NEW YORK — Prior to joining a call with President Donald Trump last month, Catholic leaders — and bishops, in particular — were advised that their participation could subject them to further overtures from the president’s reelection campaign.
In two separate memos obtained by Crux, a representative from the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) offered a disclaimer that any information provided could be used for political purposes.
“Just be sure and note to bishops that the email addresses used to register for the call will be captured by White House and used for additional communication in the future, possibly including from campaign,” wrote Lauren McCormack, executive director of the Office of Government Relations for the USCCB, in an email on April 25, hours before the 3 p.m. phone call that day with the president.
In a prior communication, sent the day before, McCormack wrote: “Please note that your email will be captured by the White House if you register for the call.” McCormack underlined that particular portion of the advisory.
The April 25 phone was organized for Catholic leaders to discuss concerns over Catholic education in light of the COVID-19 pandemic and included the participation of Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York, Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston, Archbishop Jose Gomez of Los Angeles and president of the USCCB, and Bishop Michael Barber of Oakland, who is the chairman of the USCCB committee on Catholic Education.
“We expect USCCB’s policy requests for Catholic schools will be highlighted on the call through Bishop Barber, representing USCCB’s Committee on Catholic Education,” wrote McCormack to potential callers.
A spokeswoman for the USCCB originally declined to comment further on the context for the advisory memos and their disclaimers, but following publication issued a statement to clarify that the memos do not convey any coordination with the campaign.
“The purpose of USCCB’s participation in the April 25 call was to advocate directly with the highest government officials on behalf of U.S. Catholic schools, which face an unprecedented crisis because of COVID-19. A small part of a confidential briefing to bishops was a warning: because they would have to provide an email address to register for the call, they might later receive unwanted email messages from the White House, and possibly the campaign,” wrote Chieko Noguchi. “This warning was based on cautious speculation, not on any communications with the White House. USCCB does not support or oppose any candidate for elective office.”
As first reported by Crux, while Catholic leaders sought to use the occasion to gain support for tuition assistance programs for Catholic schools and seek additional congressional aid for Catholic education, the president used the majority of his time on the call — which included over 600 participants — to make a case for his reelection, warning that if Democrats win in November, the Church would face opposition on a range of policy matters, including abortion, religious freedom, and school choice.
Trump went on to dub himself the “best [president] in the history of the Church” and said that the issues at stake in the upcoming presidential election have “never been more important for the Church.”
Following the call, some Catholics criticized Church leaders for not challenging the president on immigration and rising white nationalism and for using what was meant to be a working call with Catholic leaders for campaign purposes. In particular, Dolan has been singled out for his praise of the president, both during the call and in a subsequent appearance on Fox News.
“Please speak truth to power and refrain from giving even the appearance that bishops have their hands on the scales in this election,” wrote more than 1,500 Catholic social justice leaders in an open letter to Dolan released last Friday.
In a follow-up interview with America Media on Friday, Dolan defended his comments saying he was merely engaging in the “sacred enterprise of accompaniment.” He did not weigh in whether he viewed the president’s bid for reelection support as inappropriate.
This article has been updated to include a statement from the USCCB.
Follow Christopher White on Twitter: @cwwhite212