Groups reputedly founded for a “Catholic Spring” revolt within the Church have a history of criticizing Catholic bishops on LGBT issues and other topics, while taking money from wealthy, strategically minded LGBT activists who have helped reshape American religion, politics and the definition of marriage.
Catholics United and Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good came
to prominence in mid-October when WikiLeaks published a 2012 email
exchange apparently involving John Podesta, President Bill Clinton’s
former chief-of-staff and Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign manager.
Podesta appeared to suggest he and his allies had founded the groups to
sow religious revolution.
Today, Catholics in Alliance’s Pennsylvania-based advocacy
organization is Keystone Catholics. The state director, Stephen Seufert,
has held his position since 2014 and has been Catholics in Alliance’s
national project manager since 2015. The Keystone Catholics website
links to many of his essays published at the Huffington Post and
Seufert’s July 14, 2016 Huffington Post piece, titled “Guidelines
without Love,” criticized Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput’s
guidelines on Pope Francis’ post-synodal apostolic exhortation Amoris
Laetitia and depicted the archbishop as acting contrary to the Pope.
“Catholics like Archbishop Chaput want society to respect their
religious beliefs and freedoms while actively engaging in public
advocacy that seeks to weaken and/or eliminate civil liberties for LGBT
people,” Seufert wrote. “This sort of blatant contradiction does immense
damage to the Catholic Church’s credibility.”
According to Seufert, “the more Archbishop Chaput resists civil
liberties for non-traditional families, the more likely Catholics will
push for internal change within the Church on marriage and the family.”
He claimed this is because Catholics like himself are taking the time to
“live with and unconditionally love their LGBT brothers and sisters.”
The archbishop was a delegate of the U.S. bishops to the 2015 Synod
on the Family and chairs the U.S. bishops’ working group on Amoris
Laetitia. The synod voted him to be a member of the council to plan and
organize the Catholic Church’s next synod.
Keystone Catholics also criticized Archbishop Chaput in the run-up to
the World Meeting of Families when he said the event would not provide a
platform for people “to lobby for positions contrary to the life of our
In a June 2015 statement the group said the archbishop’s
comments “highlight an unwillingness by some to engage in respectful,
open dialogue” with those who identify as LGBT.
Citing the Supreme Court decision mandating legal recognition of
same-sex marriages, the group said the Church had to decide whether to
“isolate itself from lay Catholics and society at large” or instead
“work to love and embrace the entire human person.”
In May 2016, Keystone Catholics claimed that Pope Francis is “quietly
shifting the Church’s pastoral stance on LGBT issues.” Seufert charged
that U.S. Catholic institutions wrongly fired employees fired for
engaging in homosexual relationships or voicing support for such
relationships and related political causes.
Christopher Hale, who has served as Catholics in Alliance’s director
since late 2013, spoke with CNA about its affiliated groups and their
Asked about Seufert’s expertise to speak on Catholic controversies,
Hale said that the commentator had the right from baptism “to engage and
participate in the life of the local Church.” He compared it to New
York Times columnist Ross Douthat’s criticism of the Pope.
“There is no theological prerequisite to engage in these
conversations,” Hale said.
He contended that Seufert’s criticism is
“similar” to that of Cardinal Kevin Farrell, the new Prefect of the
Dicastery for Laity, Family and Life. Hale claimed the cardinal thought
Archbishop Chaput implemented guidelines for Amoris Laetitia “in a way
that was contrary to the vision of Pope Francis.”
“That being said, Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good has
renewed its relationship with Archbishop Chaput in the past year,” Hale
continued, calling the bishop a “strong shepherd” who was trying to lead
his flock while showing candor, honesty and a willingness to engage
CNA sought comment from the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, which said
Archbishop Chaput declined to comment. In an Oct. 13 column, the
archbishop recounted a 2008 encounter with two Catholics United leaders
he said “not only equaled but surpassed their Republican cousins in the
talents of servile partisan hustling.”
“Thanks to their work, and activists like them, American Catholics
helped to elect an administration that has been the most stubbornly
unfriendly to religious believers, institutions, concerns and liberty in
generations,” the archbishop charged.
In a February 2012 email exchange, leading Democrat John Podesta
suggested that he and his allies had founded Catholics in Alliance and
Catholics United for moments of controversy involving Catholic bishops,
like the religious freedom controversy over federally mandated
contraceptive coverage in health plans. Podesta said the two groups
lacked leadership for such a role, and suggested involving Kathleen
Kennedy Townsend of the famous Kennedy family.
