Catholic politics, power dynamics highlighted in Colorado funding flap

The political tug-of-war waging within the U.S. Catholic Church made headlines in Colorado this month when the Church’s Campaign for Human Development threatened to pull tens of thousands of dollars in support from Durango-based immigrant-rights group Compañeros.

As the New York Times first reported, the anti-poverty Catholic Campaign (CCHD) in February told Compañeros Executive Director Nicole Mosher that her group’s annual $30,000 grant was in jeopardy. Mosher told the Colorado Independent that a Catholic Campaign liaison in Pueblo explained the problem was that both Compañeros and gay-rights group One Colorado were affiliated with the wider Colorado Immigrant Rights Coalition. The coalition, which includes well more than 50 member organizations, has openly supported the rights of gay immigrants and has joined with One Colorado in championing the same-sex civil unions bill making its way through the Colorado legislature.

As the Colorado Independent recently reported, no one from the Catholic Campaign ever asked Compañeros about its stand on gay rights or about its ties to One Colorado. Mosher said the Campaign’s concerns seemed based on sources far removed from the reality of the work being done on the ground by her organization, which mostly concerns education on U.S. laws and shepherding immigrants and their families through courts, hospitals, schools and tax filings.

For Church watchers, the events in Colorado seemed to spotlight the way power is being wielded within the Church by non-clerical Catholic groups armed with internet connections and formed to champion hard-line positions on social issues such as abortion and gay rights.

An evangelical Catholicism

James Salt, executive director of liberal Catholic group Catholics United, told the Independent that the hunt for “100 percent orthodoxy,” as he put it, is altering the Church in the United States.

“There was once the feeling that our faith could move mountains and especially on behalf of the most-marginalized members of society,” he said. “But [Church leaders] have been pushed farther and farther rightward by these well-organized groups with narrow agendas.”

Salt said that the battle over the Catholic Campaign is an outgrowth of the rise of the Christian right in U.S. politics in the 1980s.

“The [Catholic] bishops were once seen as a prophetic voice on behalf of the poor. Now they’re known primarily as a voice on wedge issues. That all seems counter cultural to Catholics, more evangelical, more partisan, more politically motivated than spiritually motivated.”

The Catholic Campaign, founded in the 1960s with a progressive Vatican II-era mission to fight for social justice by attacking root causes of poverty, has been a ripe target for pressure. Conservative critics have accused its leaders of “working in direct contradiction to Church teaching” by awarding grants to organizations that “directly or through coalition membership have promoted abortion, birth control, homosexuality and/or Marxism,” according to a watchdog report brought out last fall by a coalition called Reform CCHD Now.

The Reform CCHD Now coalition was formed in 2009 and is led by Virginia-based anti-abortion groups American Life League and Human Life International, which registered the coalition’s internet domain name.

The coalition also includes smaller groups, such as Colorado Catholics for Personhood, a local chapter of the national movement to challenge Roe v Wade by passing laws around the country that would grant fertilized human eggs full legal rights.

The group is run by Gualberto Garcia Jones, who is also spokesman for the Personhood Colorado ballot initiative campaigns run this year and in 2010.

It’s unclear what role a group like Colorado Catholics for Personhood plays in the mission of Reform CCHD Now. Jones was traveling last week and unavailable to comment for this story.

Affiliation transgressions

“The Church has awarded grants to groups that directly or through coalition membership have promoted abortion, birth control, homosexuality and Marxism”

Human Life International, founded in 1981, reports a presence in 100 countries around the world. Its activities include lobbying to outlaw abortion in the U.S. and abroad, organizing conferences and trainings and holding sidewalk counseling sessions outside abortion centers.

The main work of the coalition, however, seems to be carried out by the American Life League. The League was founded in 1979 and calls itself the “largest grassroots Catholic pro-life education organization” in the country. In the fall of 2010 and 2011, just before annual fundraising efforts launched for the Catholic Campaign, the League released watchdog reports on the Campaign’s grants. The 2011 report recommended the Campaign pull funding for roughly 54 of its 218 grantees. Compañeros was not included on that list.

Michael Hichborn, spokesman for both the American Life League and the Reform CCHD Now coalition, told the Independent that his groups had “nothing to do with the charges against Compañeros” and that it was “the local [Pueblo] diocese which made its own discoveries and drew its own conclusions” in the matter.

Yet, the American Life League’s watchdogging is clearly having an effect. As is the case with Compañeros, more than 40 of the organizations listed for defunding in the League’s 2011 report were targeted based on associations they maintain with larger coalitions.

Many of the groups made the list, for example, due to ties to the Center for Community Change, which the report authors explain “signed an open letter to President Obama and some members of Congress urging them to continue funding Planned Parenthood, is actively involved in the promotion of homosexuality and equates abortion rights with criminal justice.”

