The Catholic University of America (CUA) may have thought that AFL-CIO President Emeritus John Sweeney’s May 2nd speech on campus would be non-controversial. But Sweeney, a Catholic who doesn’t hide his commitment to socialism and a progressive takeover of the Democratic Party, promised controversy from the start. He attacked conservatives, in particular Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, and told the event that opponents of organized labor were out-of-step with the teachings of the church and Jesus Christ Himself. Then, however, Sweeney unloaded on the sponsors of his appearance, attacking university officials as union busters.
Perhaps Sweeney thought his comments would go unanswered, out of deference to the fact that he was a featured speaker and was showered with praise by the liberal organizers of the event as a brilliant labor organizer. But CUA officials struck back, issuing a statement basically accusing Sweeney of lying and having the statement read aloud as Sweeney sat in stunned silence. The sordid affair has had the unintended result of revealing the hand of left-wing billionaire George Soros in the affairs of the national university of the Catholic Church.
This extraordinary development, a major embarrassment for both Sweeney and the CUA, was shocking enough. But university officials then went into damage control, failing to respond for several days to repeated email requests from the press for a complete and unedited copy of the statement refuting Sweeney. Finally, Accuracy in Media was told that Victor Nakas, associate vice president for public affairs at CUA, was handling the controversy. But he was busy with other matters and was unavailable.
CUA officials were apparently operating on the assumption that the conference had been ignored by the press and that reporters would have no immediate access to what Sweeney had said and what the university said in response.
In fact, a recording of the event turned up and demonstrates that the statement issued by CUA officials takes issue with almost everything said by the former labor boss and accuses organized labor of manipulating and abusing workers at this institution of higher learning.
The two-day conference was sponsored by Catholic University’s Institute for Policy Research & Catholic Studies (IPR) and titled “120th Anniversary of Rerum Novarum: Church, Labor, and the New Things of the Modern World.”Rerum Novarum, a papal document on labor and capital, is behind much of the “social justice” teaching that animates “progressive” Catholics these days who support Obama and want to overlook his anti-Catholic record on matters such as abortion and homosexual rights. Not surprisingly, the Obama Administration sent a representative, Alexia K. Kelley, deputy director, White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, to speak at the event. Officials of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops also participated.
“Earlier this year,” said Sweeney, “politicians began taking America’s anti-union, anti-worker crusade a step even further by trampling the rights of public employees and boldly trying to eliminate their unions altogether. I’m sure most of you are familiar with what happened in Wisconsin, where a newly elected conservative governor forced state as well as municipal unions to concede health care and pension benefits, and then outlawed collective bargaining.”
In order to “restore Catholic social teaching to the center of the American Church—a position it still holds in Church doctrine—and renew the partnership between the Church and labor,” Sweeney said that the organized labor movement must become “what amounts to an action arm of Catholic social teaching.” Threatening confrontation, he said, “We need the help of every Catholic leader as well as every Catholic parishioner, not just in matters of public policy, but in direct action that we from time to time must undertake.”
“But I am concerned that the Church’s support for workers and unions has become muted and even confusing,” he said.
Far-left publications, including the Communist Party’s People’s World, praised Sweeney’s address, calling the former labor boss “one of the Catholic Church’s most prominent laymen.”
One speaker, a Chicago priest by the name of Cletus Kiley, has been more outspoken than Sweeney, having been featured in a viral video because of his opening prayer at the AFL-CIO’s 2011 National Building Trades Legislative Conference. In this “prayer” he denounced the “Wall Street gamblers” and the “ultra-wealthy,” adding, “They say our unions have too much voice in political life, but pretend that we don’t see the hand of the Koch brothers and other billionaires underwriting their efforts.” Kiley warned the IPR conference to beware of the Tea Party’s support for small government.
But Kiley’s support for “social justice” has been undermined by accusations that he was among a number of Chicago-area Catholic officials who played down the testimony of a sex abuse victim in the church in order to protect a priest who later resigned in disgrace
Sweeney, who praised Kiley’s approach to organized labor, spoke on May 2nd at the IPR conference, while Cardinal Peter Kodwo Appiah Turkson, president of the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, spoke on May 3rd at an evening function. Sweeney, who had been head of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) before taking over the AFL-CIO, shared the dais with Turkson on the second day as well and was in fact allowed to respond to his remarks. Turkson, in contrast to Sweeney, emphasized that Rerum Novarum was opposed to socialism.