Using a phrase of his interlocutor, progressive leader Sandy Newman,
Podesta suggested a “Catholic Spring” could be organized within the
Church. The phrase invokes the imagery of the so-called Arab Spring
Hale reflected on the “Catholic Spring” moniker.
“If people think that we’re part of a ‘Catholic Spring’ to
revolutionize and change the Catholic Church, I want no part of it,” he
told CNA. “If people think we’re part of a ‘Catholic Spring’ to
transform our nation and the world into a vision that is more consistent
with the gospel of Jesus Christ, I’m all in.”
Keystone Catholics was founded as a Pennsylvania affiliate to
Catholics United, a now-dissolved group that effectively merged with
Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good in 2015. Funding records,
however, appear to connect the dissolved group to a larger network.
The Catholics United Education Fund had received at least $160,000
from the Gill Foundation, founded by the millionaire businessman and
politically savvy LGBT activist Tim Gill. The funding began in 2012, the
foundation’s annual reports and tax forms show.
The Arcus Foundation’s 2014 grant listings say it gave $50,000 to the
Catholics United Education Fund to provide “one year of support to work
with the LGBTQ movement to lift up progressive faith voices.” A $75,000
grant in 2015 aimed to support “an LGBT equality agenda within the
Catholic Church, in Pennsylvania and throughout the United States.”
That foundation, founded by billionaire heir Jon Stryker, on its
website lists the Catholics United Education Fund among its several
dozen partners, along with the Podesta-founded Center for American
Progress and Catholics for Choice.
The foundation website outlines its strategy in the global religions
section of its social justice program: strategic investment in religious
communities “which, while still resistant to LGBT acceptance, still
afford opportunities for making limited but significant progress.”
lists Roman Catholic churches as one such community, as well as
Evangelical communities and historically black churches.
The foundation says it seeks to build “vibrant networks of clergy and
lay advocates who are fully committed to fostering greater LGBT
acceptance” and protecting the rights of “people of diverse sexual
orientations and gender identities.”
The Arcus Foundation also partnered with the Swiss Catholic Lenten
Fund Fastenopfer to fund a project of the European Forum for LGBT
Christian Groups to counter the influence of West African bishops at the
2015 Synod on the Family.
Through its grantee Dignity USA, the foundation funded efforts to
“counter the narrative of the Catholic Church” in connection with the
Synod on the Family and World Youth Day. It is also funding Dignity
USA’s Equally Blessed coalition “to combat the firing of “LGBT staff and
allies, who support marriage equality, at Catholic Institutions,” grant
Hale said that Catholics in Alliance and its entities are not
currently sponsored by either Stryker’s or Gill’s foundation. In his
view, the past grants tried “to lift up Pope Francis’ vision of a Church
that is inclusive to those on the margins.”
“During those grants we did not use it to support same-sex marriage
in the public sphere, to try to change the sacramental or the
magisterial teaching of the Catholic Church,” he said, claiming the
focus “was, and still is in some capacity, to ensure that LGBT Catholic
voices are heard and included in the life of the Church.”
He cited as inspiration the 2014 Extraordinary Synod on the Family
mid-term report’s section on the welcoming of homosexual persons.
“That language obviously was very controversial but our simple goal
was to make sure that LGBT Catholics are heard and included in the life
of the Church,” Hale said.
Both Gill and Stryker have been key figures in funding the
redefinition of civil marriage. In late 2014, the Inside Philanthropy
website ranked Gill as the first and Stryker as the second most
influential funder in redefining marriage.
The website characterized
Gill as the “strategic mastermind” and Stryker as someone who “brought
some of the deepest pockets to the marriage equality fight.”
funders are major political donors, and both are linked to a
multi-million dollar effort to end broad religious freedom protections
they consider discriminatory.
Hale tried to address concerns about the funders’ influence on Catholics in Alliance and related groups.
“The reality of it is, we work with people who disagree with a lot of
the work we do. But they think we are a compelling group and have a
compelling message and are somehow worthwhile. I get money from folks
who I disagree with intensely on a variety of questions in political and
ecclesial spheres,” he said.
He cited an October statement of President John Garvey of Catholic
University of America, who was responding to critics of the university’s
acceptance of funding from the wealthy libertarian businessmen the Koch
Garvey had said the university would work with the
foundations of wealthy financier George Soros if it could still adhere
to its own mission.
Catholics in Alliance itself received about $450,000 funding from Soros’ controversial Open Society Foundations from 2006-2010.
