Left-leaning financier George Soros is known for spending millions of dollars trying to influence U.S. presidential elections. This year alone he has devoted more than $25 million to promote the candidacy of Hillary Clinton and other Democratic Party candidates and causes. Recently, he seems to have decided to move the needle on the Catholic Church as well.
Board minutes for Soros’s Open Society Foundations, dated February 9, 2016 and leaked via Wikileaks in August, reveal that the organization spent $650,000 last year trying to use Pope Francis’s U.S. visit in September 2015 as a springboard for “shifting the priorities of the U.S. Catholic Church to focus on issues of injustice and oppression.” Or at least on what Soros and his foundation regard as issues of injustice and oppression, which mainly center around liberal social causes such as gun control, global warming, uncontrolled immigration, antipolice activism, “communities of color,” and what the Soros people call “over-incarceration” of convicted criminals.
What the leaked minutes also reveal is how little, in the way of results, the Soros people got for their $650,000. Indeed, the Open Society staff itself considered the efforts to capitalize on Francis’s two-day stop in Philadelphia on September 26–27, 2015, to be more or less a failure. There, among other things, the pope was to visit a prison. Meanwhile, one of the Soros grantees, a Catholic-led interfaith organization called PICO (Pacific Institute for Community Organization) National Network, planned to hold a “Faith Matters in America” summit that weekend featuring clergymen involved in Black Lives Matter.
The hope was that Francis would speak out against police brutality and systemic racism in the U.S., and other topics of interest to Black Lives Matter, but the pope failed to comply. A candlelight vigil organized by PICO involving immigrants and families involved in “mass incarceration” was expected by its own organizers to draw 300 people, but it went largely unnoticed by the media despite the best efforts of PICO’s press office. PICO had also, in June 2015, sent a Soros-funded interfaith delegation to Rome to talk up such issues as raising the minimum wage and President Obama’s 2014 executive order halting deportations of illegal immigrants (since blocked by the the courts). But the group never got to speak to Francis himself, and the pope did not mention either point during his visit. “In hindsight, the time and money and resources devoted to events in Philadelphia could likely have been better deployed in the home cities of PICO’s members,” the minutes read.
Founded by the Jesuit Fr. Robert Baumann in 1972, PICO has a strong Catholic network at the progressive end of the Catholic spectrum and claims some 500 Catholic parishes among its members (there are 17,300 Catholic parishes in total in America). It seems to have maintained its Vatican street cred (the Holy See invited PICO to participate in its World Meeting of Popular Movements in Bolivia in July 2015) by avoiding involvement in social issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage that separate many liberal Catholics from just plain liberals.
Not so with the other recipient of the Open Society Foundations’ 2015 largesse: Faith in Public Life, an explicitly progressive interfaith organization, has few Catholic ties beyond its Catholic program director, John Gehring. It prides itself on having helped defeat, via veto earlier this year, a religious-freedom bill in Georgia that would have protected bakers with sincerely held religious beliefs from being forced to supply wedding cakes for gay and lesbian unions. It has designs on Catholic doctrine regarding other issues, too. According to another Wikileaked memo, reflecting a May 2015 meeting of the Open Society Foundations’ board, Faith in Public Life was tasked with “conducting a poll to demonstrate that Catholic voters are responsive to the Pope’s focus on income inequality, and earning media coverage that drives the message that being ‘pro family’ requires addressing growing inequality.”
Unfortunately—or perhaps fortunately, if you grin with schadenfreude at the inference that Soros poured two-thirds of a million dollars down a rathole—he and his ilk don’t understand very well either Pope Francis or the Catholic Church that he heads. The advocacy that he has paid for is, in fact, largely embraced by the Church leadership and has been for a long time. Ever since he assumed the papacy in 2013, Francis has been a secular-liberal pet. He washed the feet of a Muslim girl at a youth detention center on his very first Holy Thursday in office. Francis replied to a question about rumors of a “gay lobby” in the Vatican, “If someone is gay and is searching for the Lord and has good will, then who am I to judge him?”—a remark the press broadcast as an acceptance of homosexuality because he didn’t make it clear that “searching for the Lord” is contrary to homosexual conduct. His 2015 encyclical Laudato Si’ summoned up a man-made “ecological crisis” that warmed the hearts of climate-change promoters. He coined the phrase “economy of exclusion” to describe unrestrained contemporary capitalism in Thomas Piketty–esque terms: a system in which only a wealthy few, as he described it, reap the benefits of prosperity while the middle class languishes. His very first papal trip was to Lampedusa in Sicily to commiserate with refugees from North Africa. This past February in Mexico he prayed for compassion toward illegal Latino immigrants on the banks of the Rio Grande.