Critics told the Independent that the American Life League research lacks vital perspective and that it trades on guilt by association.

In the eyes of anti-abortion groups, for example, Planned Parenthood is recognized first and foremost as the largest abortion provider in the nation, but for anti-poverty groups, Planned Parenthood is seen primarily as the largest provider of vital health care to poor women coast to coast.

And, in the case of groups tied to the Center for Community Change, it’s unclear what’s more objectionable, a grantee’s association with the Center, or the Center’s association with Planned Parenthood, which in all of the cases listed in the American Life League report, is an association two steps removed from any grantee and one based on a single letter of support.

Salt characterized the American Life League’s research on the Catholic Campaign a lamentable product of the digital age.

“These far right groups can find any minuscule hint of a supposed transgression and use it as a point of attack,” he said.

Mosher said that, in the case of Compañeros, there would be no way to know from an internet search how thin are its ties to One Colorado, how remote are the workings of the organizations in day-to-day operations and how impractical it would be for Compañeros to try to control the membership of either the state’s immigrant rights coalition or of any other such coalition to which it might belong.

Hichborn, however, said that, in the matter of Compañeros, any talk about One Colorado and the role of Reform CCHD Now is a distraction.

In an email he wrote that, based on research he has conducted since the story broke, the problem likely was never One Colorado, it was that Companeros is a “founding member of the Colorado Immigrant Rights Coalition, which is itself actively promoting same-sex marriage, attending gay-pride parades, and promoting homosexuality in general; all of which is in direct conflict with immutable Catholic moral teaching.

“Companeros is so intimately linked with [the Colorado Immigrant Rights Coalition] that official actions taken by [the coalition] reflect extended actions by Companeros as well. By joining [the coalition] as a “member,” Companeros is participating in its actions.”

‘Open source analysis’

The likelihood that it was the Catholic Campaign which found fault with the Compañeros membership in the Colorado Immigrant Rights Coalition must be seen as progress for the reform movement.

Hounded by criticism, the Campaign underwent an intense “review and renewal” process in 2010 that ended in its adopting the language of its critics. The Ten Commitments reform program (pdf) that came out of the process aimed at developing “more specific ethical guidance to help the Bishops carry out [the Campaign’s] policy of prohibiting funding to groups which are part of coalitions that act in conflict with fundamental Catholic moral and social teaching.”

What’s more, Hichborn and the Reform coalition members make no apologies for their research methods. Indeed, defending them has been a large part of the coalition’s activities almost from its inception.

Two years ago the coalition launched attacks on John Carr, who oversees the Catholic Campaign as executive director of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Department of Justice, Peace and Human Development. Citing Carr’s work over the course of years for the Center for Community Change, the coalition alleged that the Conference of Catholic Bishops was engaged in a “systematic pattern of cooperation with evil.”

Carr told the sympathetic Catholic News Service that he stood by the work of the Center to address poverty and that he had no knowledge of any of its alleged “work to promote abortion and homosexuality.” He said that no one from the Reform coalition had contacted him before making the allegations.

Bishops rallied around Carr and denounced the accusations as internet smears.

“You can have one person with a website call you a left-wing radical, and [your] family is asking… ‘What’s going on?’” said Bishop Roger Morrin from Mississippi.

The coalition responded by explaining that it uses an “open source analysis” methodology “promulgated by the U.S. Director of National Intelligence, the Department of Defense, and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.” In effect, that means the coalition researchers lean on internet searches but that they look for primary source documents authored by the organizations in question– public relations releases and letters, for example, like the one sent by the Center for Community Change to Washington lawmakers in support of Planned Parenthood.

At the American Life League website, Hichborn defended the criticism of Carr and the Catholic Campaign. He argued that the associations unearthed by coalition researchers, however loose, demonstrate the way the Campaign is compromising the integrity of the Church and its mission.

“As I have repeated since we began our investigation, [Campaign] staff and leadership are either incompetent or they are complicit. Whatever the case may be, there can be no doubt that the [Catholic Campaign] has completely failed its mission by sleeping with the enemy.”

That’s exactly the kind of harsh rhetoric Salt called “tone deaf” within a Catholic culture that reveres the mission taken on by men like Carr and the bishops guiding the Catholic Campaign.

Salt cited recent Pew Research Center data that suggests one third of Americans who were raised Catholic have left the Church. In fact, he believes the rising power of groups like Reform CCHD Now is both a cause and a result of the fact that Catholics raised with the Vatican II ideals are leaving the Church in droves.

“In the 1980s, you had these conservative commentators like George Weigel saying they wanted to turn the Church 180 degrees away from social justice. Well, they’re succeeding by using these divisive tactics, and it just drives people from the Church.”

[ Image: Reconstruction of the nave of the Domkerk in Utrecht via Paulus 2 at Wiki Commons. ]