Politics, funding raise suspicion over church's birth-control fight
While Catholic leaders frame the events as a fight for religious liberty, critics see signs of political partisanship and electioneering. And questions over the financing of the bishops' campaign have caused those suspicions to multiply.
St. Louis Post-Dispatch
ST. LOUIS — On Thursday, Catholics across the country will amplify an already loud outcry over the federal government's so-called contraception mandate.
With rallies, marches, lectures and special publications, the U.S. Catholic Bishop's Fortnight for Freedom campaign will seek to galvanize formal Catholic opposition to a rule announced in January by the Obama administration that says religiously affiliated institutions, such as universities and hospitals, soon must include free birth-control coverage in employees' health insurance.
Yet, while Catholic leaders frame the events as a fight for religious liberty, critics see signs of political partisanship and electioneering. And questions over the financing of the bishops' campaign have caused those suspicions to multiply.
"The activities around the Fortnight for Freedom cost money," said Steve Schneck, director of the Institute for Policy Research & Catholic Studies at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. "What groups are paying for this, and what's the accountability for that money?"
Those kinds of questions were asked of key Catholic leaders such as Baltimore Archbishop William Lori last week at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in Atlanta.
Lori, who heads the bishops' committee on religious liberty, said gifts "from Catholic groups and foundations" would help sustain the campaign.
"The generosity we've experienced has been heartening," he said.
The campaign, Lori said, "is not in any way partisan, either in its spirit or in its funding."
But he has not been specific about the outside groups providing financial resources, or how much they've contributed.
The Fortnight for Freedom campaign launches Thursday with a Mass celebrated by Lori at the nation's first cathedral, the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Baltimore.
The public-information campaign comes as the church also is engaged in a legal battle over what the Obama administration considers a women's health issue.
In March, more than 40 Catholic institutions filed federal lawsuits seeking to block the contraception mandate.
Lori said in Atlanta last week that lawyers were offering pro-bono assistance to the Catholic legal effort. And St. Louis Archbishop Robert Carlson confirmed last week that Cleveland-based law firm Jones Day was donating its services.
Carlson not only has embraced the Fortnight for Freedom campaign in St. Louis, but he has gone beyond it.
In recent weeks, the archbishop has rolled out an ambitious six-month "Campaign for Religious Liberty" in the archdiocese which began in May and will continue through Nov. 25.
Schneck and other critics say many questions regarding the funding of the Fortnight for Freedom campaign center on private Catholic groups.
"The Knights of Columbus are clearly one of the major sources of funding (against the mandate), as well as other fraternal organizations," Schneck said.
The Knights of Columbus, a Catholic charitable group based in New Haven, Conn., says it's the world's largest lay Catholic organization.
Knights of Columbus life-insurance sales neared $8 billion in 2010, and it contributed $158 million to charity last year, including nearly $4 million to the Special Olympics. Its largesse also extends to other causes, such as Coats for Kids and Project Medishare, which provides prosthetics to Haitian children who lost limbs during the 2010 earthquake. The Knights have donated more than $1 billion to charity in the past decade.
Andrew Walther, the Knights of Columbus vice president for media, said the group's 2010 tax forms show the Knights gave more than $3 million to the Vatican that year, nearly $2 million to the U.S. bishops conference and $25,000 to the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which has guided much of the legal action against the contraception mandate.
The group must disclose more recent donations in its 2011 tax forms. But Walther said the group has asked for an extension in filing the documents, making them unavailable until fall.
In 2010, the Knights also were generous with contributions to individual bishops, doling out nearly $350,000 for programs in various dioceses. Of that, $248,700, or 71 percent, went to Lori's Diocese of Bridgeport.
Lori — the man most directly in charge of the Fortnight for Freedom campaign — has been the Supreme Chaplain of the Knights of Columbus since 2005.
The Knights did not respond to requests for an interview about the organization's involvement with the bishops' campaign, but the organization has dedicated recent issues of its monthly magazine to the topic of religious liberty.
In the April issue, Carl Anderson, the Supreme Knight of the Knights of Columbus, wrote that the contraception mandate will force his organization "to use membership dues and money generated through insurance sales to fund health care that provides drugs and procedures that violate the moral teaching of the Catholic Church on the transmission and sanctity of human life."
Anderson started out in politics, working as a legislative aide to Sen. Jesse Helms, R-N.C., in the 1970s and 1980s. He later worked in President Reagan's White House. He's also criticized fellow Catholic Joseph Biden for comments the vice president made while still a senator from Delaware that Anderson said "cast doubt on the consistent teaching of the Catholic Church on abortion."