Where Deep State Meets Deep Church

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“I am not the Catholic candidate for president,” John F. Kennedy famously declared. (At least he was honest.) Throughout the 1960 election, JFK struggled to overcome the old Know-Nothing myth that, were the United States to put an Irish Catholic in the White House, he would have a direct telephone line to the Holy See.

As a matter of fact, if Joe Biden wins next month, he will have a direct line to Rome—but that’s not as cool as it seems.

Mr. Biden’s chief strategist, Michael Donilon, has been with him since 1981. In addition to advising the Biden campaign, Michael is also managing director of the Biden Institute at the University of Delaware. (Fancy that.) He also advised the presidential campaigns of Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, as well as dozens of Democratic gubernatorial and senatorial campaigns. A Politico profile on the Biden campaign quotes colleagues describing Michael as Mr. Biden’s “alter ego” and the “soul of the campaign.” The New York Times calls him Biden’s “political guru.” He’s a party man through and through.

Michael Donilon’s brother, Tom Donilon, is the Biden campaign’s foreign policy advisor. If Mr. Biden unseats President Trump, many expect him to appoint Tom as Secretary of State or head of the CIA. And little wonder: from 2010 until 2013, Tom served as National Security Advisor to President Obama. He also served as chief of staff to the State Department under President Clinton. His biography at BlackRock Investment Institute, where he serves as chairman, boasts that he “served as the President’s personal emissary to a number of world leaders,” including President Xi Jinping of China and King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia. Tom Donilon is as Deep State as they come.

Tom and Michael have a third brother, Terry. For the last fifteen years, Terry has served as Secretary of Communications at the Archdiocese of Boston and spokesman for Boston’s ordinary, Sean Cardinal O’Malley. An extraordinary profile in The Washington Post from 2013 explains how Terry got his job. He followed his brothers’ footsteps into Democratic politics but couldn’t quite hack it. Then a new opportunity arose:

In 2005, the Boston archdiocese, with the help of a group close to Biden, the patron saint of Donilon family careers, began a search for a new communications director. Donilon said there was no favoritism, and that his interview with O’Malley was going terribly because his beeper kept buzzing and his cellphone kept ringing due to a meat recall by the supermarket chain. Luckily for Donilon, the conversation turned to a mutual acquaintance, former Providence mayor Buddy Cianci (who served jail time and once assaulted his wife’s alleged lover with a lit cigarette, ashtray, and fireplace log). That broke the ice.

That’s how Terry Donilon became the right-hand man to the most powerful bishop in the United States.

That Politico profile speaks favorably of Biden’s “retro” campaign. Like the former vice president, they’re mostly Irish Catholics, mostly male, and most of their hairs are gray. They all come from a background in the Democrats’ more moderate, blue-collar machine; they’ve also proven “adaptable” as the party drifts to the left. That the spokesman for the Archdiocese of Boston would be a product of the Irish Catholic–Democratic patronage system is also quite “retro.”

The Donilon Three remind one a bit of the three Emanuel brothers. The best-known of the trio, Rahm, briefly served as President Obama’s chief of staff before he was elected Mayor of Chicago in 2011, a post he held until 2019. The eldest, Ezekiel, is a Fauci-esque doyen of the medical establishment; the youngest, Ari, is a top Hollywood talent agent and owner of the Ultimate Fighting Championship franchise. Having placed themselves at the highest levels of politics and culture, the Emanuels have become one of the most powerful institutions on the American Left.

Would the Donilons follow suit? What would it mean for the country—and the Church—if senior Biden Administration officials had a direct line to one of the most senior prelates in the world?

When Cardinal O’Malley booted Father Daniel Moloney from M.I.T.’s Catholic chaplaincy earlier this year, there were whispers that he’d acted on Terry Donilon’s advice. The archdiocese’s spokesman is very careful that it maintains a good rapport with Massachusetts’s liberal, Democratic establishment. That might explain why Cardinal O’Malley controversially agreed to participate in the funeral of the pro-abort ideologue Senator Edward M. Kennedy. His Eminence was even photographed sitting next to Mr. Biden at the 2015 dedication of the Edward Kennedy Institute in Boston (pictured).

