March 8, 2012; Source: Sacramento Bee

The line between private citizen and representative of a nonprofit organization was muddied this week by the Sacramento, Calif. Catholic Diocese’s decision to discontinue funding to Francis House, a small nonprofit agency serving homeless people. The diocese has been providing Francis House approximately $7,500 to $10,000 annually to for more than two decades through its annual appeal. In a letter last month, Rev. Michael Kiernan, the social services director, communicated that the diocese’s decision was based on public statements made by Rev. Faith Whitmore, Francis House’s new executive director, in support of abortion rights and gay marriage.  Whitmore made these statements in her former role as senior pastor at St. Mark’s United Methodist Church. Notably, in 2008, she openly defied church law by performing same sex marriages.

This local episode is consistent with national efforts by the Catholic Church to increase its political support and activism on issues related to fundamental church teachings such as marriage, abortion and most recently, contraception

A secondary factor in the diocese’s funding decision was based on an appearance issue. Though initially founded by Sacramento’s St. Francis of Assisi Catholic parish, the organization has long operated as a nondenominational, independent entity. Diocesan spokesman Kevin Eckery stated, “A lot of people still think Francis House is a Catholic charity,” and some are concerned that Whitmore’s views are a reflection of those of the church. This concern appears to have overshadowed Francis House’s performance in the delivery of homeless services. “Francis House is a great charity, and we respect the fact that the director’s views are different from the diocese’s. But money collected during the annual appeal is very much Catholic parishioner money,” said Eckerly.

While the financial impact of the diocese’s decision is minimal, it raises important questions about Catholic giving to nonprofits in the future, particularly as the Catholic Church makes up one of largest funding networks in the world, and is a long-standing advocate for poverty-alleviation, social justice, and community health, among other issues. Rev. Thomas Reese, a Catholic priest and senior fellow at the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University, cautioned, “If the bishops are going to defund every organization headed by someone who disagrees with their views on gay marriage, birth control and abortion, they are going to find very few agencies to fund.”

This case highlights competing priorities in the Catholic Church. Michael Miller, a member of Francis House’s corporate advisory board, stated, “We serve the poor. We don’t have a litmus test of 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.” –Paula Smith Arrigoni