That foundation, founded by billionaire heir Jon Stryker, on its website lists the Catholics United Education Fund among its several dozen partners, along with the Podesta-founded Center for American Progress and Catholics for Choice.
The foundation website outlines its strategy in the global religions section of its social justice program: strategic investment in religious communities “which, while still resistant to LGBT acceptance, still afford opportunities for making limited but significant progress.” It lists Roman Catholic churches as one such community, as well as Evangelical communities and historically black churches.
The foundation says it seeks to build “vibrant networks of clergy and lay advocates who are fully committed to fostering greater LGBT acceptance” and protecting the rights of “people of diverse sexual orientations and gender identities.”
The Arcus Foundation also partnered with the Swiss Catholic Lenten Fund Fastenopfer to fund a project of the European Forum for LGBT Christian Groups to counter the influence of West African bishops at the 2015 Synod on the Family.
Through its grantee Dignity USA, the foundation funded efforts to “counter the narrative of the Catholic Church” in connection with the Synod on the Family and World Youth Day. It is also funding Dignity USA’s Equally Blessed coalition “to combat the firing of “LGBT staff and allies, who support marriage equality, at Catholic Institutions,” grant listings show.
Hale said that Catholics in Alliance and its entities are not currently sponsored by either Stryker’s or Gill’s foundation. In his view, the past grants tried “to lift up Pope Francis’ vision of a Church that is inclusive to those on the margins.”
“During those grants we did not use it to support same-sex marriage in the public sphere, to try to change the sacramental or the magisterial teaching of the Catholic Church,” he said, claiming the focus “was, and still is in some capacity, to ensure that LGBT Catholic voices are heard and included in the life of the Church.”
He cited as inspiration the 2014 Extraordinary Synod on the Family mid-term report’s section on the welcoming of homosexual persons.
“That language obviously was very controversial but our simple goal was to make sure that LGBT Catholics are heard and included in the life of the Church,” Hale said.
Both Gill and Stryker have been key figures in funding the redefinition of civil marriage. In late 2014, the Inside Philanthropy website ranked Gill as the first and Stryker as the second most influential funder in redefining marriage. The website characterized Gill as the “strategic mastermind” and Stryker as someone who “brought some of the deepest pockets to the marriage equality fight.” Both funders are major political donors, and both are linked to a multi-million dollar effort to end broad religious freedom protections they consider discriminatory.
Hale tried to address concerns about the funders’ influence on Catholics in Alliance and related groups.
“The reality of it is, we work with people who disagree with a lot of the work we do. But they think we are a compelling group and have a compelling message and are somehow worthwhile. I get money from folks who I disagree with intensely on a variety of questions in political and ecclesial spheres,” he said.
He cited an October statement of President John Garvey of Catholic University of America, who was responding to critics of the university’s acceptance of funding from the wealthy libertarian businessmen the Koch brothers. Garvey had said the university would work with the foundations of wealthy financier George Soros if it could still adhere to its own mission.
Catholics in Alliance itself received about $450,000 funding from Soros’ controversial Open Society Foundations from 2006-2010.
Hale said his organization works with a variety of priests and bishops. He reported meeting with 20 bishops and archbishops in the last year to speak about his group’s work and to understand “how we best can fit into the life of the Catholic Church in the United States.” He characterized these as “pastoral conversations that are not fit to publicize.”
“Some bishops have had criticisms of certain aspects of our work, and have communicated that to me directly. Some of those same bishops applaud other areas of our work,” Hale added.
“Sometimes it’s messy, sometimes we make mistakes. But I think that the heart of what we do is clear and overall we are faithful stewards of the gospel.”
Keystone Catholics was not entirely critical of the U.S. bishops. It backed Pittsburgh Bishop David Zubik’s support for gun control legislation in response to gun violence. It has opposed drone use and advocated for environmental issues and a “big tent” for pro-life Democrats.
In recent years Catholics in Alliance has voiced criticism of Planned Parenthood’s alleged involvement in the illegal sale of unborn baby parts. Catholics for Choice criticized Hale’s group.
At other times, these related groups have been outspoken against the bishops.
In October 2014 Catholics United tried to rally opposition to the Archdiocese of Los Angeles’ leasing of land to oil extraction companies, claiming it would harm poor and minority communities and created major risks like pollution and increased risk of earthquakes. Andrea Leon-Grossmann, a California spokesperson for the group, attacked Archbishop Jose Gomez by name, saying “Archbishop Gomez’s actions are in direct violation of Pope Francis’ beliefs in protecting the most vulnerable.”
Archbishop John J. Myers of Newark’s September 2012 pastoral letter on marriage, Catholics United claimed, was an example of the U.S. bishops’ “far right politics” that drive Catholics away from the faith.
Catholics United has a history of challenging some Catholics’ involvement in politics.
Ahead of the 2012 elections, its education fund sent mailings to Florida pastors claiming to have recruited a network of volunteers to monitor for reputed illegal political activity in Catholic churches. State Catholic leaders saw this as an effort to silence the Church.
In October 2012, Catholics United strongly criticized the Knights of Columbus, a popular Catholic fraternity more than a century old, for supporting ballot measures to defend the legal definition of marriage as a union of one man and one woman. Catholics United claimed the Knights of Columbus was funding a “far-right political agenda” and engaging in a “divisive culture war.”
Its criticism was based on a report from the Equally Blessed Coalition, another Arcus Foundation grantee, which includes dissenting Catholic groups like Call to Action, Dignity USA, New Ways Ministry and Fortunate Families.
Another funder of Catholics United suggested strong political connections.
According to a spring 2014 briefing book acquired and published by Politico, Catholics United was listed as one of the 172 groups then supported by the Democracy Alliance. The alliance is a national network of funders of Democratic Party-aligned NGOs and other groups based on the political change model of the Colorado Democracy Alliance, pioneered by Tim Gill and Jon Stryker’s sister, Pat Stryker, among others.
In October 2014, then-executive director of Catholics United James Salt told CNA that the relationship with the Democracy Alliance was not materially beneficial for his group “from 2011 forward.” He said the Gill Foundation grant was independent of the Democracy Alliance and suggested the alliance’s funding for his group was minimal.
Salt himself has been harshly critical of Catholic teaching on homosexuality. In an August 2014 statement, he claimed that the Catholic Church “perpetuates mental illness by referring to gay and transgender people as ‘intrinsically disordered’,” an apparent reference to the Catechism of the Catholic Church’s description of homosexual orientation, not persons.
Salt claimed that the suicide of a self-identified transgender Catholic teen in Pennsylvania underscored a lack of support services for LGBT Catholics. He claimed that Catholic teaching “contributes to lower self-esteem” and “certainly” contributes to a higher suicide rate among LGBT individuals.
As of October 2016, Salt was listed as a board member of Catholics in Alliance. LGBT advocate Arthur Fitzmaurice was also listed as a senior fellow with the group.
More recently, Catholics in Alliance co-sponsored the 2013 and 2014 Catholic Tipping Point speaking tours. The tours publicized Austrian priest Fr. Helmut Schuller and Irish priest Father Tony Flannery, who have voiced dissent on matters like the ordination of women to the priesthood, Catholic teaching on contraception, homosexuality, or giving the sacraments to divorced and remarried Catholics.
Hale said his group hosts “a variety of different voices that have contrary opinions on how the Church should focus or operate.”
“But we don’t endorse those opinions,” he said, rejecting an endorsement of Fr. Schuller’s support for women’s ordination to the priesthood.
“Occasionally we like to engage in conversations on the internal workings of the church. But that’s not the focus of our work.”