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‘This isn’t doormat Christianity’: In Napa, a high-powered conservative Catholic conference flies under the radar

Napa Valley has long been a magnet for America’s movers and shakers. Some of them, including two-time U.S. Attorney General William Barr, will be in the city of Napa later this week, but it won’t be a random concurrence of vacation plans.

The Napa Institute — an organization of growing national religious, financial and political clout, but one that manages to fly largely under the popular radar — is hosting its 12th annual Summer Conference at the Meritage Resort and Spa. It will be a who’s who of Republican politics, and a symphony of conservative messaging.

Among the presentations will be one titled Liquid Gender and Its Consequence (featuring Mary Hasson, who has written about “the trans mirage”). Other offerings include, Staying Awake in a Woke Church, and Redeeming Carthage: The Profile Horizon After Dobbs.

Speakers will include Steve Green, who as president of Hobby Lobby Stores has irked liberals by, among other things, refusing to pay workers’ sick leave, openly defying the Affordable Care Act’s mandate to include contraceptive aids in health coverage and, as alleged by federal prosecutors, smuggling 5,500 biblical artifacts from Iraq; Aaron Kheriarty, an anti-lockdown, vaccine-dubious UC Irvine professor; and delivering the keynote address, Bill Barr.

Barr has come to occupy an ambiguous place in the minds of many Republicans. He faithfully defended Donald Trump against the accusations in the Mueller Report and executed some of the former president’s most incendiary policies, but has since refuted Trump’s “Big Lie” of 2020 election fraud.

Barr’s message this Saturday night will not be political. His topic is “Strangers in a Strange Land: How do Catholics Live as ‘Resident Aliens’ and Faithful Citizens at the Same Time.”

Few Napa residents, even those attuned to politics, seem to know the Summer Conference exists. Until last week, that included Carol Whichard, a member of both Progressive Women of Napa Valley and the Napa Working Families Coalition. She knew of Timothy Busch, the Napa Institute’s co-founder, but not of the annual gathering.

“I want to be clear that the Napa Institute and its values do not mirror the values of most of the citizens of Napa,” Whichard said in an email, noting she was speaking only for herself. “We believe that women’s reproductive rights are human rights. That the LGBTQ community is welcome at every table. That all lives matter. That workers are the link to a stable society.

“While Tim Busch has the right to hold the Napa Institute conference where he pleases, he isn’t welcome here.”

It is an exclusive event. The 600-plus guests will pay $2,700 each to attend. Previous guests have included Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-South Carolina, and Scott Walker, the former governor of Wisconsin.

The Summer Conference is self-sustaining, and even contributes to the Napa Institute’s other programming, like priest formation, said John Meyer, the organization’s executive director. The institute has a full buyout of the hotel during the conference, and covers travel and accommodations for plenary session speakers.

The Napa Institute is based in Irvine, but the location of its Summer Conference makes sense. Busch owns the Meritage resort through his Pacific Hospitality Group corporation. His winery, Trinitas Cellars, will host several tastings. Guests there gather, according to Napa Institute tax documents, “to learn about the sanctity of work, building a Catholic culture, and reason and faith.”

But also to embrace capitalism and encourage political activism. As Busch reportedly said during a conference orientation session in 2014, according to the National Catholic Reporter, the theme of the event would be “in-your-face Catholicism.”

One member of the institute’s Ecclesiastical Advisory Board sees that phrasing as an attempt to turn secular descriptions on their head.

“We’re simply proclaiming a truth — the truth about the dignity of the human person, about our fallen human condition, about grace and sin and error,” said Bishop Robert Vasa, leader of the Santa Rosa Diocese. “We proclaim that truth.”

Those who don’t, Vasa said, often accuse Catholics of being “in my face.”

“But the alternative — what do we want, a bunch of milquetoast Christians?” the archbishop said. “This is not doormat Christianity. People want Christians to listen passively and never say a word back. No, we have rights.”

