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USCCB: Call with Trump was about schools, not campaign

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by JD Flynn

Denver Newsroom, May 5, 2020 / 04:41 pm MT (CNA).- The U.S. bishops’ conference has responded to charges that it might have knowingly facilitated illegal campaigning by the White House and the campaign of President Donald Trump when it notified Catholic leaders of an impending phone call with the president.

A spokesperson for the bishops’ conference told CNA May 5 that when it notified Catholic leaders about an April phone call with the president, its goal was to promote advocacy for Catholic education, and that the call had no connection to the president’s reelection campaign.

On April 24, White House officials invited “Catholic Leaders and Educators” to participate in an April 25 call with Trump about the needs of Catholic schools during the coronavirus pandemic. More than 600 people participated in the call, including USCCB president Archbishop Jose Gomez and Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York.

During the call, bishops and schools superintendents outlined the work of Catholic schools, and their needs during the pandemic, especially for funding.

The call soon became a matter of controversy.

On April 26, the Crux news website reported that Trump had declared himself the “best [president] in the history of the Catholic Church” during the call, and that when Dolan was identified by the president as a “great gentleman” and a “great friend of mine,” the cardinal responded by saying that “the feelings are mutual.”

Critics in Catholic media complained that the bishops on the call did not raise points of disagreement with the president, who has been widely criticized by the U.S. bishops at other times for his stances on immigration and social assistance programs.

Also controversially, Trump appeared during the call to tout his reelection bid, warning that conditions could worsen for Catholics and Catholic schools if a Democratic administration were to take office, and promoting his administration’s record on abortion.

The day before the call took place, Lauren McCormack, head of government relations for the bishops’ conference, notified by email some Catholic leaders that the call would take place, and forwarded to them a White House invitation to register for the call.

On May 5, Crux reported that McCormack had warned leaders that “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.”

In response to that report, National Catholic Reporter blogger Michal Sean Winters said McCormack’s email was “evidence that Dolan, and at least some key staffers at the bishops’ conference, knew that the call was partly a campaign rally.”

Winters alleged it was possible the conference might have aided the White House in illegal or unethical campaign activity, if it knew Trump was planning to campaign from the White House, or that the White House was planning to share with campaign staffers email addresses it had obtained from the call.

But Chieko Noguchi, a U.S. bishops’ conference spokesperson, told CNA May 5 the conference had not colluded with the Trump campaign, or been told by anyone that email addresses might be shared with a campaign. Instead, Noguchi said, McCormack’s warning was speculation.

“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. This warning was based on cautious speculation, not on any communications with the White House,” Noguchi told CNA.

In fact, before McCormack notified leaders that that campaign might obtain their email addresses, USCCB general counsel Anthony Picarello speculated in an email to state Catholic conference directors about the same possibility, calling the chance that email addresses could be shared a “nuisance factor” of which they should be aware.

In their emails, which were obtained by CNA, neither Picarello nor McCormack encouraged Catholic leaders to sign up for the call. And Noguchi told CNA that participation in the call was not about politics.

“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,” Noguchi said.

“USCCB does not support or oppose any candidate for elective office,” she added.

President Trump is well known to mix official business with campaigning.

During his frequent media briefings on the coronavirus pandemic, the president has mixed information about the government’s response with aspersions cast toward Democrats, especially his likely presidential campaign opponent, Joe Biden. But participants said that while Trump mentioned his reelection during the call, Catholic leaders focused their remarks on their concerns about the pandemic.

Bishop Michael Barber of Oakland, the USCCB’s education committee chair—along with several Catholic diocesan superintendents, noted the importance of the Paycheck Protection Program loans for Catholic schools to continue operating, and asked for tax deductions for parochial schools and direct tuition aid for parents, according to accounts from leaders on the call.

Archdiocese of Denver school superintendent Elias Moo told CNA last week that he spoke to Trump “about the long history of Catholic education in our country, and how our nation needs schools that provide an educational experience that forms the whole child and values the primacy of parents and of the soul of the human person.”

Sources on the call said the president responded with indication that he would find ways to help Catholic schools during the pandemic, and support efforts to find Congressional funding for education assistance.

Since the call, bishops have received criticism for their engagement with Trump. More than 1,500 people have signed online a letter to Dolan that criticizes the cardinal for “aligning” with Trump, and claims the cardinal has given the impression of endorsing Trump.

Among the signatories are Catholic intellectuals, priests, religious, laity, along with representatives from the “Association of Roman Catholic Women Priests” and the “American National Catholic Church,” a group founded, according to Trenton’s Bishop David O’Connell “by schismatic leaders who deny the unity of the Roman Catholic Church and its leadership and laws.”

Dolan has responded by telling reporters that he is committed to working with civic leaders of all parties for the good of the Church.

For his part, Moo, who participated in the call, told CNA that dialogue with civil leaders is a part of Catholic leadership.

“Regardless of one’s political affiliation or preference, it is important for the Church to engage with public officials to discuss the issues that are central to our Catholic faith and mission. In this case, it was the importance and value of Catholic schools as a critical part of the educational fabric of our nation.”

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