Hale said his organization works with a variety of priests and
bishops. He reported meeting with 20 bishops and archbishops in the last
year to speak about his group’s work and to understand “how we best can
fit into the life of the Catholic Church in the United States.”
characterized these as “pastoral conversations that are not fit to
“Some bishops have had criticisms of certain aspects of our work, and
have communicated that to me directly. Some of those same bishops
applaud other areas of our work,” Hale added.
“Sometimes it’s messy, sometimes we make mistakes. But I think that
the heart of what we do is clear and overall we are faithful stewards of
Keystone Catholics was not entirely critical of the U.S. bishops. It
backed Pittsburgh Bishop David Zubik’s support for gun control
legislation in response to gun violence. It has opposed drone use and
advocated for environmental issues and a “big tent” for pro-life
In recent years Catholics in Alliance has voiced criticism of Planned
Parenthood’s alleged involvement in the illegal sale of unborn baby
parts. Catholics for Choice criticized Hale’s group.
At other times, these related groups have been outspoken against the bishops.
In October 2014 Catholics United tried to rally opposition to the
Archdiocese of Los Angeles’ leasing of land to oil extraction companies,
claiming it would harm poor and minority communities and created major
risks like pollution and increased risk of earthquakes.
Leon-Grossmann, a California spokesperson for the group, attacked
Archbishop Jose Gomez by name, saying “Archbishop Gomez’s actions are in
direct violation of Pope Francis’ beliefs in protecting the most
Archbishop John J. Myers of Newark’s September 2012 pastoral letter
on marriage, Catholics United claimed, was an example of the U.S.
bishops’ “far right politics” that drive Catholics away from the faith.
Catholics United has a history of challenging some Catholics’ involvement in politics.
Ahead of the 2012 elections, its education fund sent mailings to
Florida pastors claiming to have recruited a network of volunteers to
monitor for reputed illegal political activity in Catholic churches.
State Catholic leaders saw this as an effort to silence the Church.
In October 2012, Catholics United strongly criticized the Knights of
Columbus, a popular Catholic fraternity more than a century old, for
supporting ballot measures to defend the legal definition of marriage as
a union of one man and one woman. Catholics United claimed the Knights
of Columbus was funding a “far-right political agenda” and engaging in a
“divisive culture war.”
Its criticism was based on a report from the Equally Blessed
Coalition, another Arcus Foundation grantee, which includes dissenting
Catholic groups like Call to Action, Dignity USA, New Ways Ministry and
Another funder of Catholics United suggested strong political connections.
According to a spring 2014 briefing book acquired and published by
Politico, Catholics United was listed as one of the 172 groups then
supported by the Democracy Alliance.
The alliance is a national network
of funders of Democratic Party-aligned NGOs and other groups based on
the political change model of the Colorado Democracy Alliance, pioneered
by Tim Gill and Jon Stryker’s sister, Pat Stryker, among others.
In October 2014, then-executive director of Catholics United James
Salt told CNA that the relationship with the Democracy Alliance was not
materially beneficial for his group “from 2011 forward.” He said the
Gill Foundation grant was independent of the Democracy Alliance and
suggested the alliance’s funding for his group was minimal.
Salt himself has been harshly critical of Catholic teaching on
In an August 2014 statement, he claimed that the Catholic
Church “perpetuates mental illness by referring to gay and transgender
people as ‘intrinsically disordered’,” an apparent reference to the
Catechism of the Catholic Church’s description of homosexual
orientation, not persons.
Salt claimed that the suicide of a self-identified transgender
Catholic teen in Pennsylvania underscored a lack of support services for
LGBT Catholics. He claimed that Catholic teaching “contributes to lower
self-esteem” and “certainly” contributes to a higher suicide rate among
As of October 2016, Salt was listed as a board member of Catholics in
LGBT advocate Arthur Fitzmaurice was also listed as a senior
fellow with the group.
More recently, Catholics in Alliance co-sponsored the 2013 and 2014
Catholic Tipping Point speaking tours.
The tours publicized Austrian
priest Fr. Helmut Schuller and Irish priest Father Tony Flannery, who
have voiced dissent on matters like the ordination of women to the
priesthood, Catholic teaching on contraception, homosexuality, or giving
the sacraments to divorced and remarried Catholics.
Hale said his group hosts “a variety of different voices that have contrary opinions on how the Church should focus or operate.”
“But we don’t endorse those opinions,” he said, rejecting an
endorsement of Fr. Schuller’s support for women’s ordination to the
“Occasionally we like to engage in conversations on the internal workings of the church. But that’s not the focus of our work.”