context accounts of a stolen email exchange I started long ago.
*Editor’s note: Halpin is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress (CAP). ThinkProgress operates underneath CAP’s sister organization, the Center for American Progress Action Fund, but is officially editorially independent of both entities.