DENVER >> For three years now, Companeros, a small nonprofit organization in southwestern Colorado, has received thousands of dollars from the Roman Catholic Church to help poor Hispanic immigrants in this rural swath of the state with everything from access to health care to guidance on local laws.
But in February, the group was informed by a representative from the Diocese of Pueblo that its financing from the Catholic Campaign for Human Development, an arm of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops devoted to ending poverty, was in danger.
The problem, the diocesan liaison explained, was Companeros’ membership in an immigrant rights coalition that had joined forces with a statewide gay and lesbian advocacy group, recounted Nicole Mosher, Companeros’ executive director.
The campaign, which doles out $8 million annually to about 250 groups nationwide, has been under increasing pressure from conservative Catholic groups to ensure it is not unwittingly aiding organizations that run afoul of church positions on issues like birth control and marriage. And it is not happening in a vacuum, coming at a time when other nonprofits, like Planned Parenthood, also find themselves under fire from social conservatives trying to choke off their funding.
Since 2010, nine groups have lost financing from the campaign because of conflicts with Catholic principles, according to the campaign’s director, Ralph McCloud. Others have simply chosen not to apply — or reapply — for funds.
Companeros was told that unless it withdrew from the coalition, 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,” 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 anti-poverty campaign, which was begun by the bishops’ conference in 1970, has taken a more contentious turn in recent years. Conservative Catholics have become more aggressive in tracking the activities of groups that receive funds from the campaign, helped by the Internet, while some groups have found themselves forced to defend their work.
Clarifying who should be eligible for the money — a tactic pushed hard by the conservative Catholic groups — has forced the campaign to strike a delicate balance between the church’s priorities: helping the poor while staying true to traditional Catholic doctrine.
“We can’t in any way have groups who are collaborating with other groups whose main focus is objectionable or contrary to Catholic teachings,” McCloud said. “We’re upfront with that.”
In 2009, a coalition of conservative organizations banded together to start Reform CCHD Now, and a leading member, the American Life League, has steadily criticized the campaign for not thoroughly vetting whom it funds.
The American Life League releases an annual report highlighting groups getting money from the campaign that it claims have engaged in activities or coalitions contrary to Catholic principles — and the campaign’s guidelines. Last year’s report named 54 groups.
“If you intentionally or errantly fund somebody who signs petitions for same-sex marriage or is supportive of contraception or even abortion, as has happened with CCHD, that has a direct impact on the Catholic faithful and the Catholic Church,” said Paul Rondeau, the American Life League’s executive director.
McCloud said the campaign takes each allegation seriously and has strengthened how it monitors groups. He pointed to an extensive review of the campaign’s financing policies in 2010.
A subsequent report promised that the campaign would more explicitly express the “positions, activities and relationships” grantees are prohibited from taking part in, such as “advocacy of abortion, same-sex marriage, euthanasia, racism, as well as use of the death penalty, punitive measures toward immigrants.”
Rondeau said his group was satisfied with the revised guidelines but did not believe they were being enforced.
This was not intended as a condemnation of the campaign or its antipoverty mission, Rondeau said, just a disagreement over “the distribution of some of the funds.”
Some bishops, though, are pushing back. In September, Bishops Jaime Soto, chairman of the subcommittee on the antipoverty campaign for the bishops’ conference, and Stephen E. Blaire, chairman of its committee on domestic justice and human development, sent a memo asserting that virtually all the accusations were without substance.
“We rely on the judgment of the local bishop and diocese, not the repeated accusations of those with clear ideological and ecclesial agendas,” they wrote in the memo, which went out to all American bishops.
The nine groups that have already lost their funding are the Rebecca Project for Human Rights in Washington; the Chinese Progressive Association of San Francisco; Young Workers United, also of San Francisco; the Washington Community Action Network in Seattle; Preble Street Homeless Voices in Portland, Maine.; the Latin Farmers Cooperative of New Orleans; the Los Angeles Community Action Network; RecycleForce of Indianapolis; and Centro Campesino of Owatonna, Minn.
In January 2010, Preble Street, a group that works with the homeless, was told that financing for a subsidiary, Homeless Voices For Justice, was being revoked. The reason given was Preble Street’s involvement in a campaign supporting same-sex marriage in Maine. Mark Swann, the group’s executive director, said Preble Street had gotten financing from the anti-poverty campaign for 13 years.
“I had priests come into my office in tears and give me checks,” Swann said.
In December 2010, Vocal-NY, which helps homeless New Yorkers with HIV and AIDS, decided not to reapply for funds after it was asked by the campaign to agree to the revised guidelines. “Privately, they were very apologetic about it, but we were being asked to sign a statement that would conflict with our beliefs and values,” said the group’s executive director, Sean Barry.
Catholics United, a social justice group based in Washington, has vowed to counter the pressure from conservative Catholics. James Salt, the group’s executive director, said it planned fundraising efforts this year so groups would not have to lean so heavily on money controlled by bishops.
“What is apparent is that these conservative groups are succeeding in subverting the mission of CCHD, which is probably the most important anti-poverty foundation in America,” he said.
In Colorado, McCloud said the Companeros case was being reviewed and no final decision had been made.
Last fall, the Colorado Immigrant Rights Coalition, whose affiliation with Companeros prompted the controversy, began a partnership with One Colorado. It was One Colorado’s support for civil unions that was at issue, McCloud said.
Theresa M. Trujillo, the vice president of the immigrant coalition’s board, said she was concerned at the “degrees of separation” that could lead to a loss of funds.
“The Catholic Church is punishing Companeros for having a relationship with an organization that has a relationship with an organization whose mission it is to have equality for LGBT folks,” Trujillo said.
Companeros’ board recently voted to remain a member of the immigrant coalition, despite the prospect of losing $30,000 in annual financing, which comprises about half its budget.
Said Mosher: “We can’t go against our core principles by taking money that we think will ultimately result in the division of this community.”