Catholic Religious Liberty: It’s About Money

By Betty Clermont | 3 July 2016
Daily Kos

(Photo: Pascal Pollei / Flickr)
(Photo: Pascal Pollei / Flickr)

Tomorrow, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) annual “Fortnight for Freedom” campaign is a call-to-arms in defense of their “freedom” to deny women and LGBT persons theirs.

As they so often do, the bishops tell us, “We are dedicated … to remain free to provide education, to care for the sick, the poor, and the migrant,” in a paid advertisement for this year’s campaign. The USCCB is selling a four minute video “featuring stories of the importance of religious freedom for institutions that perform the works of mercy – educating children, feeding the hungry, and healing the sick.”

Their last meeting open to the press ended with USCCB president, Archbishop Joseph Kurtz, “highlighting the bishops’ push for religious exemptions for charities, schools and individual for-profit business owners who oppose gay marriage and other laws and regulations.”

On June 29, the Archdiocese of Los Angeles announced a new multimedia platform that “will reach Catholics and non-Catholics alike about the good works in the parishes, schools and ministries not only in the archdiocese, but around the world.”

The bishops would have us believe that Catholic charity has an enormous impact on the well-being of our society. While it’s true that many Catholics are generous with their time and money – as are many Americans – the funding coming from the bishops is very small in proportion to their wealth and minuscule in proportion to total U.S. charity.

Government funding of Catholic charity

When Pope Francis was in the U.S. ten months ago, he visited with people helped by Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Washington D.C. The archdiocese lists $123 million in net assets on its financial report for 2014 and total revenues of $95.6 million. Of that, Cardinal Donald Wuerl gave only $254,000 to Catholic Charities in 2014 while taxpayers provided $32 million.

This is usual. The Economist estimated that of the total expenditures by “the U.S. Church and entities” just 2.7 percent goes to charity and 62 percent of the income of its charitable activities “came from local, state and federal government agencies.”

Catholic Charities USA received 63 percent of its revenue from government support in 2014. Of that, 85 percent was spent on charitable services. According to the Forbes list of the “50 Largest U.S. Charities,” these organizations combined received $33 billion in private support. Catholic Charities USA received $757 million, or less than 2 percent of the private support for only the largest of the thousands of U.S. charities – not exactly the behemoth the bishops would have us believe.

Additionally, the USCCB received $79.6 million in government contracts and grants and $3.4 million in revenue from fees for collecting on refugee loans in 2014.

In 2011, Catholic hospitals received more than half of their total revenues from government reimbursements.

In the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, “nearly 38 percent of the children in archdiocesan Catholic schools are able to attend” because of state aid for children attending private schools. In April, the USCCB called on Congress to pass legislation providing scholarships for Washington D.C. children to attend private schools.

(All of the above are the latest figures available).

Losing taxpayer subsidies would be a disaster. The bishops fear that reductions will decrease their leverage – i.e. “their”charity – in demanding legal exemptions and protections. They must consider their situation as precarious because the USCCB found it necessary to scare their supporters into action. They launched this year’s “Fortnight of Freedom” with a nine minute video  suggesting that our government will first become a police state and then brutally totalitarian unless their “religious liberty” prevails.

The bishops should be worried

“Religious institutions should not be disqualified from a government contract based on religious belief,” appeared in this year’s USCCB “Statement on Religious Liberty.”

On March 17, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) sued under the Freedom of Information Act for documents related to a $2 million federal grant awarded to the USCCB to provide services for the survivors of human trafficking. “We are shocked and deeply concerned to see history repeating itself with millions of taxpayer dollars funneled into the hands of a religious group that has a long history of refusing critical health care services to the most vulnerable people in their care,” ACLU senior staff attorney Brigitte Amiri stated.

On March 22, two Republicans, Reps. John Fleming (R-LA) and Vicky Hartzler (R-MO), introduced the Conscience Protection Act, endorsed by the USCCB. “This bill would protect healthcare providers who oppose abortion, giving them legal rights to defend themselves if discriminated against for their beliefs [because] the HHS has already shown favor for grant-seeking health care providers who are open to providing human trafficking victims with abortions.”


The USCCB received $22 million in federal funds to provide group shelters on our southern border. The bishops have explicitly refused the women and girls “unimpeded access to emergency medical treatment, crisis intervention services, emergency contraception, and sexually transmitted infections prophylaxis, in accordance with professionally accepted standards of care.”

On June 24, the ACLU filed a lawsuit against the Department of Human and Health Services (HHS) for allowing the USCCB to receive tax-payer funding and still refuse immigrant minors access to reproductive health services. Additionally, the bishops “have also been allowed to remove young women seeking these services from their current shelter.”

Almost half of the children apprehended by border patrol agents were girls in 2014. Rape and sexual assault are ‘major motivating factors’ for why girls flee their home countries in Central America.

