Gathering of conservative heavyweights seeks to shape 'Catholic moment'

Gathering of conservative heavyweights seeks to shape ‘Catholic moment’

Gathering of conservative heavyweights seeks to shape ‘Catholic moment’

In July the Napa Institute will host its yearly conference. Usually pegged as a right-wing Catholic event, the Executive Director John Meyer called for greater laity participation across political and ideological divides as the Church faces a political crisis. (Credit: Napa Institute via Facebook.)

The organizers of the 9th annual conference at the Napa Institute call for a greater involvement of the laity beyond political divides.

Often portrayed as the headquarters for the anti-Pope Francis resistance in the United States, the Napa institute is preparing for its July 24-28 conference of conservative businessmen, bishops and public officials on the theme “This Catholic Moment.”

Crux reached out to John Meyer, the Executive Director of the institute to learn more about the themes, topics, and political leanings at the conference. He said that the event will be an opportunity to discuss “Catholic renewal in a time of great crisis in the Church.”

Among the speakers is Cardinal Raymond Burke, often pitted against Pope Francis in the popular imagination since the prelate and four others sent questions, or “dubia,” to the pontiff regarding the cautious opening to communion for divorced and remarried couples in the apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia. Conservative Catholic figures, such as George Weigel, Jim Daly and Father Robert Spitzer make up the rest of the lineup.

Meyer spoke of a “crisis of accountability in the Church,” especially after the sexual abuse scandals involving former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick. To respond to this crisis, the Institute plans on putting a special emphasis on the role of laity in the Church.

To those who would set the conference and its organizers against Francis and his pontificate, Meyers said “it’s absolutely false” and that he welcomes the opportunity to dialogue with progressive and liberal Catholics instead of being stuck “in echo-chambers.”

“It’s wrong and it’s really the work of the Devil that we are divided over these issues, instead of working together for the common good,” he said. “We choose to bicker about small things, rather than fight together for the big ones.”

Read the full transcript of the June 6 phone interview with John Meyer here:

Tell me more about the conference. Why is it important?

The conference itself came out of Archbishop Chaput’s letter 10 years ago where he said that it was going to be difficult if not prohibitive to live out the Catholic values for a Catholic leader in this country, especially for a secular Catholic leader, and we try to inform people on these issues so that they know how to meaningfully defend the faith, not just knowing what the Church believes on critical issues but why. We want them to understand the deep meaning behind it, so formation is key on cultural issues right now. Community is key, which we have tried to build at Napa. Napa is actually a large family. Really, it’s a time for prayer and liturgy and not just for personal and spiritual retreat but to better understand that the battle is a spiritual one just as much as it is an intellectual one.

There is a theme to this year’s event, “This Catholic Moment.” Can you expand a little on the meaning of this theme?

Normally Napa is divided into three themes and we try to tackle three of what we feel are the bigger cultural issues that year for leaders. This year is a little different, the overarching theme is “this Catholic moment.” We are doing that because we are kind of at a critical point in our Church history and we want to look at this Catholic moment, and how to renew the Church from various aspects. We will start the morning off on the first day with a talk entitled “This Catholic Moment,” which will essentially be George Weigel state-of-the-Church address and Cardinal Burke will follow it up with his thoughts on a similar topic.

In the afternoon event on the first day we will talk about the true role of the laity, not kind of the role that has been thrown out there, but the need for lay saints in this time and the role of the laity in the universal call to holiness. How can we be agents of renewal for the Church at a difficult time? The second day we are going to be looking more at the cultural issues, renewing the culture as well as the Church, so we are going to have a conversation with Jim Daly from Focus on the Family and Alan Sears [Founder of Alliance Defending Freedom] in ecumenical conversation on the family as the best means to renew the culture, we are going to have some of what we feel are the strongest most outspoken bishops at the moment on a panel: Bishop Joseph E. Strickland of Tyler, Texas, Bishop Thomas John Paprocki of Springfield, Illinois, Bishop Thomas Daly of Spokane, Washington and Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia. We will be looking at the culture at the moment and what needs to be done there.

The final day we are going to be having a very practical day, which is how can you renew the parish? The parish model in the United States is so broken, how do we bring the life back to the parish so that parishes can be the center of people’s lives again and then they can be part of the renewal of the Church?

