In Napa, a high-powered conservative Catholic conference is flying under the radar
Napa Valley has long been a magnet for American movers. 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 contest of vacation plans.
The Napa Institute — an organization with 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 messages.
Among the presentations will be one called 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 angered liberals by, among other things, refusing to pay workers’ sick leave, openly defying the mandate of the Affordable Care Act including contraceptive aids in medical coverage and, as federal prosecutors claim, smuggling 5,500 Bible artifacts from Iraq; Aaron Kheriarty, an anti-lockdown and doubtful UC Irvine professor on vaccines; 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 charges of the Mueller Report and executed some of the former president’s most inflammatory policies, but has since refuted Trump’s “big lie” about 2020 voter fraud.
Barr’s message this Saturday night will not be political. Its subject is “Strangers in a Foreign Land: How Catholics Live as ‘Resident Foreigners’ and Faithful Citizens at the Same Time.
Few Napa residents, even those who are politically savvy, 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 Timothy Busch, the co-founder of the Napa Institute, but not the annual gathering.
“I want to be clear that the Napa Institute and its values do not reflect the values of most Napa citizens,” Whichard said in an email, noting that she spoke only for herself. “We believe that women’s reproductive rights are human rights. May the LGBTQ community be welcome at every table. That all lives matter. That workers are the link to a stable society.
“Although Tim Busch has the right to hold the Napa Institute conference wherever he wishes, he is not welcome here.”
It is an exclusive event. The more than 600 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-contained and even contributes to other Napa Institute programs, such as training priests, said John Meyer, the organization’s executive director. The institute fully buys the hotel during the conference and covers the travel and accommodation costs of the 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 company Pacific Hospitality Group. Its cellar, Trinitas Cellars, will host several tastings. Guests gather there, according to Napa Institute tax records, “to learn about the sanctity of work, building a Catholic culture, 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 for the event would be “Catholicism in the Face.”
A member of the institute’s ecclesiastical advisory board sees this formulation as an attempt to subvert secular descriptions.
“We are simply proclaiming a truth – the truth about the dignity of the human person, about our fallen human condition, about grace, sin and error,” said Bishop Robert Vasa, head of the Diocese of Santa Rosa. “We proclaim this 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?” said the archbishop. “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 requests permission from the local ordinary to hold masses during 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. on Sunday, in the spectacularly appointed wine cellar of the Méritage.