A Matter of Honesty, Part VII--John Podesta as Truth-Teller

"No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time."

--Winston Churchill, speech to the House of Commons, 1947.

We hear, endlessly, that "the Church is not a democracy."  It is said by conservative folks with great glee and enthusiasm, and by more progressive folks with a kind of resigned sigh.  And, as a purely factual matter, it is 100% true.  Roman Catholicism is not a democracy in any meaningful way.  But I don't think people have really thought through what that means, and what the consequences of that reality truly are.

Some small glimpse of that awareness has broken through in the form of the brouhaha over some emails exchanged four years ago between Hillary Clinton's campaign head John Podesta and various aides and subordinates.  The topic of these emails (or, at least, one of those topics), is Catholicism.  Specifically, Podesta (a Catholic) exchanges a series of observations with his associates (some Catholic, some not) about Catholicism.  Specifically, one aide 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. They must be attracted to the systematic thought and severely backwards gender relations and must be totally unaware of Christian democracy.

Likewise, in the same thread, someone noted that another attraction of Catholicism is that it has become the "socially acceptable" conservative Christian religion, as "[t]heir rich friends wouldn’t understand if they became evangelicals."

The other major thread involved a discussion of a "Catholic spring" in the model of the (at the time of the email, successful-looking) "Arab 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."  Podesta notes that he has funded some progressive Catholic groups like Catholics United for the Common Good.

I would like to make four points about these emails, and why they serve a truth-telling function.  But before getting to that, it is worth mentioning that there is some indication that third-parties, perhaps including Russian intelligence agencies, have been altering the Wikileaks emails prior to their release.  So, there is a chance that Podesta and his advisers never said any of these things.  Podesta, for his part, says that he doesn't remember specifically saying or reading any of the things in the emails, which is not surprising--do you remember an email you read five years ago?  However, for the purpose of this post, let us assume that these emails, at least, are authentic.

First point, and here we must give credit to Ross Douthat for his framing of the question.  Many conservative Catholics have been quick to describe these emails as part of "anti-Catholic forces."  Douthat, correctly, realizes that this is not about Catholicism versus outside opponents as it is competing visions of Catholicism itself.

Douthat is exactly right (with the possible exception that many progressive Catholics advocate for a "more sexually progressive church" because they believe in those values, separate and apart from whether it will cause the church to "flourish").  Those people that are crying wolf about supposed "anti-Catholic persecution" are simply wrong as a descriptive matter.  This is an example of, by-and-large, Catholics expressing their frustration about the state of the Catholic Church and the kinds of people that run it, and hope that maybe something can change.

Second, related point--as a purely factual matter, nothing in these Podesta emails is untrue.  If you listen to these conservatives Catholics, especially the converts, it is clear they are attracted by the intellectual rigorousness of the faith and its total resistance to any of the insights of modern feminism or any call to rethink the traditional sexual morality.  People like Douthat explicitly say that.  If anything, you have folks like Dreher who find that Catholicism is not sufficiently monolithic in endorsing or promoting these criteria; it doesn't do these things enough.

Likewise, it is amazing to me that the same people who complain about the quip that the Catholic Church is a "middle ages dictatorship" are the very same people that shout from the rooftops that "Catholicism is not a democracy."  Which one is it, guys?  Is the fact that Catholicism does not act on the basis of democratic norms a point of pride or a slur?  You can't have it both ways.

Third point, one raised by Charles Pierce in Esquire, as well as Massimo Faggioli on Twitter--the very same people who are so upset about Podesta organizing for his vision for the faith with the aid of secular allies are people who have spent 40 years organizing for their vision of the faith with the assistance of a different set of secular allies.  The only difference is that often the conservative organization has been done with the overt assistance of the Catholic hierarchy, both here and in Rome.  Progressive Catholics have been at the receiving end of a combined political and religious effort that dwarfs anything Podesta could imagine in his most fevered imaginations.  And now they have the audacity to clutch their pearls about "interference" by political actors in the process of the Church?  Spare me.

Finally, to the fourth point, and this has to do with the idea of "the Church is not a democracy" itself.  If you are using "democracy" in the way the word is normally used, which involves elections and voting and political organizing, then yes, the Church is not a democracy.  But I often think that what conservatives really mean by "the Church is not a democracy" is that the Catholics in the pews have no choice put to just passively accept whatever comes down the pike from Rome, or from their bishop, or from their parish priest.  In other words, not only is there not democracy in the Church, but there is no meaningful political life in the church, understood in the broadest, Aristotelian sense of participation in a polis.

This idea is both wrong and ultimately counterproductive to the life of the Church.  The Catholic Church cannot actually make anyone shut up and do what they are told--they cannot put anyone in jail, or inflict any other sort of civil or criminal punishment on anyone.  People will always be able to express their views and opinions, especially in a society that values and celebrates doing precisely that in every other political and social context.  If you take away the political act of voting, and you take away the political act of social organizing (as the critics of Podesta implicitly seek to do), a Catholic is left with only two political acts in their toolbox--the political act of not giving the Church any money, and the political act of walking away.  It's kind of like damning up a river--the water (in this case, political life) is going to go someplace, and eventually it will back up and overflow the banks of the river or lake that you want to keep it contained in.

In other words, if you are successful at stopping people like John Podesta from trying to be a part of faith that represents his values, you will be left with a Church that doesn't have Podesta's money and/or a Church without Podesta.  Honestly, I think the smarter conservative Catholics know this, but most of them don't care.  They would welcome people like John Podesta, and people like me, to just walk away, so they can be kings of their castle all by themselves.  But the fact that a person like Podesta cares enough to stay and fight shows a commitment to, and love for, Catholicism.  That's worth something.

Maybe the conservatives will be successful in driving out people like Podesta in the end--they certainly have done a bang up job of alienating millennials.  But it will be victory against one's own, against people who are trying to stop what they see as a destructive and unchristian direction in the Catholic Church.  Podesta and his aides did us a service in telling the truth about what is going on.  And for that we should be thankful.


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