When Wall Street collapsed in late 2008, donations to charitable groups and religious organizations quickly plummeted alongside it. The Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland, Maine, reported that the “turmoil in world financial markets and the resulting worldwide recession” had “significantly impacted” its books. In its fiscal year 2009 annual report, the church wrote, “To the extent these revenue shortfalls persist, we will have to reduce programs when some of them are needed most.”
[Congress1] Last year the diocese, true to its word, laid off employees at the Trinity Catholic School and made plans to close two parishes in Lewiston. But it also made the first of several generous — and controversial — new contributions.
In June, the archdiocese made a $100,000 donation to the Amendment 1 campaign to ban gay marriage. By the time the ballot fight was over, it had donated more than $568,000 to the cause. (In November, Maine voters overturned a state law giving gay couples the right to wed.) Now, Catholics across the country are criticizing the Portland diocese for having solicited monetary contributions for the Maine ballot fight, punished organizations that opposed its stance on gay marriage, and for having politicized churchgoers’ charitable giving.
**Church Donations Deprive Good Work in Favor of Political Causes
In fiscal year 2009, the Catholic Church of Portland reported millions of dollars in revenue, but still more in costs. Its losses on investments, its costs “attributable to sexual misconduct,” and its sundry upkeep costs combined to represent a loss of over $20 million. When the extent of its political spending became apparent, it didn’t take long for outrage to follow.
“Parishes are being closed, parochial schools are being closed. It’s not just [on account of] staffing issues, like they say, but also financial issues,” says Anne Underwood, Maine resident and founder of Catholics for Marriage Equality. “And I think Catholics were very aware that this is not a wealthy diocese and yet the diocese spent a lot of money on this cause.”
Marc Mutty, an employee of the Portland Diocese who took time off to run the Church’s Ballot Question Committee — which accepted donations from the Church and funneled most of them to StandForMarriageMaine.com — demurred when local papers questioned the Church’s activities at the time. “We believe it is a fundamental issue that speaks to the good of society and the best interests of society and once it is lost, it is lost forever,” he argued. (The Portland Diocese did not return phone call requests yesterday for additional comment.)
That said, not all Catholics agreed with the decision, and many have taken issue with fact that their donations to the Catholic Church might have found their way into campaigns affecting questions at the ballot box. George Burns, a lawyer and a Catholic who opposed Amendment 1, went so far as to set up his own charity for dissatisfied Catholics. “My hope is that ultimately it will be a charity for people like me who were not comfortable with the church’s administration of donated funds,” he explains.
Burns doesn’t question the fact that the Catholic Church has discretion over the use of its funds, but he’s dissatisfied with the level of opacity with which it operated — soliciting and accepting donations from bishops at other dioceses around the country, often unbeknownst to their followers — in funding the gay marriage ban in Maine.
“I thought the use of Catholic charity money from other dioceses sent to Maine to oppose marriage equality was a distortion of the intent of some donors,” he argues. “Do you think someone in New Mexico thought their donation was going to this effort in Maine, as opposed to aiding the sick and feeding the hungry?”
Indeed, in its efforts to raise funds to defeat Maine’s gay marriage law, Portland’s Bishop Richard Malone sent an appeal to other Catholic bishops around the country asking for support. The Philadelphia archdiocese and the Phoenix diocese, Maine campaign finance records revealed, each gave $50,000 to the cause. Dioceses in Newark, St. Louis, and Youngstown, Ohio, contributed $10,000 apiece.
Church spokesmen in Maine and elsewhere deny that the contributions to anti-same sex marriage campaigns came at the expense of other charitable donations, claiming they were drawn instead from special discretionary funds and private donors.
“The money is dedicated revenues that were provided by a donor for causes such as these and money from the collection basket or any of those types of things would never be used,” Marc Mutty explains. Likewise, the diocese in St. Louis released a statement that said their gift came from a fund that “has traditionally been the archbishop’s for discretionary spending, not for formal operations, and is funded by private gifts.”
But such a system — in which a bishop solicits funds from private donors for a specific political cause and then acts as an intermediary in funding it — is raising an equally troubling set of concerns among Catholic groups opposed to the church’s involvement in anti-marriage campaigns.
“Another problem is that if $50,000 is coming from the Catholic Diocese of Phoenix, Arizona, what the bishop could do there is to bring in his high-level donors and ask for a check for the diocese and then bundle the money and launder it as a donation from the church to a campaign,” notes Rev. Dr. Joseph Palacios, board member of Catholics for Equality. “In effect, you’ve got a tax-deductible charitable donation to the church, so it looks good, which is then being turned around and used for political purposes.”