Vasa’s connection to the Summer Conference is purely geographical, he said. As a matter of protocol, the Napa Institute asks permission from the local ordinary to hold Holy Masses at the conference. There will be 20 Masses over five days during this year’s event. Vasa will deliver the last one himself, at 9:30 a.m. Sunday, in the Meritage’s spectacularly appointed wine cave.

Meyer also disagreed with the activist characterization, arguing that the Napa Institute does not contribute to political agendas or cultural polarization. It focuses, he said, on charity, the church’s authority and “intellectual rigor.”

“We receive very little criticism from people who attend our events,” Meyer said. “Most of the criticism is external, from those who don’t understand who we really are or from media that looks at us through a secular or political lens, rather than a Catholic lens.”

As much as the Summer Conference is a celebration of Catholicism, it is also unquestionably an important networking opportunity. And Busch has built a reliable lineup of contributors.

The Napa Institute and its two spinoffs — the Napa Institute Legal Foundation and Napa Institute Support Foundation — took in just under $2.8 million in revenue in 2020. The institute’s portion of income that year was actually down from the previous two, a result of the Summer Conference going virtual during COVID restrictions. It reported more than $3 million in revenue in both 2018 and 2019, mostly from events.

Indeed, the first event of this year’s conference Wednesday morning, right after the opening Mass, is a Catholicism and Commerce Workshop, “a hands-on workshop on how to truly love Our Lord Jesus Christ in the marketplace.”

But it is the political bent of the institute that makes some people uncomfortable.

“Congressman Thompson strongly disagrees with the views of this organization and knows that they do not reflect the values of our district. He disavows the event in the strongest terms possible,” said Jack Stelzner, a spokesperson for Rep. Mike Thompson, whose district includes Napa.

In an age of widening division in the American political landscape, there is no mistaking where the Napa Institute stands.

Leonard Leo, often described as the architect of former President Donald Trump’s Supreme Court nominations, is a director of both the institute’s legal foundation and its foundation board. Previous Summer Conference speakers have included Charles Koch, perhaps the single largest benefactor of right-wing politics in modern American history; and Republican political strategist L. Brent Bozell III, who signed a letter that called Trump “the lawful winner of the (2020) presidential election,” flying in the face of accepted facts.

Busch recently funded a lecture series at the University of Notre Dame. The first guest speaker was Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, an announcement that sparked protest from faculty there.

Busch’s zeal for political influence runs so deep that he sometimes strays outside of the Catholic faith for messengers. That includes Koch, who has said he is not religious.

“He shares our values,” Busch told the audience while introducing Koch at a conference at The Catholic University of America in 2017, according to Commonweal magazine. “I tell Charles he’s a Catholic, he just doesn’t know it.”

Even some of Busch’s Catholic guests could be viewed as controversial within the faith.

The 2020 Summer Conference featured a talk by Cardinal George Pell, whom an Australian Royal Commission determined knew of child sexual abuse by clergy in the 1970s but did not take adequate steps to arrest it. The Napa Institute has also been affiliated with John Clayton Nienstedt. Prior to coming west, Nienstedt resigned as Archbishop of St. Paul and Minneapolis soon after a Ramsey County (Minnesota) prosecutor announced he was bringing criminal charges against the archdiocese for a “failure to protect children.”

“Cardinal Pell has recently been cleared of accusations, and it is not our place to comment on accusations,” Meyer said.

Vasa has attended every edition of the Summer Conference. He insisted it is not an endorsement of either capitalism or conservatism. Nor does he believe it’s inappropriate for Catholics to openly endorse those things.

“It’s a false concept that somehow our private lives are entirely private and must stay in the pew,” Vasa said. “In reality, when we go out into the world, we bring the church with us. We are called to impact society.”

This story has been updated to include comments from Napa Institute executive director John Meyer.

You can reach Phil Barber at 707-521-5263 or phil.barber@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @Skinny_Post.

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