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Faith in Values: Purity Police Miss the Point

SOURCE: AP/Alessandra Tarantino

Pope Francis waves as he leaves St. Peter's Square at the Vatican after his weekly general audience on Wednesday, June 12, 2013.

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Pope Francis made news last week when he publicly outed what the pontiff called a “gay lobby” in the Vatican—an influential group of gay priests and laity operating within the Holy See that supposedly engages in blackmail and other shady practices in order to gain influence and power. Any news story that leads with sex and corruption is sure to grab headlines, especially when the offenders are supposed to be celibate, so it’s no surprise that the gay-lobby story topped the news rounds.

But there was another story about the Catholic Church that also made the news last week. Faith in Public Life, a resource center for the progressive faith movement, released a new report exposing the McCarthy-like tactics of some conservative groups in America that want to eviscerate funding for a number of antipoverty and community-organizing programs supported by the Catholic Campaign for Human Development, or CCHD. CCHD is the antipoverty initiative of the U.S. Catholic Bishops and has been doing good work for more than 40 years.

Programs funded by CCHD provide lifelines to the poor and marginalized, work on behalf of immigrants, offer social services and legal aid to low-income communities, engage in faith-based organizing and advocacy, and more. At a time when economic inequality is shockingly high and millions of Americans have not recovered from the Great Recession, such programs are more essential than ever. What’s more, these programs embody the essence of Catholic social teaching, which is clearly on the side of empowering the disenfranchised and vulnerable.

Given the long list of benefits, why do conservative Catholic groups want to smear these programs and starve them out of existence? The report, “Be Not Afraid? Guilt by Association, Catholic McCarthyism, and Growing Threats to the U.S. Bishops’ Anti-Poverty Mission,” spells out some of the reasons for conservative attacks and provides vivid examples of programs that have been targeted.

One reason why a number of CCHD-funded programs have been attacked is that they participate in larger coalitions that include one or more member organizations that support marriage equality. Never mind the fact that working within broad-based coalitions is key to successful advocacy or the fact that neither the coalitions in question nor the targeted CCHD programs do any work on marriage or LGBT equality. And never mind the historical teachings of Catholic leaders on the importance of working in partnership with social-justice groups.

All of that is of no matter. Marriage equality is apparently so evil to conservative groups that any thin thread of association deserves condemnation and punishment.

Another reason that CCHD programs are attacked is because they do more than provide a handout to the poor; they also aim to empower the poor and the disenfranchised through community organizing and leadership development. Such empowerment often involves a critique of existing social and political structures, which is evidently a serious no-no to conservatives, who seem to mistake gospel teaching for dangerous leftist ideology. It might be coincidence—or not—that conservatives ramped up their attacks on CCHD-funded antipoverty programs after Barack Obama was elected president in 2008. One of the main targets of their attacks has been the Gamaliel Foundation, a faith-based organizing network that funded President Obama when he was a community organizer in Chicago.

Conservatives attacked Gamaliel, along with its state and local affiliates, for its work promoting “government healthcare,” “wealth redistribution,” and “amnesty for illegal immigrants.” After receiving CCHD funds for 30 years, Gamaliel is now being denied funding and is enduring “sustained, aggressive attacks,” according to Ana Garcia Ashley, its executive director.

As for other examples, listed below are some of the CCHD-associated groups under attack.

Compañeros, a small, faith-based social-service program for immigrants in Colorado, lost CCHD funds comprising half its budget after conservative groups went after it for being part of a statewide immigrant-rights coalition that included one organizational member that worked for LGBT equality.

The Land Stewardship Project in Minnesota lost a CCHD grant to assist immigrant farmers last year because of its connection to two groups, TakeAction Minnesota and the Minnesota Council of Nonprofits. While neither of these groups worked directly for marriage equality, that didn’t stop conservatives from blaming them for not endorsing a divisive 2012 campaign by the Minnesota Catholic Bishops against marriage equality. These two groups’ neutrality was seen as complying with evil—and that evil evidently traveled all the way to the Land Stewardship Project, fatally tainting that organization as well. By the way, the Minnesota bishops lost their campaign. Voters defeated the anti-marriage-equality ballot initiative last November.

John Gehring, Catholic outreach director with Faith in Public Life and author of the new report, said in an interview with me that the conservatives attacking CCHD programs are part of a larger movement within the Catholic Church that wants to “rebrand Catholic identity in a way that downplays the church’s traditional teaching about economic justice. They have a ‘with us or against us’ mentality and have created a climate of fear around initiatives that put Catholic social teaching into practice.”

Gehring, however, pointed to two bright spots. The first is the long and impressive list of Catholic clergy, leaders, and organizations that endorsed his report. They include bishops and past presidents of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, and are listed on the report’s inside front page.

The second bright spot is Pope Francis himself, who in the space of just a few months has reinvigorated the vision of an inclusive church that builds bridges rather than walls. Pope Francis, in his concern for empowering the poor and the need for the church to engage with the larger world, could not be more different from the self-appointed conservative watchdogs trying to fatally damage faith-based justice programs.

When I spoke with Gehring, he told me he had been to church the day before and that the gospel teaching had been about Jesus dining with the Pharisees when a prostitute showed up to wash his feet. Jesus treated the woman with kindness, while the Pharisees were scandalized by her presence. “The most zealous guardians of Catholic identity can get so busy being the ‘purity police’ that they miss the essence of the Gospel,” said Gehring.

Sally Steenland is Director of the Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative at the Center for American Progress. Steenland, a best-selling author, former newspaper columnist, and teacher, explores the role of religion and values in the public sphere.

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This is part of a regular column: Faith in Values

For more from the same column, click here