Thursday, March 08, 2012

Catholic Diocese halts funding homeless agency because of new director's views


The Catholic Diocese of Sacramento no longer will fund programs at Francis House, a nonprofit agency that serves homeless people, because of its new director's views supporting abortion rights and gay marriage.

In a letter last month, the diocese's director of social services said the Rev. Faith Whitmore's public statements on the issues clash with the teachings of the Catholic Church. Therefore, said the Rev. Michael Kiernan, the social services director, it is "impossible for the diocese to continue funding Francis House" as part of its annual Catholic Appeal.

Each morning, dozens of poor people line up at Francis House, located in Sacramento's homeless services epicenter, for help with basic services such as housing and transportation. Now in its 42nd year, the organization is one of the largest homeless services agencies in the Sacramento region, serving upward of 25,000 people. It has an an annual budget of about $500,000.

For at least two decades, Francis House has received annual donations from the diocese ranging from $7,500 to $10,000, said Michael Miiller, a member of the agency's corporate advisory board.

The diocese's letter made it clear that it was shifting policy and removing Francis House from its fundraising campaign because of Whitmore's affiliation with the group.

Whitmore, a United Methodist minister, took over leadership of Francis House in April after the sudden death of longtime executive director Gregory Bunker.

Within her own denomination, she has been a strong advocate of same-sex marriage. In 2008, during a short period in which gay marriage was legal in California, Whitmore openly defied church law by marrying same-sex couples. She has said publicly that she supports a woman's right to obtain an abortion.

In an interview Wednesday, she called the diocese's decision to discontinue its support "surprising and disappointing."

"I have never represented any of those positions on behalf of Francis House," said Whitmore, formerly the senior pastor at St. Mark's United Methodist Church. "I was speaking as an individual. So for me, this came out of the blue."

The Catholic Church has in recent years stepped up its political involvement on issues that reflect fundamental church teachings. It was among the primary financial backers of Proposition 8, the California measure that defines marriage as between one man and one woman.

More recently it challenged President Barack Obama's efforts to require employers, including church-affiliated organizations that object to contraception on religious grounds, to cover birth control in workers' health plans with no out-of-pocket charges.

In its letter to Whitmore, the Sacramento diocese said it respects the work Francis House does and cannot expect every organization it supports financially 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," the letter reads.

Diocesan spokesman Kevin Eckery said the decision to drop Francis House as a beneficiary of the pastoral center's annual fundraising appeal stemmed in part from public confusion about the agency's affiliation with the church. Although Francis House was born at St. Francis of Assisi Catholic parish in Sacramento, it has long been non-denominational and no longer is part of the church.

However, "a lot of people still think Francis House is a Catholic charity," he said, and some are concerned that Whitmore's views are a reflection of those of the church.

Eckery said he was unsure whether the diocese had received complaints about its donations to Whitmore's agency. "But if we haven't had one yet, we would get one," he said. "We like to get out in front of these things.

"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 Eckery.

"Why would we ask someone to contribute money to an organization and ask them to overlook all of those things that undermine the church's teachings?"

Eckery noted that the Catholic Church is "the largest provider of charity in the country."

"It's the diocese money, and they get to decide how to spend it," he said.

The move is a small but powerful example of the line that the Roman Catholic Church walks on hot-button issues important to its parishioners.

"Clearly the bishops have been very vocal on their views about some of these issues," said the Rev. Thomas Reese, a Catholic priest and senior fellow at the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University.

"But if the bishops are going to de-fund 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."

Bishop Jaime Soto approved of the decision to stop funding Francis House, said Eckery.

Kiernan, the diocesan social services director, broke the news to Whitmore in person on Jan. 24, presenting her with the diocese's letter. Whitmore notified her agency's board of directors.

The board "stands firmly, 100 percent behind Faith," said Miiller. "She had some big shoes to fill at Francis House, and she has done that very well."

Miiler said the agency "really appreciates the diocese's support over the years. But the issues raised in their letter are not our issues."

"We serve the poor," he said. "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."

Whitmore said the funding hit "is not huge for us," but is nevertheless significant, especially in a stagnant economy.

"All nonprofits are struggling right now, and we can only give our clients what others are willing to give to us, so it's disappointing," she said.

Yet she has no regrets about her outspokenness on such issues, she said, and will continue to share her views.

"I feel strongly about the positions that I have taken," said Whitmore. "They are consistent with my commitment to justice, so I would never take back anything I've said, publicly or privately."

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