A theme going from personal renewal, then society and then the parish as a model of renewing the Church at a difficult time.

Which Part of the Conference are you looking forward to the most?

Personally, the first day. Both to get a better grasp of the issues that we face and second renewing that sense of a call to holiness. We had a conference on reform in October, right after the scandals were starting to break, and I think everyone was expecting the topic to be an anti-bishop topic, but really the topic was: “Start by renewing it yourself.” That’s kind of the message that we have on the first day. Instead of waiting for the saints to come, be the saint yourself. Instead of complaining about everything else that is going wrong in the Church, look for the good that is going on in the Church and be the good yourself. I think on that day it will be very important for people to hear that we need to start the renewal of the Church by renewing our own Catholic faith.

Instead of waiting for the saints to come, be the saint yourself. Instead of complaining about everything else that is going wrong in the Church, look for the good that is going on in the Church and be the good yourself.

Is there someone you hoped would attend the conference and didn’t? Is there someone you would like to invite next year?

No. I think we invite a lot of different people, and I think, for the most part, we are pretty successful in getting them there. If I had more spaces for talks, I would invite more people. We’ve had great speakers in the past that we would like to have back. I always think of Bishop Barron, who came in the past and is a great cultural commentator. I think for who we have we have been very blessed in the ten years of building our reputation. It doesn’t hurt that in Napa there is great comradery, and the speakers get formation from their peers as well. So, I think we were successful on the invites, I’m not disappointed if anyone is not there.

You mentioned that we are living in a moment of crisis in the Church. Where do you see the root of the crisis today?

It’s an accountability crisis really. It’s the sexual abuse crisis also, but when you look at the numbers post-Dallas Charter it’s less so. The real issue in the McCarrick crisis for example, is not what McCarrick did, although that was egregious. It was not that it was covered up, because that was also egregious but it’s the same thing that we’ve seen done in the Church before. It was that he did these horrible things, they were covered up and then he was promoted despite the fact that it was known that it was covered up. That is a new level and almost because it’s building on the previous level it’s almost worst than anything that happened in the past. If we knew about the abuse, we did nothing, we elevated them. I think there is a crisis of accountability among the bishops. A lot of people feel like they were betrayed again and in a new way. It’s hard for us to defend the Church, when the Church is acting this way in the background.

The sex abuse crisis is still there. We’ve made major steps to address it. It’s something that we are going to have to continue to address. It’s an egregious thing. It’s horrible. If you look at the numbers post Dallas Charter, we’ve done amazing work in the United States. There was an accountability issue last time, when the bishops covered a lot of things up. We stopped that, but we didn’t do it among other bishops.

What they did is that they protected their brother bishops without looking out for their flock. That’s what needs to be addressed here. McCarrick was allowed to persist in his behavior and he was allowed to be active and promoted while everything was known. The sex abuse problem is a problem and will always be a problem, but this is a new thing that needs to be addressed. We didn’t just cover up, we promoted within knowing that this had happened.

Some of the people you have invited as speakers are openly opposed to Pope Francis and his papacy. Would you agree with those who claim you are leading a resistance to this papacy?

It’s completely false. We are not anti-Pope Francis, he is our Holy Father and we respect him for that. We are also not afraid to speak up, and that’s what’s really happening here. We want to support these bishops. And I don’t think any of the bishops who are coming are anti-Francis. I think Cardinal Burke is the most misunderstood in that group.

We support the Holy Father as the Holy Father, but we are vocal when we see concerns that need to be addressed. That’s the difference. We are not trying to speak for or around the Holy Father, or not show what is due to his office as the successor of Peter, we are merely trying to raise the issues that need to be raised as concerned Catholics.

I would like to know more about how you envision the role of laity in the Church.

The laity is the frontline of evangelization. As such, they need to know the Gospel message. They need to be educated on the cultural issues and the faith, based on Church teaching and not just rely on the priests and bishops. Especially when we come to things like the life issues. We want people to know and be able to defend the issues and be evangelizers in their local parishes but also their local offices, schools wherever they are. We try very hard to give them the proper connections and formation, so they know both the spiritual aspects of the faith and also how to defend the cultural aspects of the faith, like natural law and other things, so they can go out there and be the ones who change the culture.