It is likely that anywhere between 60 and 80 percent of female border crossers were raped along the way by coyotes (human smugglers), law enforcement officials, or other people …

“When a teen has endured unthinkable tragedy – violence, rape, a terrifying journey to an unfamiliar place – and she arrives here afraid and alone, the last thing we should do is deny her the care she needs,” ACLU Senior Staff Attorney Brigitte Amiri said. “Our taxpayer dollars should not be used to authorize organizations to violate the law [and] deny them care they desperately need.”


Women who have been raped and need emergency contraception will not be able to receive appropriate medical care at a Catholic facility.

“I am not certain that within our culture the great gift of Catholic health care is as appreciated as it should be … We should be allowed to carry out, conscientiously and with freedom of conscience, our ministry. We cannot have government encroaching on that freedom,” stated Cardinal Donald Wuerl.

A new report by the ACLU notes that “in some states, 40 percent of all hospital beds” and “one out of every six beds in the country’s acute care hospitals is in a hospital with Catholic affiliations … Denial of certain care options can be life-threatening.”

A single Catholic hospital, Mercy Health Partners of Muskegon, Michigan, “may have endangered the lives of five different women by refusing to intervene as they were undergoing risky miscarriages.” The Catholic hospital system is the only health care provider in the county.

The ACLU sued Mercy Health Partners in July 2015 over its policy on behalf of one of the five women. In mid-April, a federal judge dismissed the complaint for vagueness and lack of standing.

The ACLU filed a lawsuit on behalf of its members last year, calling for an injunction against the anti-abortion policies of Trinity Health Corporation, a Michigan-based group with 90 hospitals. “ACLU lawyers pointed specifically to one member who was denied abortion procedures at a Trinity hospital despite suffering emergency complications during her pregnancy that required the termination of her pregnancy in order to stabilize her condition.” In April, a federal judge “found the group’s descriptions of harm or potential harm cited in the lawsuit were too vague.”


“Catholic leaders in California say a new bill that would bar colleges receiving state funding from making employment, student housing, admission and other decisions on the basis of gender identity, gender expression or sexual orientation, amounts to a restriction of religious freedom.”

The legislature is considering S.B. 1146 which would limit religious exemptions for institutions of higher education. (Colleges that train students to be ministers or theologians would qualify for a religious exemption.)

“It’s a way of harassing and making it more difficult for those of us who are people of faith who want to live and express our ways in society,” the director of the California bishops’ lobbying organization said. “This is really a religious liberty issue,” Quincy Masteller, general counsel of Thomas Aquinas College in Santa Paula, Calif., stated. Supporters of the bill include Equality California, the Los Angeles LGBT Center and the Transgender Law Center.


“This case is an ominous sign,” Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito stated on June 29 in his dissenting opinion. “If this is a sign of how religious liberty claims will be treated in the years ahead, those who value religious freedom have cause for great concern.”

The Supreme Court majority denied an appeal to hear a case challenging Washington state rules that require pharmacies to dispense drugs Plan B and Ella. Washington state Attorney General Bob Ferguson had asked the Supreme Court to refuse the appeal. “Patients should know that when they need medication, they won’t be refused based on the personal views of a particular pharmacy owner.”

Pharmacy-owner Greg Stormans and his family had sued based on their opposition to abortion. “They argued that the regulations were a substantial violation of their right to freely exercise their religion,” even though Plan B (the morning-after pill) and Ella are not abortifacients as Catholic leaders claim. The drugs prevent ovulation and prevent a woman from getting pregnant after sex.

“It’s hard not to think that the Catholic lobby, led by [Cardinal] Timothy Dolan and the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops seized upon outlier scientific research on emergency contraception in order to gin up controversy about the birth control benefit because they were losing the ‘birth control is a sin’ argument.”

Sex abuse: also about money

Cardinal Timothy Dolan heads the New York state’s Catholic Conference, which in recent years hired major lobby firms to block legislation designed to help child abuse victims seek justice. (Photo: James Keivom / New York Daily News)

“Between 1950 and the end of June 2015, about $3.5 billion was spent on settlement-related costs by U.S. Church officials.”

“The dispute over these so-called ‘religious objection’ laws … involves innocent young kids and wounded adult victims who suffer when claims of ‘religious freedom’ are used to protect clerics who commit and conceal heinous child sex crimes.”

“Time and time again, in civil courts across the U.S., unscrupulous Church officials cite the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) laws to block child sex abuse lawsuits and prevent records about child molesting clerics from being disclosed. [They] exploit these laws to make sure their reckless and callous decisions to hire, promote, transfer and protect child predators are not exposed or scrutinized.”

The bishops have “spent millions fighting clergy sex abuse accountability. Lobbying funds have gone towards opposing bills that would extend statutes of limitations for child sex abuse cases” for all Americans.

“Religious Liberty” not about religion

When Republican governor Mitt Romney instituted Romneycare which provided insurance coverage not only for contraception but also for abortion, there was no organized opposition from the bishops. In fact, Boston Cardinal Sean O’Malley “has said that Romney was a better friend to the Catholic Church than any other Massachusetts governor in decades, and he was about the only one that wasn’t Catholic.”