Although Rerum Novarum is a controversial document and has elements that are both pro-union and anti-socialist, the IPR conference was completely one-sided, ignoring conservative American Catholics who favor the free enterprise system. The event featured not only Sweeney, a member of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), but Harold Meyerson, a DSA vice-chair and Washington Post columnist. Meyerson is not a Catholic and used the occasion of the event at CUA to pay tribute to his mentor, socialist Michael Harrington, who completely abandoned the Catholic Church and became an atheist.
Sweeney’s membership in DSA put him close to Obama, who was supported by the Chicago DSA in his political campaigns for office. As President, Obama gave Sweeney the Presidential Medal of Freedom. The AFL-CIO hailed this as the nation’s highest civilian honor.
However, before Sweeney’s response to Turkson was allowed to occur at the CUA event, Stephen Schneck, director of IPR and associate professor of politics at CUA, said that he had to read an official statement denouncing Sweeney for his attack on university officials. It was clear that he had been ordered to do so. Sweeney, on the dais with Turkson and Bishop Stephen E. Blaire, chairman of the Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, had to sit through the tongue-lashing, which took place before an audience of about 100 people, including several priests.
The controversy stemmed from Sweeney’s remarks on May 2nd. Sweeney had said, “I’m reminded of the time not too many years ago when we scheduled a demonstration here at this university over a dispute between the workers’ union and the administration. The then-president of CUA called a certain member of the hierarchy, who then called me and asked me to cancel the demonstration in exchange for a promise to deal with our issues. I canceled the demonstration. But I never heard back from either of them…I share that little story not to disparage our esteemed leaders—my calls for help from the hierarchy have most often been answered.”
But the “esteemed leaders” and the hierarchy ordered Schneck to read a statement taking issue with almost everything Sweeney had said about them and the union problems at CUA.
Keeping in mind that CUA President John Garvey had introduced the conference and has emphasized intellect and virtue during his inaugural year at CUA, Schneck read a university statement that essentially accused Sweeney of abandoning those values:
“During his remarks about a labor issue at Catholic University that began in 1999, he implied that the then-president of the Catholic University refused to engage in a dialogue with him about the matter. In fact, the president of the university along with one of his vice presidents met face to face with Mr. Sweeney to discuss the labor issue.
“Mr. Sweeney also stated that the conflict was between the university administration and the workers union. In September 1999 approximately 130 CUA custodial and maintenance workers were involuntarily transferred from one union to a local of the Service Employees International Union. They protested their incorporation into SEIU not just through the university administration but also to the National Labor Relations Board and petitioned the latter to decertify SEIU. The university adopted a position of neutrality over the matter of union representation, stipulating only that the workers have an opportunity to make a free choice by a secret ballot election. SEIU opposed this position, pressuring the workers to accept their forcible incorporation. Eventually when SEIU concluded that the university would not be swayed from its position, it agreed to a secret ballot election conducted by a neutral third party. The election was held on February 2, 2001, and SEIU lost.”
In an understatement, the university officials went on, “Our recollection of events differs from Mr. Sweeney’s.”
Not only were there different recollections, the controversy suggests that someone was lying—and that someone, according to CUA, was Sweeney. Significantly, Sweeney had nothing to say in response to the scathing CUA statement that was read aloud in front of him.
None of this seemed to bother the group called Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good (CACG), which distributed Sweeney’s speech without noting that the university had condemned some of his remarks. It turns out that the CUA’s Schneck is on the CACG board, that White House official Alexia Kelley served as the group’s Executive Director and co-founder, and its current chairman, Fred Rotondaro, is a Senior Fellow at the George Soros-funded Center for American Progress in Washington, D.C.
In another interesting development, CACG is itself funded by Soros, an admitted atheist.
Perhaps conservative Catholics will want to take a closer look at what is happening at a Catholic institution of higher learning that describes itself as “faithful to the teachings of Jesus Christ as handed on by the Church.”