Tom Cordaroby Tom Cordaro
Pax Christi USA Ambassador of Peace

At the height of imperial hubris during the George W Bush presidency, Ron Suskind of the New York Times reported a conversation he had with Karl Rove. According to Rove guys like Suskind were “in what we call the reality-based community”– which he defined as people who “believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.” In rejecting that kind of thinking Rove went on to say, “We’re an empire now, and when we can we create our own reality.”

What Rove and conservatives have understood for many years is that “discernible reality” is not important in acquiring or wielding power and influence. It is the perception of reality that matters, not the facts on the ground. Those who can control perceptions can make their own reality. (Of course, as the Bush Administration learned far too late inIraqandAfghanistan, sooner or later actual reality can wreck havoc on created reality.)

For decades conservative Catholics have tried their best to change the direction of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) away from promoting social justice to encouraging charity and enforcing sexual prohibitions. The problem has always been the stubborn consistency of over 100 years of Catholic Social Teaching which asserts that social justice is a constituent part of the Gospel; that authentic Catholic faith calls for both charity and justice; and that all social and economic policies should be judged by their impact on the poorest and most vulnerable members of society.

After years of trying to change reality within the USCCB have some powerful conservative forces within the Catholic Church come to the conclusion that it is time to create their own reality? This is one of the questions that arise from the article by Tim Townsend on the National Catholic Reporter’s website, “Who’s funding the Catholic bishops’ religious freedom campaign?”

Here in the Chicagoland area I have seen at least 10 straight days of full-page ads in the Chicago Tribune in support of the bishops’ campaign for religious freedom. Although some of the ads are identified as paid for by the Archdiocese of Chicago, others cite as the sponsor. This website, however, is sponsored by the archdiocesan peace and justice office. The cost of such a media buy is in the neighborhood of $313,000.00. I do not recall the archdiocese making similar media buys in support of the bishops’ Circle of Protection campaign (to protect the federal social safety net) or the Justice for Immigrants campaign. These USCCB supported campaigns must struggle for the attention of the media and from Catholics in the pews.

In the context of a difficult economy and shrinking Church budgets at all levels, organizations like the Knights of Columbus and the Order of Malta– along with wealthy individuals– can shape the public perception of the Catholic Church in the United States by picking and choosing which USCCB campaigns to fund. It doesn’t matter how many statements and campaigns the bishops initiate to promote economic justice and the global common good. These wealthy interests can “create their own reality” through the power of their money and the cooperation of their bishop allies. In some ways they operate like Super-PACs within the Catholic Church. Using their money and their influence in the conservative media they can shape public perception of the Church. Once the conservative media begin to pick up on a story it is often parroted in the corporate media and critiqued in the liberal media.

Positive or negative coverage doesn’t really matter; creating media attention on issues that serve the conservative cause is what matters. Shaping the public’s perception of the Church is what matters. This media generated perception in turn creates a feedback loop that reinforces the view among Catholics in the pew that, in spite of what the bishops might say about social justice and the common good, what the bishops really care about is public policy to enforce sexual prohibitions. Catholics will rightly conclude that their bishops’ own budgets are moral documents; their true political priorities can be determined by how they spend their money to influence public policy.

These conservative groups and individuals operate like Super-PACs in another way. Their funding of particular USCCB initiatives is mostly done in secret. We can see the impact of their spending but we have no idea who is behind the spending. As the Townsend article points out this secret unaccountable money is spent with no safe-guards and no transparency. Having this kind of secret unaccountable money doled out to individual bishops or diocese is also a sure fire recipe for corruption. And as we have learned over many centuries, the clerical class is just as susceptible to corruption and sin as the rest of us. Money can corrupt– and unaccountable secret money corrupts absolutely.

It is time for the bishops to come clean about where this money is coming from and how it is used. We don’t know how much money has been taken by bishops from outside groups. We don’t know what kind of stipulations or agreements have been made by bishops to get this money and we don’t know how the money is being spent. What safeguards need to be put into place to guard against corruption and guarantee accountability? Should transparency regarding these types of transactions be institutionalized at the diocesan and conference level? There are many questions that need answers.  It is clear that we need an open public discussion within the Church (including theologians, ethicists, pastoral ministers and parishioners) to debate the pros and cons of this kind of influence-peddling in our Church. But maybe the most important question is whether there are any bishops brave enough to call for such a discussion.


5 thoughts on “REFLECTION: How religious Super-PACs shape public perceptions of the Catholic Church in the U.S.

  1. Thanks, Tom, for this courageous call. Within this summer I have felt increasingly marginalized within the church and I look to Pax Christi as a source of my sense of church.

  2. I had to laugh after reading the first sentence of this article, “At the height of imperial hubris during the George W Bush presidency, Ron Suskind of the New York Times reported a conversation he had with Karl Rove.” After saying that, what do you think of President Obama?

  3. You know Patrick, I do not disagree with the link above, but as a Catholic my greater concern is watching my church become suborned as an arm of political power that moves away from the notions of peace and justice. It is one thing to say that Obama and Romney and Bush are all tools of the same puppet master. It is entirely another thing to see your own church become allies and tools of that puppet master and disregard the central mission for peace and justice.

    The last _two_ Sundays I have heard priests from the pulpit address a need to be politically active implicitly on the side of the “good” guys. One was much more forthright and named names, not the least of which was Kathleen Sebelius–a fellow Catholic. The other was much more subtle and urged us to be politically active since priests cannot (!).

    The greatest harm is that being a good Catholic would become aligned with voting a specific way. I’m not sure that voting for any of these yahoos will further a peace and justice cause and that is what concerns me the most.

    I think Jesus was always marginalized and with the people on the margins. Sure it feels good to be part of the elitist club but it is not what we are about. We are about furthering the mission of peace and justice.

  4. Fantastic essay. It drives me nuts when Catholic and secular media both left and right portray the bishops as crypto Republican shills. All you have to do is delve into their website and you find they support a lot more “progressive” causes than conservative ones. And they put our frequent calls for the faithful to advocate to specific legislators for specific progressive changes to law. It’s just that the bishops don’t or can’t get as much attention for that stuff as they do for the conservative stuff.

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