Like the GOP establishment, the bishops were committed to denying Pres. Obama any successes. So they used any means possible to block enactment of the Affordable Care Act in 2010, even falsely asserting that it provided coverage for abortion, already barred by the Hyde Amendment. Rep. Bart Stupak (D-MI), who failed to construct an accommodation that would please the USCCB, finally admitted “that people tried to use abortion as a tool to stop health-care reform, even after [unnecessary] protections were added.”

Between 1999 and 2006, 28 states adopted requirements that group insurance policies cover drugs and devices prescribed for contraceptive purposes. Yet the bishops raised no objections, lawsuits or campaigns in opposition.

As of October 2015, over 100 lawsuits had been filed in federal courts challenging the Affordable Care Act’s birth control benefit at enormous expense to tax payers. The vast majority were brought by Catholic bishops and their affiliated institutions spending “millions of dollars” in legal fees.

When the Irish voted 62 percent in favor of same-sex marriage last year, Dublin Archbishop Diarmuid Martin said, “I appreciate how gay and lesbian men and women feel on this day. That they feel this is something that is enriching the way they live. I think it is a social revolution.” The archbishop said “he voted ‘no’, that gay rights should be respected ‘without changing the definition of marriage,’” as a personal preference.

On June 23, German Cardinal Reinhard Marx said, “The history of homosexuals in our societies is very bad because we’ve done a lot to marginalize [them].” As Church and society “we’ve also to say ‘sorry, sorry.’” It is up to the secular state “to make regulations for homosexuals so they have equal rights or nearly equal.” The state “has to regulate these partnerships and to bring them into a just position and we as Church cannot be against it.” Like Martin, he went on to note “a special relationship between one man and woman” but without theological justification.

Pope’s press conference

(Photograph: Markus Schreiber / AP)
(Photograph: Markus Schreiber / AP)

Three days later, during his flight from Armenia to Rome, Pope Francis said, “I think that the Church must not only ask forgiveness – like that “Marxist Cardinal” said (laughs) – to the gay person who is offended. But she must ask forgiveness to the poor too, to women who are exploited, to children who are exploited for labor. She must ask forgiveness for having blessed so many weapons. The Church must ask forgiveness for not behaving many times – when I say the Church, I mean Christians!” So individual Christians should ask forgiveness, not the Catholic Church.

The pope did not apologize for, or change, his own decades-long opposition to marriage equality.

Nor did he apologize for his own incendiary speech, calling a same-sex marriage an “anthropological regression” in 2014, or comparing transgender rights with nuclear weapons since both do not “recognize the order of creation” in 2015.

The pope did not say he was ordering the reinstatement of Polish priest, Krzysztof Charamsa, who was fired by the Vatican last October after coming out as gay.

He did not say he was amending the catechism which defines homosexuality as “objectively disordered.”

Pope Francis fired the “Bishop of Bling,” Franz-Peter Tebartz-van Elst, for his extravagance. But he has made no correction or reprimand to these prelates:

Dominican Republic  Cardinal Nicolás de Jesús López Rodríguez has been waging a campaign against the openly gay U.S. Ambassador James “Wally” Brewster in the last few months. “The barrage of attacks has been vitriolic and unrelenting. Three times in the last months the cardinal has referred to the ambassador as ‘the little faggot.’”

Ghanaian Cardinal Robert Sarah said that transgender right are “demonic” and marriage equality is “poison” in Washington D.C. at the National Prayer Breakfast in May.

Spanish Cardinal Antonio Cañizares said that affirming a person’s gender is not assigned at birth and could be changed is “the most insidious ideology in the history of humanity” and warned against a “gay empire” in June.

During the press conference, on the matter of Pope Francis agreeing to a proposal that deaconesses in the early Church could be studied, the pope clarified that “[The media] said: ‘The Church opens the door to deaconesses.’ Really? I am a bit angry because this is not telling the truth of things.”

As to work done by these women in the early Church, the pontiff commented, “This makes me laugh – when there was a woman who went to complain to the bishop because her husband beat her, the bishop called one of these deaconesses, who looked at the woman’s body to find bruises.”

For at least the second time, Pope Francis used the word “spinster” as a pejorative. “The Church is a woman. It is ‘la Chiesa’, who is not a spinster; she is a woman married to the son of God, she is the spouse of Jesus Christ,” the pope told the reporters.

The U.S. media has misreported, but mostly omitted, most of what Pope Francis has said, done and failed to do for over three years that didn’t fit their narrative. A recent Harvard study found that initially “major news outlets covered Donald Trump in a way that was unusual given his low initial polling numbers” because “journalists are attracted to the new, the unusual, the sensational.” It increases the number of readers and viewers and, therefore, advertising revenue.

Betty Clermont is author of The Neo-Catholics: Implementing Christian Nationalism in America (Clarity Press, 2009).

In early May, the USCCB released a nine minute video implying that the US government will first become a police state and then brutally totalitarian unless their “religious freedom” to deny coverage for contraception prevails.

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