Did 'Catholic Spring' groups undermine the Catholic bishops?

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Groups reputedly founded for a "Catholic Spring" revolt within the Church have a history of criticizing Catholic bishops on LGBT issues and other topics, while taking money from wealthy, strategically minded LGBT activists who have helped reshape American religion, politics and the definition of marriage.

Catholics United and Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good came to prominence in mid-October when WikiLeaks published a 2012 email exchange apparently involving John Podesta, President Bill Clinton's former chief-of-staff and Hillary Clinton's 2016 campaign manager. Podesta appeared to suggest he and his allies had founded the groups to sow religious revolution.

Today, Catholics in Alliance's Pennsylvania-based advocacy organization is Keystone Catholics. The state director, Stephen Seufert, has held his position since 2014 and has been Catholics in Alliance's national project manager since 2015. The Keystone Catholics website links to many of his essays published at the Huffington Post and elsewhere.

Seufert's July 14, 2016 Huffington Post piece, titled "Guidelines without Love," criticized Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput's guidelines on Pope Francis' post-synodal apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia and depicted the archbishop as acting contrary to the Pope.

"Catholics like Archbishop Chaput want society to respect their religious beliefs and freedoms while actively engaging in public advocacy that seeks to weaken and/or eliminate civil liberties for LGBT people," Seufert wrote. "This sort of blatant contradiction does immense damage to the Catholic Church's credibility."

According to Seufert, "the more Archbishop Chaput resists civil liberties for non-traditional families, the more likely Catholics will push for internal change within the Church on marriage and the family." He claimed this is because Catholics like himself are taking the time to "live with and unconditionally love their LGBT brothers and sisters."

The archbishop was a delegate of the U.S. bishops to the 2015 Synod on the Family and chairs the U.S. bishops' working group on Amoris Laetitia. The synod voted him to be a member of the council to plan and organize the Catholic Church's next synod.

Keystone Catholics also criticized Archbishop Chaput in the run-up to the World Meeting of Families when he said the event would not provide a platform for people "to lobby for positions contrary to the life of our Church." In a June 2015 statement the group said the archbishop's comments "highlight an unwillingness by some to engage in respectful, open dialogue" with those who identify as LGBT.

Citing the Supreme Court decision mandating legal recognition of same-sex marriages, the group said the Church had to decide whether to "isolate itself from lay Catholics and society at large" or instead "work to love and embrace the entire human person."

In May 2016, Keystone Catholics claimed that Pope Francis is "quietly shifting the Church's pastoral stance on LGBT issues." Seufert charged that U.S. Catholic institutions wrongly fired employees fired for engaging in homosexual relationships or voicing support for such relationships and related political causes.

Christopher Hale, who has served as Catholics in Alliance's director since late 2013, spoke with CNA about its affiliated groups and their actions.

Asked about Seufert's expertise to speak on Catholic controversies, Hale said that the commentator had the right from baptism "to engage and participate in the life of the local Church." He compared it to New York Times columnist Ross Douthat's criticism of the Pope.

"There is no theological prerequisite to engage in these conversations," Hale said. He contended that Seufert's criticism is "similar" to that of Cardinal Kevin Farrell, the new Prefect of the Dicastery for Laity, Family and Life. Hale claimed the cardinal thought Archbishop Chaput implemented guidelines for Amoris Laetitia "in a way that was contrary to the vision of Pope Francis."

"That being said, Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good has renewed its relationship with Archbishop Chaput in the past year," Hale continued, calling the bishop a "strong shepherd" who was trying to lead his flock while showing candor, honesty and a willingness to engage others.

CNA sought comment from the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, which said Archbishop Chaput declined to comment. In an Oct. 13 column, the archbishop recounted a 2008 encounter with two Catholics United leaders he said "not only equaled but surpassed their Republican cousins in the talents of servile partisan hustling."

"Thanks to their work, and activists like them, American Catholics helped to elect an administration that has been the most stubbornly unfriendly to religious believers, institutions, concerns and liberty in generations," the archbishop charged.

In a February 2012 email exchange, leading Democrat John Podesta suggested that he and his allies had founded Catholics in Alliance and Catholics United for moments of controversy involving Catholic bishops, like the religious freedom controversy over federally mandated contraceptive coverage in health plans. Podesta said the two groups lacked leadership for such a role, and suggested involving Kathleen Kennedy Townsend of the famous Kennedy family.

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Using a phrase of his interlocutor, progressive leader Sandy Newman, Podesta suggested a "Catholic Spring" could be organized within the Church. The phrase invokes the imagery of the so-called Arab Spring uprisings.

Hale reflected on the "Catholic Spring" moniker.

"If people think that we're part of a 'Catholic Spring' to revolutionize and change the Catholic Church, I want no part of it," he told CNA. "If people think we're part of a 'Catholic Spring' to transform our nation and the world into a vision that is more consistent with the gospel of Jesus Christ, I'm all in."

Keystone Catholics was founded as a Pennsylvania affiliate to Catholics United, a now-dissolved group that effectively merged with Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good in 2015. Funding records, however, appear to connect the dissolved group to a larger network.

The Catholics United Education Fund had received at least $160,000 from the Gill Foundation, founded by the millionaire businessman and politically savvy LGBT activist Tim Gill. The funding began in 2012, the foundation's annual reports and tax forms show.

The Arcus Foundation's 2014 grant listings say it gave $50,000 to the Catholics United Education Fund to provide "one year of support to work with the LGBTQ movement to lift up progressive faith voices." A $75,000 grant in 2015 aimed to support "an LGBT equality agenda within the Catholic Church, in Pennsylvania and throughout the United States."

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.

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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."

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