We rely too much on the bishops and priests to do those things, but we want to be that frontline of evangelization. One of the issues, post-Vatican II, is that you try to give the laity roles. We talk about clericalism all the time, but there is actually a clericalism and an anti-clericalism in the Church at the same time. We try to give the laity roles in the liturgy and make them feel included and the laity lost what it meant to be the laity and what it means to be a priest. The laity has always been charged with being the great saints of society. That’s what we are trying to form. We are trying to form well informed, strong, Catholic leaders.

You’ve hosted official Napa events at Trump properties, elevated the platform of administration officials, etc. What is your perspective on the presidency and do you have plans for 2020? How are you addressing today’s burning topics in the United States?

We try and not get too involved in politics themselves, we try to be there as an informed people both with their views on issues and as politicians with views on issues. We hosted events for Catholic politicians. We hosted one right after this last Presidential election and it wasn’t to endorse a party or endorse a politician. It was to look at issues from a Catholic lens. “Public Policy and the Catholic Faith” was the title of the conference. Really it was about life, family issues but also tougher issues that are harder to discern for politicians like immigration. What is the Catholic teaching on all these issues? It’s not to say they are Republican or Democrat, but to say this is what the Church believes, and we want to formulate.

I look at one of my favorite Democrats in Dan Lipinski, who will vote pro-life and pro-traditional family on all these issues, and he has to still fight with his party, and when he goes to get reelected he has to run harder against his own party than against the opposite side. We’ve become so polarized in this country, and we are trying to break that polarization and show politicians that you’re not Republican or Democrat first. You are Catholic first. So, you are pro-life and you are pro-traditional family. Trying to teach them what the Church says on these issues or help them to discern. We know the Church’s teaching on life, we know what the Church teaches on family and gay marriage. But immigration, that’s a tougher one. Some of us fall on one side, some fall on the other and many are in the center. The idea is to engage Catholics to be a part of society, we don’t want them to retreat, we want them to be out there fighting for these issues. We want to make sure they are fighting for these issues from a Catholic perspective first, not a political one.

No politician is perfect. Our current president has a million problems in his social life. You are not going to endorse the man or the men. But I am not going to endorse any candidate. What I do want Catholics to do is to think for themselves, put their faith above their party, and then decide who they want to vote for. In some of those races it’s difficult. We have really great Democrats; we have a lot of good Republicans. It’s not voting the party line as much as it’s voting the Catholic line. How is this candidate on the non-negotiable issues? religious liberty, family, and life? Where does this candidate stand on immigration? We need to start holding politicians accountable to be less polarized and vote with a conscience. We do have some who do that, but for the most part we have people who vote party lines and that’s it, and that’s part of what’s making this country broken.

I’ve spoken to many on the peripheries of the Vatican. Both the progressive and liberal camp and the more conservative and traditionalist one. I’ve often found that both sides have much more in common than not, especially when it comes to a greater involvement of the laity and cleanup of the Vatican. The means may be different, but the goals are often the same. Since you mentioned overcoming polarization, can you imagine a scenario where these two poles may work together to achieve those goals?

Yeah, I think civil discourse needs to come to society here as much as it does in the Church. The same things that divide us in society, divide us in the Church. We have politicized the Church in many ways. I agree with you there. I think when you are talking about more liberal and conservative Catholics, we do care about the same things, but we are stuck in these echo chambers these days starting with where we get our news and where we choose to get our news from. It’s all very curated and we can’t get things from the other side. It’s wrong, and it’s really the work of the devil that we are divided over these issues, instead of working together for the common good. There is very little difference.

We choose to bicker about small things, rather than fight together for the big ones. I think that the divide in the Church is an easier fix right now compared to politics. I think the media has a lot to play in this, in both the secular world and the Catholic world. You write for a particular party audience, one or the other, and it would be nice if conversations were easier to have between who is perceived as more conservative or more liberal in the Church. Tim Busch and I had both tried to be neutral in that respect and be open to conversation with those who are considered to be on the other side from us. Obviously Napa is considered to the right and a lot of our friends are considered to the left but we try not to let that get in the way, and unfortunately even the way Napa is portrayed in the media is so far to the right, when really all we are trying to do to the best of our abilities is to live our Catholic faith and teach others to do the same.

Follow Claire Giangravè on Twitter: @ClaireGiangrave


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