**Crackdown on Charitable Organizations that Support Marriage Equality
The Catholic Church’s advocacy against gay marriage does not stop at contributions to campaigns on state ballot measures. It also includes which charitable programs it chooses to support and which to defund. In the wake of Maine’s decision to ban gay marriage, the church has played an active role in revoking funds from worthy charitable organizations because they diverged from church doctrine by joining a coalition to protect marriage equality in the state.
The most notable example involves a program called Homeless Voices for Justice (HVJ), which was asked this spring to return its grant funding to both the local Portland Diocese and the Catholic Campaign for Human Development (CCHD), a national organization that funds antipoverty efforts. HVJ’s parent group, the Preble Street Resource Center, had joined a coalition that opposed Amendment 1.
“This funding, which we have received for 13 years, was used in its entirety to support the work of Homeless Voices for Justice, a grassroots group that works for social change on behalf of people who struggle with homelessness and poverty,” the group wrote in an appeal to Bishop Malone. “The mission and the efforts of Homeless Voices for Justice align so well with those of CCHD that it is terribly disappointing that you have come to this decision to withdraw support for their valiant work.”
Preble Street claimed that, separate from HVJ, it had decided to join the coalition because it had noticed that issues surrounding sexual orientation were the single greatest cause of homelessness among youth in Maine, but the Diocese and the CCHD remained unmoved. Sue Bernard, spokeswoman for the diocese, said the church requires agencies that receive funding to adhere to the teachings of the Catholic Church, and that it had violated the terms of its grant by joining the coalition.
CCHD, for its part, admitted the decision was a hard one, but it claimed that Preble Street’s decision left them no choice but to defund the program. “We liked Homeless Voices a great deal. I felt badly for having to cancel the grant,” said Randy Keesler, a grants specialist for the group. “This was very difficult for us to do.”
CCHD’s crackdown on Preble Street, however, represents not simply an isolated incident but a slow and steady evolution in the national antipoverty group’s philosophy and practices in response to increasing pressure from the Catholic Church hierarchy.
“Campaign for Human Development has been an important incubator for a number of social projects around the country,” notes Palacios, “but there’s been a lot of pressure on them to do a litmus test on social values for the awarding of funds. The first was abortion rights or access to contraception, but now they’ve stepped this up for same sex marriage as well.”
Requirements that charitable groups stay silent on the issue of same-sex marriage are a relatively recent phenomenon. “When the bishops got on board with the constitutional amendment concerning marriage, that’s especially when this whole thing kicked off,” Palacios says. “Then it became a national policy for bishops to go in this direction.”
Indeed, the Catholic Bishops of the United States established CCHD in 1970, giving it the mandate to fund “such projects as voter registration, community organizations, community?run schools, minority?owned cooperatives and credit unions, capital for industrial development and job training programs, and setting up of rural cooperatives.” But it has faced overwhelming pressure since the 1990s to add a growing number of litmus tests for charitable groups hoping to receive funding. The grant application now notes that “organizations that support or promote, for example, capital punishment, abortion, euthanasia, racism, war, discrimination, or same-sex marriage are not eligible for CCHD funding.”
“This is a relatively new trend,” notes Dr. Patrick Edgar, president of the Association for the Rights of Catholics in the Church. “It used to be that CCHD and other charitable organizations were left alone as far as its administration and enforcement of those kind of doctrinal statements, but in recent years the Bishops Conference has gotten more aggressive as far as stifling anything that might indicate that not all Catholics agree on this topic.”
Indeed, in the months that led up to CCHD’s decision to revoke the funding for Preble Street’s Homeless Voices for Justice program, it had come under increasing attacks from conservative elements within the Church for its “permissive” attitude toward funding groups that preached a message of social justice. Last fall, CCHD Bishop Roger Morin was forced to defend his group’s record against threats from a coalition of conservative Catholic groups that pushed for a boycott of CCHD’s collection weekend in November, calling claims that it funded groups with missions contrary to church teachings “outrageous.”
In response to such pressure, Bishop Morin released a memorandum extolling the group’s crackdown on a number of organizations that took stands on propositions in California that were considered contrary to church doctrines.
“The Chinese Progressive Association and Young Workers United, both immigrant workers’ rights groups, had, without the knowledge of the local Archdiocese or CCHD, produced voter guides that took positions on referenda opposed to Catholic teaching on same-sex marriage and, in one case, parental notification and abortion,” the memo read. “As soon as these facts were confirmed, and after consultation with the local Archdiocese, the groups were also defunded.”
When CCHD came under similar pressure this spring from conservative Catholic groups, which once again lambasted its funding of Preble Street as a sign of heresy, the Diocese of Portland made its displeasure known and CCHD quickly revoked the funding for the homelessness program as well.
“The bishop in a state has total control over what happens in his state with Catholic money,” notes Underwood. “It’s really sad, because [Homeless Voices] met all the criteria that good and faithful Catholics want to see a program meet.”
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