USCCB negotiates pitfalls of coalition memberships

A controversy over involvement by the U.S. bishops’ conference and one of its top executives in two liberal public policy groupings spotlights the perils associated with a familiar Washington institution: the coalition. 

Coalitions with policy agendas are a way of life in the capital. But as the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has lately been reminded, this is a way of life with ambiguities and risks, including guilt by association. 

Calls for reform 

The controversy erupted when several conservative groups complained that John Carr, head of USCCB’s social development and peace office, formerly played a leadership role in a coalition called the Center for Community Change, which the conservatives accused of promoting abortion and homosexuality. Carr says he severed ties with the center five years ago, and up to then it had no connection with these issues. 

Calling themselves the Reform CCHD Now Coalition, the conservatives also complained that 31 of 150 organizations in the Center for Community Change coalition got grants from the Catholic Campaign for Human Development. 

The bishops’ domestic anti-poverty program has come under fire for funding groups engaged in abortion advocacy and other questionable activities and has withdrawn funding from several. 

The Reform CCHD Now Coalition counts some two dozen members, including the American Life League, Bellarmine Veritas Ministry and Real Catholic TV. The critics have continued raising questions about other CCHD-funded groups. 

A second round of criticism originated with conservative Catholic journalist Deal Hudson, who noted that the USCCB was one of nearly 200 organizations comprising the Leadership Conference for Civil and Human Rights, which, along with its traditional civil-rights agenda, advocates on behalf of gay rights and has opposed abortion restrictions. 

Glut of coalitions 

One indisputable fact in this scrap is that Washington swarms with coalitions on a bewildering variety of issues. An Internet search turns up listings from the National Coalition on Health Care and the National Coalition for the Homeless, to the Religious Freedom Coalition and the International AntiCounterfeiting Coalition. And that’s scratching the surface. 

A spokesperson for the bishops’ conference said it is involved “formally and informally” with a number of coalitions through which it has long-term and short-term relationships with other groups on issues like refugees and immigration, broadcasting, private education, disabilities, housing and family leave for parents. 

“Permission for the USCCB to be part of a coalition must be given by the general secretary,” the spokesperson said. The current general secretary is Msgr. David J. Malloy. 

Criteria said to be considered in deciding on membership in a coalition were its purpose and decision-making and control processes, potential advantages like cooperation on shared goals and good relations with other groups, and “potential disadvantages,” including the USCCB’s lack of control and the possibility the coalition might take unacceptable stands. “Membership on a coalition does not imply support for every position taken by individual members,” the spokesperson said. 

In line with Church? 

Is coalition membership in principle open to a Catholic organization? St. Paul cautioned the Christians of Corinth against severing contact with “the immoral of this world,” because “for you would then have to leave the world” (1 Cor 5:10). On that basis, two commonsense rules seem to apply. 

First, a Catholic organization can join a coalition that includes groups that support things like abortion and same-sex marriage provided the coalition doesn’t advocate them. 

Second, if the coalition itself — not just some members — does advocate views contrary to Catholic beliefs and values, that’s a powerful argument against membership. 

How does the current controversy look in that light? 

The Center for Community Change was founded in 1968 to promote anti-poverty efforts. The Reform CCHD Coalition said the center “lodged itself into the highest places of power in the USCCB while working to promote abortion and homosexuality” via Carr’s chairmanship of its board. 

But Carr says he left the board in February 2005 and “had no involvement in or knowledge of the actions alleged.… The board never discussed or acted on any position involving these matters, and if they had, I would have vigorously opposed any advocacy for access to abortion or gay marriage.” 

On that basis, Carr seems to be in the clear. After he came under attack, several bishops and USCCB pro-life staff endorsed his pro-life credentials, as did Father Frank Pavone of Priests for Life. 

As for the 31 groups that got CCHD money, the critics don’t claim that they promote abortion and homosexual rights themselves. Their membership in the community change center doesn’t appear sufficient grounds for automatically denying them Catholic funding. Complaints about other groups deserve to be investigated, with the findings made public. 

The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights is a different story. Groups on its executive committee include the American Civil Liberties Union, the National Organization for Women and the Human Rights Campaign, a major homosexual rights organization. Others in the coalition include the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, and several gay rights groups — along with three other Catholic organizations: Catholic Charities USA, the National Catholic Conference for Interracial Justice and the National Council of Catholic Women. 

Hudson noted that membership in the Leadership Conference costs a minimum $1,000 annual dues. Its current priorities include Senate ratification of the U.N.-sponsored Convention for the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, which pressures countries to legalize abortion, and the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, which opponents say would force churches to hire people who don’t share their beliefs. 

The bishops’ conference has offered no public explanation for belonging to the conference. 

Careful treading 

Clearly the Leadership Conference has policy goals that conflict with the teaching of the Church. At least one bishop, Bishop Robert Vasa of Baker, Ore., has publicly expressed concern. 

But there’s reason to tread carefully in this whole area. The relationship between the Holy See and the United Nations is a case in point. 

Some U.N. agencies push views on population control and abortion strongly opposed by the Church. But the Holy See has supported the international organization from the start. The Vatican has permanent observer missions at U.N. headquarters in New York as well as at U.N. agencies in Geneva and Rome. Three popes have addressed the general assembly, and the Vatican has often spoken well of the United Nations. 

If this troubles conservative Catholics, they might ponder St. Paul’s words about staying put in the world and toughing it out. That might even include membership — highly selective, naturally — in a coalition. 

Russell Shaw is an OSV contributing editor.