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 RemainFreeUSA.org 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.