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Catholic Guilt by Association: Colorado Poverty Organization’s Funding in Jeopardy

April 11, 2012, 4:57 pm | Posted by John Gehring

A recent front page story in the New York Times calls attention to a troubling trend I’ve frequently noted – how a mobilized Catholic right targets social justice organizations and religious progressives to advance a narrow ideological agenda.

In this latest case, the victim is a small nonprofit organization in rural southwestern Colorado that helps poor Hispanic immigrants with basic needs. The group, Compañeros, was recently told by the Diocese of Pueblo that its financing  from the U.S. Catholic bishops’ national anti-poverty campaign was in danger because it’s also a member of an immigration advocacy umbrella group which opposes discrimination against LGBT immigrants and supports same-sex civil unions.

The Times reports:

The Catholic Campaign, which doles out $8 million annually to about 250 groups nationwide, has been under increasing pressure from conservative Catholic groups to ensure that it is not unwittingly aiding organizations that run afoul of church positions on issues like birth control and marriage… Since 2010, nine groups from across the country have lost financing from the campaign because of conflicts with Catholic principles, according to the campaign’s director, Ralph McCloud.

Compañeros was told that unless it withdrew from the coalition, Ms. Mosher said, the group would lose money it got each year. “I was shocked that our money was all of a sudden in jeopardy, and confused about why,” Ms. Mosher said. “We have no reason to believe that we are in any way going against Catholic teachings. If they are willing to defund our program based on an affiliation, it sends a clear message of divisiveness.” Debate over the church’s vaunted antipoverty campaign, which was begun by the bishops’ conference in 1970, has taken a more contentious turn in recent years. Conservative Catholics, with the help of search engines and other Web sites, have become more aggressive in tracking the activities of groups that receive funds from the campaign, while some groups have found themselves forced to defend their work.

The news that Compañeros faces potential defunding comes just a month after the Sacramento Bee reported that the city’s Catholic diocese will no longer fund programs at Francis House, a nonprofit agency that serves the homeless, because its executive director (who is not Catholic) has expressed support for abortion rights and gay marriage. In recent years, conservative Catholic activists who fancy themselves defenders of orthodoxy have even gone after Catholic bishops and prominent staffers at the U.S. bishops’ conference.

Bryan Cones, managing editor of U.S. Catholic magazine, correctly warns that the Catholic Church also risks undercutting vital interfaith efforts to address poverty by putting rigid purity tests before service to the poor.

With so many mainline and even evangelical Christians having discerned different responses to disputed moral questions such as abortion and same-sex marriage, how could any Catholic organization possibly partner in joint projects of Christian service? It is one thing to insist on strict adherence in the public sphere to Catholic teaching for one’s own employees, but to impose it on others as a condition of partnership is a step too far. The Diocese of Sacramento’s decision is a poor one, pure and simple, reflecting the narrowest possible approach to Catholic engagement with the world around us. It is a choice that places ideology over service to those most in need, and it diminishes the church’s moral standing as an advocate for and servant to Jesus’ most vulnerable brothers and sisters.

Catholic progressives are mobilizing in response. Catholics United has launched a new campaign – With Charity for All – that is collecting donations to help offset the potential loss of funding to Compañeros.

We’ve reached a sad place if the Catholic Church’s historic commitment to social justice and the common good is jeopardized by culture war politics and guilt-by-association tactics at a time of growing income inequality and staggering poverty.

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