Despite his dramatic expressive style, especially when he speaks off the cuff as he often does, Pope Francis is actually operating, in terms of economic and social philosophy, comfortably within a Catholic tradition of social teaching that dates to the late nineteenth century. Pope Leo XIII’s 1891 encyclical, Rerum Novarum, condemned unrestricted capitalism and supported labor unions just as Francis has done. The theologically conservative Pope Benedict XVI, in a 2013 New Year’s Day message, decried the “hotbeds of tension and conflict caused by growing instances of inequality between rich and poor, by the prevalence of a selfish and individualistic mindset which also finds expression in an unregulated financial capitalism.” On his own visit to the U.S. in 2008, Benedict thanked this country’s waves of Latino immigrants, many of them presumably illegal, for contributing to the growth of the Catholic Church. Of course, Benedict was adamant about the church’s condemnation of homosexual activity and refusal to ordain women as priests, which made him anathema to progressives both religious and secular. Francis has impressed many of them as a correction of the previous Pope. His fuzziness about doctrine, along with a propensity for shooting verbally from the hip, has inspired progressive critics of the church, including, obviously, Soros and his following, to claim the current pope as one of them.
Following the anticapitalist lead of the Vatican, the U.S. Catholic Church has long included a powerful left-leaning contingent and still does. The 1986 pastoral letter Economic Justice for All, released by the National Conference of Catholic Bishops (now the USCCB), was much criticized by conservatives; it castigated the rich for their “greed” and implicitly called for wealth redistribution and an enhanced welfare state. A USCCB statement on immigration in 2013 called for amnesty and a “path to citizenship” for most illegal immigrants and removal of restrictions on future immigration. With bishops as politically and economically liberal as these, did Soros’s foundation really need to spend $650,000 to try to make them even more liberal?
The answer to that question was yes. In truth, in some key areas, the church leadership isn’t nearly as liberal as progressive activists want it to be. As the leaked May 2015 minutes reveal, one of the Open Society Foundations’ chief goals that year was to effect a shift of “national paradigms and priorities in the run-up to the 2016 presidential campaign.” That means doing something about the U.S. bishops’ document Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship, issued every pre-presidential election year since 2007 in order to help Catholics cast their ballots in a manner consistent with Catholic moral teaching. That document urges Catholic voters to give priority of importance to candidates’ stances on exactly the issues on which the bishops and secular liberals do not agree: abortion, euthanasia, defense of traditional marriage, and religious freedom. Abortion rights in particular are a top priority for the Open Society Foundations, which devote one of their programs to “countering coercive reproductive control measures” around the world—which does not mean opposing forced sterilization measures, but instead framing pro-life policies as a species of “coercion.” So the foundation directed some of its grant money to promote a “buy-in of individual bishops to more publicly voice support of economic and racial justice messages in order to begin to create a critical mass of bishops who are aligned with the Pope.”
The Soros people didn’t seem to realize that for all of Pope Francis’s social-justice talk, he is just as much a traditionalist as the U.S. bishops—and also Pope Benedict XVI—on those moral “justice” issues. On his September 2015 U.S. visit, he told the bishops assembled in Washington that “the cause of life” had been his “primary reason” for traveling to this country. He met briefly with Kim Davis, the evangelical Christian county clerk in Kentucky who had gone to jail that summer for refusing to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. The Vatican later said the meeting did not amount to an endorsement of Davis’s stance—although Francis told reporters on his plane trip back to Italy on September 28 that government officials have a “human right” to refuse to discharge a duty if they believe it goes against their consciences. In Philadelphia he delivered a stirring speech rejecting the notion of same-sex marriage and deploring the “unprecedented changes” in contemporary society that he said had distorted the Christian concept of matrimony.
Perhaps, however, the Soros people’s “buy-in” yielded dividends of another kind. At the U.S. bishops’ November 2015 meeting in Baltimore, a group of liberal Catholic bishops, backed by the liberal Catholic press, waged a miniature culture war in the name of Pope Francis. They urged the bishops to reject the latest revision of Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship on the ground that the voter guide should have downplayed abortion, euthanasia, and religious liberty and emphasized issues such as poverty and the environment that are supposedly at the top of Francis’s list. “Pope Francis has in certain aspects of the social doctrine of the church, radically transformed the prioritization of Catholic social teaching and its elements,” Bishop Robert McElroy of San Diego told the assembled bishops. He aimed to persuade them to draft a brand-new voter guide instead of revising the old one. McElroy, a Francis appointee to his California see, had teamed up with PICO to help lead a September 2015 interfaith event at the Mexican border unveiling a “Wall of Lament” for families separated by illegal immigration. The liberal Jesuit Fr. Thomas Reese penned a supporting article for the liberal National Catholic Reporter titled “Francis’ priorities vs. the priorities of the U.S. bishops.”
In the end, though, it was another Soros failure. The majority of the bishops voted their progressive confreres down and affirmed the revised version of Faithful Citizenship. The product of sixteen months of work by twelve USCCB committees, the revision actually incorporated all of Pope Francis’s teaching documents as well as twenty-five quotations from the current pontiff relating to issues such as immigration, poverty, and the environment. Soros might be one of the richest and most influential men on the planet, but it apparently takes more than $650,000 to change the Catholic Church.
Charlotte Allen is a writer living in Washington, D.C.