Here we go again.
The Sacramento Bee is reporting that the Catholic Diocese of Sacramento has decided to de-fund Francis House, a local nonprofit agency serving the city’s homeless population, because its new director is pro-choice and supports marriage equality.
According to the article, the diocese said as much in a letter sent to Rev. Faith Whitmore, a Methodist minister who took over as leader of Francis House in April 2011, last month. Diocesan social services director Rev. Michael Kiernan wrote that Francis House does valuable work, and that the diocese does not expect every organization it supports to “. . . actively promote Catholic teaching. We can expect, however, that they or their leaders not publicly oppose Catholic teaching and that, unfortunately, is the situation in which we find ourselves.” Because of this, the letter reads, it is “impossible for the diocese to continue funding Francis House.”
The Bee notes that Francis House is one of the largest providers of services to the homeless in the entire Sacramento region. It serves more than 25,000 people — a population greater than that of many American towns — on an annual budget of around $500,000. For at least twenty of the agency’s forty-two years, it has received contributions from the Catholic Diocese of Sacramento ranging from $7,500 to $10,000. Francis House was founded at a Catholic parish in Sacramento, but long ago became nondenominational and not a part of the Catholic Church. Still, diocesan spokesman Kevin Eckery said the decision to de-fund the agency was due in part to concerns that the public was confused about the non-affiliation between Francis House and the Catholic Church, and that the confusion could lead to complaints about Catholic donations being made to the agency. When asked whether such complaints had actually been received, he responded that he was unaware of any specific examples, but said that he was certain that complaints would come eventually, adding that the diocese “[likes] to get out in front of these things.”
Eckery also made a feeble attempt to depict the decision as one that reflects the will of average Catholics, noting that the church’s yearly contributions came from money raised by the annual diocesan fundraising appeal and that “. . . money collected during the annual appeal is very much Catholic parishioner money. . . It’s the diocese [sic] money, and they get to decide how to spend it.” Unfortunately, reporter Cynthia Hubert went along with that argument, falsely characterizing the move as “. . . a small but powerful example of the line that the Roman Catholic Church walks on hot-button issues important to its parishioners.”
If Hubert had done her homework, she would have found that the truth actually contradicts Eckery’s spin: a majority of American Catholics agree with Rev. Whitmore that LGBT Americans deserve the freedom to marry the person they love.
For his part, Francis House board member Michael Miiller stated that the board of directors stands “firmly, 100 percent” behind Rev. Whitmore. He added,
“We serve the poor. We don’t have a litmus test for homeless people when they come in. We don’t ask them for their position on choice and gay marriage. We just help them. But for whatever reason, the diocese made those issues a higher priority than the mission.”
In 2008, Rev. Whitmore defied the rules of the United Methodist church by marrying same-sex couples during the brief window when it was legal to do so in California. She has publicly expressed support for marriage equality and a woman’s right to obtain an abortion. And Whitmore isn’t staying silent about the recent funding decision by the Diocese of Sacramento: “I have never represented any of those positions on behalf of Francis House. I was speaking as an individual. So for me, this came out of the blue.”
So, just to recap: a large Catholic diocese has decided to de-fund a major provider of services to the homeless population in a large city because the agency’s director — a non-Catholic religious leader who is not an employee of the Catholic Church or any of its affiliates — has spoken publicly in the past about her support for marriage equality and reproductive rights. The remarks in question were made before she took the helm at Francis House, and were not delivered in her official capacity, but rather as a religious leader and concerned citizen. The Catholic Church appears to be trying to regulate the speech, actions, and beliefs of not only its members and clergy, but anyone, Catholic or not, who serves in a leadership capacity in an organization receiving church funding in any amount.
Of course, the real tragedy is that it’s the 25,000 homeless men, women, children, and youth served by Francis House who will suffer the most as a result of this decision. But I would be remiss if I failed to point out a painful irony. De-funding services to the homeless over abortion and marriage equality may bring the Diocese of Sacramento one step closer to ideological purity in the eyes of Catholic Church, but it also moves them that much further away from the whole “feed the hungry, clothe the naked, heal the sick, welcome the stranger” thing that they profess to care about. I think that’s a tragedy too.