The email exchange, entitled “Catholic Spring,” also suggests that two organizations – Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good and Catholics United – were created for such a purpose.
“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,” wrote Sandy Newman, president of progressive organization Voices for Progress, in the first of two emails in the February 2012 exchange.
The recipient of the email, John Podesta, is Catholic and a graduate of Georgetown University. He currently serves as the head of Hillary Clinton’s campaign for presidency. Previously, Podesta served as president and CEO of the liberal think tank Center for American Progress, and as the chief of staff for President Bill Clinton.
The emails were released by anti-secrecy site Wikileaks as part of an ongoing leak of emails hacked from Podesta’s email account. Podesta has echoed rumors that Russian intelligence officials were responsible for the hack, and has further alleged that some of the emails may not be authentic.
In the exchange between Newman and Podesta, the former began by asking if contraceptive coverage and the then-newly announced HHS mandate could be used as a wedge issue to place between Catholics and the bishops.
The U.S. Bishops’ Conference, numerous Catholic institutions, and other employers of faith have challenged the mandate since its inception in 2011. They have argued that the regulation’s requirement that employers provide and pay for contraceptive and abortion-inducing drugs and procedures violates their deeply-held religious beliefs.
In the email, Newman went on to say, “Of course, this idea may just reveal my total lack of understanding of the Catholic church… 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…”
Podesta responded to the inquiry by saying, “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.”
At the time of these emails, Catholics United was headed by executive director James M. Salt. Salt also serves on the board of directors of Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good.
In 2012, Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good was headed by Alexia Kelley. She has also served as the senior advisor and deputy director in the White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships, as well as the HHS Center for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. She currently serves as president and CEO of Foundations and Donors Interested in Catholic Activities, a Catholic grant-making organization.
Christopher Hale, the current executive director of Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good, told CNA that “the emails that were written in 2011… do not reflect the mission of the organization.”
“I’ve think we’ve proven during my time here that we are a strong messenger for the full social magisterium of the Catholic Church. We fought against the HHS mandate, we fought against Planned Parenthood when the tapes were released in 2015. We fought time and again for the dignity of the unborn child.”
“We try our best to challenge both parties to be more consistent in their values so we take pride in getting criticism from both the left and the right,” he said, adding that they have criticized the Democratic party for a “politics of exclusion” particularly on the issue of life. “If our job is to be a front group in for the Democratic party, then we’re doing a pretty terrible job at it.”
“I think John’s email from 2011 doesn’t reflect our work day in and day out.”
Hale acknowledged that in the past, the organization has received funding from philanthropist and liberal activist George Soros, but added that the organization has not received a grant from Soros in 10 years. Hale also noted that the organization has changed its emphasis in recent years, speaking out more against abortion currently than it has in the past.
Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good promotes tenets of the Catholic faith including a respect for life, preferential option for the poor, peace, and stewardship of creation.
During the 2016 election, members of the organization have published numerous prominent articles criticizing Republican candidate Donald Trump and the Republican ticket, and have routinely denounced many of the Trump campaign’s positions.
The group has also criticized Democratic stances on issues such as abortion, however, it generally refrains from directly naming or criticizing Hillary Clinton.
Asked about this imbalance, Hale told CNA that the organization criticizes both parties and campaigns.
“We’re not letting Clinton off the hook,” he stated, adding that the organization has “relationships with both campaigns” and has also brought up their concerns directly to the campaigns.
Catholics in the Alliance for the Common Good is also affiliated with Pennsylvania advocacy organization Keystone Catholics, which was the recipient of a $75,000 grant from the Catholics United Education Fund, dedicated to “pushing forward an LGBT equality agenda within the Catholic Church, in Pennsylvania and throughout the United States.”
Catholics United did not respond to CNA’s request for comment.
In the leaked email, Podesta also suggested Newman consult Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, former Lt. Governor of Maryland and daughter of Robert F. Kennedy. Kennedy Townsend has also served on the board of the National Catholic Reporter, and gave a 2008 keynote address to the national conference of Call to Action, which dissents from Church teaching on issues of sexuality and women’s ordination. In the speech, she further criticized the bishops' teachings on same-sex “marriage,” stem cell research, abortion, and called the election of President Barack Obama “a wonderful rebuke to the hierarchy.”