Still, it’s difficult to draw a direct line between the Deep State and the Deep Church. Cardinal O’Malley is no left-wing ideologue. An outspoken conservative on social issues, he nevertheless shies away from church politics. He prefers to focus on his life’s work: solving the clerical sex-abuse crisis. He arrived in Boston in 2003 to clean up following the Boston Globe’s “Spotlight” investigation, which blew the lid on the archdiocese’s cover-up of clerical abusers. He was so successful in that post that, in 2014, Pope Francis asked him to lead a new Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors. Cardinal O’Malley has earned his reputation as the Church’s leading prosecutor of predator-priests.

In 2013, Pope Francis also named Cardinal O’Malley to his Council of Cardinal Advisers, a group of seven senior churchmen who would form his inner circle. Cardinal O’Malley was the odd man out. Other members include the profoundly corrupt Óscar Cardinal Rodríguez Maradiaga; Reinhard Cardinal Marx, the heretic who previously served as head of the German bishops’ conference; and Pietro Cardinal Parolin, the Manchurian candidate.

To be sure, Cardinal O’Malley is deeply loyal to Francis, as he was to Pope Benedict XVI before him. Yet His Eminence has not hesitated to criticize the Holy Father in the past. In 2018, Francis claimed that laymen who accused a Chilean bishop of protecting sex abusers were guilty of “calumny.” Cardinal O’Malley quickly issued a statement condemning the Holy Father, saying that Francis’s words “abandon those who have suffered reprehensible criminal violations of their human dignity and relegate survivors to discredited exile.” The pope quickly backtracked, but it became clear that Cardinal O’Malley—though loyal—is not a loyalist.

Cardinal O’Malley’s relationship with the Holy Father never fully recovered, but he remains extremely influential both in the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and in the Roman Curia. In his acclaimed new guide to the next papal conclave, The Next Pope (Sophia Institute Press, 2020), Vatican-watcher Edward Pentin names Cardinal O’Malley as a top contender for the Chair of Saint Peter. A leaked report claims that he received the fourth-most votes in the 2013 conclave. It’s entirely possible that he will succeed Francis as the next Vicar of Christ.

Some might claim that, in the event of a Biden victory, the Know-Nothing fears about JFK would be reversed: the Church would begin answering to the White House. That seems far-fetched. Cardinal O’Malley earned his stripes through his anti-corruption work, not his politicking. It’s unlikely that he would turn into a patsy for the Biden Administration just because his spokesman asked him to.

Still, certain questions ought to be raised.

For instance, the USCCB and the Vatican have not been reluctant to criticize President Trump. Given Cardinal O’Malley’s close ties to the Biden clique—ties that precede the Donilon connection, mind you—would the bishops be as free with their criticism of a President Biden?

The hierarchy’s disdain for our Commander-in-Chief has been evident from day one. Francis himself has repeatedly attacked Mr. Trump, directly and indirectly. Just a few weeks ago, in his new encyclical Fratelli Tutti, he repeated his condemnation of those who would “build a culture of walls, to raise walls, walls in the heart, walls on the land, in order to prevent this encounter with other cultures, with other people.”

It’s true that Mr. Trump wants to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. It’s also true that Mr. Biden condones the murder of 800,000 unborn children every year. That doesn’t seem to bother the bishops quite as much.

Back in June, Archbishop Wilton Gregory of Washington called it “baffling and reprehensible” that the Saint John Paul II National Shrine (which falls under his jurisdiction) allowed the president to pay a visit so he could sign an executive order defending religious freedom. Shortly after—and possibly acting on the archbishop’s behest—diocesan officials urged priests to join in protests led by the DNC-backed Black Lives Matter Movement. Of course, the unborn are given no such consideration. Archbishop Gregory’s predecessor, the disgraced Donald Cardinal Wuerl, repeatedly refused to deny Communion, saying that bishops should not use the Eucharist as a “weapon.”

Maybe that’s the bigger point here. Few bishops in this country need much prodding to advance the left’s political agenda. That’s why I can’t buy into conspiracy theories about the Deep Church collaborating with the Deep State: it’s not like they’re trying to hide anything. Catholic progressives are more than happy to lock arms with secular progressives at an anti-Trump protest and march down Pennsylvania Avenue. And, if Joe Biden wins, I’m sure they’ll be the first to knock at the White House door.

[Photo credit: Darren McCollester/Getty Images News]

Michael Warren Davis

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Michael Warren Davis is the editor of Crisis Magazine. He is a frequent contributor to The American Conservative and author of The Reactionary Mind (Regnery, 2021).

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