The PICO National Network
is not a religious organization, although its members include clergy from all faiths. It’s a political organization that has been working for decades to further a progressive agenda using the influence of religious institutions. According to its website, PICO was founded in 1972 under the leadership Rev. John Baumann SJ, a Catholic priest, who studied radical organizing techniques in Chicago under famed leftist Saul Alinsky. In an interview during a conference at Holy Names University in 2014, Baumann said of the father of modern community organizing, "Saul Alinksy was one of the people who delivered a workshop for us, and he was a fascinating person. The way he could describe the importance of how to make democracy work in our communities and the importance of bringing people together was remarkable."
John Baumann SJ
PICO began as a regional training institute to help support neighborhood organizations in California, and now has 44 affiliates in the United States that cross all denominational lines. The PICO website says that it bases its political activity in faith communities. Its new "congregation-community" model, said the website, serves "as the institutional base for community organizations. Rather than bring people together simply based on common issues like housing or education, the faith-based or broad-based organizing model makes values and relationships the glue that holds organizations together."
PICO has been expanding its focus. Documents recently released by the Wikileaks hacking organization include a June 18, 2015, email from Scott Reed
, who is the Executive Director of The PICO National Network, to Sergio Knaebel, grants director of the Sandler Foundation, an institution of substantial philanthropic resources directed into progressive causes and organizations.[i]
The email informed Knaebel of a trip that fifteen PICO clergy, leaders, and staff had made to the Vatican a week before. Cardinal Óscar Andrés Rodrígue
z Maradiaga of Honduras helped to facilitate these visits.
Cardinal Rodríguez has been involved in the promotion of Alinskyian organizing for awhile. In 2002, he traveled to California to learn about PICO and the Industrial Areas Foundation (another Alinskyian organizing network), hoping to begin chapters in Central America. Subsequently, PICO conducted Central American “introductory trainings” across the region that, in 2008, launched Comunidades de fe Organizadas para Accion
(COFOA) in El Salvador.
PICO’s Vatican trip was covered by secular and liberal-Catholic press. The National Catholic Reporter wrote that the purpose of this trip “to sway Pope Francis into addressing a number of lingering national social justice issues in his upcoming visit to the United States.” There were specific topics they wanted the pope to discuss “with President Barack Obama or during his address to Congress: immigration reform, economic injustice for low-wage workers, pervasive racism in U.S. institutions and society, and mass incarceration.”[ii]
The article also identified the various Vatican offices that met with PICO: the Pontifical Councils for Inter-religious Dialogue and for the Promotion of Christian Unity, the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, and the Pontifical Council for the Laity as well as meetings with the peace and justice office for the Order of Friars Minor (the Franciscans), with the superior general of the global Jesuit order, and with the executive director of Caritas Internationalis -- the Vatican's charitable arm. They met with the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, with the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences, and with officials at the U.S. embassy to the Holy See.
PICO wanted the authority of the Catholic Church to be used to influence support for very specific pieces of partisan legislation. For instance, PICO’s “Justice for All, Not Just for Some” campaign pushed specific sentencing reform bills and PICO informational material about its efforts were crafted to sound as though Pope Francis supported them: “[T]he church’s interest in the prison-reform campaign was reflected in Pope Francis’ commitment to social justice for the least among his Christian flock.”[iii]
PICO not only hoped that the Pope would talk about the issues with which they were politically engaged but intended, according to the Red email, “to amplify his remarks so that we have a more profound moral dialogue about policy choices through the election cycle of 2016.”
“At the end of the day,” Reed explained, “our visit affirmed an overall strategy: Pope Francis, as a leader of global stature, will challenge the “idolatry of the marketplace” in the U.S. and offer a clarion call to change the policies that promote exclusion and indifference to those most marginalized.” PICO would then use the event to “help many in our country move beyond the stale ideological conflicts that dominate our policy debates and embrace new opportunities to advance the common good.”
And then came this: “I appreciate your continued involvement in this project and would be happy at any time to sit and think with you about the opportunities around the papal visit.” The implication is that the Sandler Foundation supported PICO in its trip to visit the Vatican to garner political favors. This is not pure speculation – according to the Sandler Foundation website, PICO is one of its premier grantees, receiving $4.5 million since 2008. [iv]
While PICO’s efforts are nothing new, the WikiLeaks emails remind us that the Church is a tremendous prize for the Machiavellians. It’s good to be reminded of that, right before elections, when the rhetoric is running high.
[ii] Joshua J. McElwee, “Organizers, union leaders seek to influence Francis' US visit through Vatican meetings” National Catholic Reporter, 6-8-2002.
[iii] “Faith leaders urge end to La.’s high incarceration rates,” The Advocate, 8-30-13.
[iv] Jonathan M. Hanen, “No Shame on the Left: Herb and Marion Sandler have concealed their role in the housing crisis with large gifts to left-wing causes,” Capital Research Center report, 2-5-15.