Democrat-leaning group lashes out at CCHD grant scrutiny

An influential Democrat-leaning communications strategy group has targeted critics of the Catholic Campaign for Human Development, claiming it is "Catholic McCarthyism" to bar funds to groups allied with backers of abortion and "gay marriage."

The report, "Be Not Afraid?", by Faith in Public Life's Catholic program director John Gehring, contends that increased scrutiny for recipients of the development grants endangers efforts to fight poverty and isolates the Catholic Church.

The Catholic Campaign for Human Development, run by the U.S. bishops' conference, gives millions of dollars in annual grants to anti-poverty organizations. The funds are collected in Catholic parishes each year the Sunday before Thanksgiving.

The campaign faced increasing scrutiny after researchers found that some grant recipients backed legalized abortion and same-sex "marriage." In October 2010, the CCHD responded with a program of "review and renewal" to prioritize grants for Catholic groups and to screen other grant recipients more closely.

The new Faith in Public Life report describes the campaign's critics as "conservative Catholic activists and their ideological allies on the political right" who want to undermine the U.S. bishops' "most successful anti-poverty initiative."

"Using guilt by association and other tactics from the McCarthy-era playbook, these activists are part of an increasingly aggressive movement of Catholic culture warriors who view themselves as fighting for a smaller, 'purer' church," the report charges.

On its website, Faith in Public Life describes itself as a "strategy center for the faith community" intended to run strategic communications and "narrative-setting" campaigns. The organization says it can identify "moments of opportunity when a targeted event or campaign can effectively broaden or shift the values debate."

The group has secured significant news coverage for the "Nuns on the Bus" campaign critical of Republican budget proposals. In addition, many media reports on the annual March for Life this January followed Faith in Public Life talking points which pressed pro-life leaders to take a position on gun control.

John Gehring, the author of Faith in Public Life's CCHD report, also drove a behind-the-scenes media effort to undercut the U.S. bishops and the "Fortnight for Freedom" events of 2012. A leaked email revealed Gehring instructing media on how to ask  adversarial questions challenging the bishops' religious freedom efforts.

Gehring also previously worked for Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good, which was accused by both bishops and laity of neglecting the importance of issues such as abortion in the political sphere.

The new Faith and Public Life report defends organizations that lost campaign grants, sometimes downplaying the extent of their support for positions against Catholic teaching.

The report's initial summary contends that the southwestern Colorado immigrant aid organization Compañeros lost a $30,000 yearly grant, about half its annual budget, "because of its association with a statewide immigrants' right coalition that included a single gay and lesbian advocacy group."

In fact, this coalition, the Colorado Immigrant Rights Coalition, participated in a 2010 gay pride parade in Denver, supported "transgender rights" and issued a statement saying it was "proud to actively support" a civil unions bill for same-sex couples. Coalition officials also criticized the Defense of Marriage Act.

The coalition praised the gay rights group One Colorado as "our sister coalition for LGBT justice."

Favorable coverage for Compañeros in the New York Times and other venues resulted in many donors contributing to the group, including pro-gay rights philanthropic organizations.

Compañeros' website itself has since praised the 2013 passage of the Colorado civil unions bill as a "victory achieved." In a May 15 news posting, it criticized the Catholic campaign's grant decision as being based in a "discriminating policy."

Other former grantees profiled in the report include the Land Stewardship Project in Minnesota, which trains farmers, defends labor rights and advocates for sustainable agriculture, among other initiatives.

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The Catholic Campaign for Human Development withdrew a $48,000 grant to the organization in 2012 after learning that it was a member of two coalitions that supported "gay marriage." The organization itself was headed by an executive director who, along with his wife, had made a personal donation to a gay rights group.

The Faith in Public Life report is not entirely critical. It quotes former CCHD employee Cris Doby, presently a program officer with the Charles Steward Mott Foundation, who acknowledges some moral concerns with grants to coalition members.

"Coalitions are tricky things and unless they are very well defined up front they tend to drift," she said. "It's with good reason the bishops are skittish. CCHD money is a gift to them from Catholics in the pews. I don't know of any money that comes without strings attached."

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