SAN FRANCISCO — The education fund of Catholics United, a Democrat-leaning group that has clashed with the U.S. bishops on several prominent issues, received a grant worth almost its entire 2011 budget to recruit Catholic clergy in key swing states to support the Environmental Protection Agency.
The San Francisco-based Energy Foundation gave a $116,000 grant to the Catholics United Education Fund in November 2011 “to recruit and engage Catholic clergy in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan and Minnesota” in support of the EPA’s “regulatory authority.”
The Catholics United Education Fund’s 2011 tax forms show total revenue of $116,200 for the year.
James Salt, executive director of the group, told Catholic News Agency April 23 that the Energy Foundation supported the education fund’s work to teach Catholics what Salt characterized as “Pope Benedict XVI’s and Pope Francis’ elevation of environmental stewardship as a key priority for Catholics.”
He said the project reached about 200 clergy and that the Catholics United Education Fund has “a particularly strong footprint” in the selected states, which also suffer “major forms of pollution.”
The states named in the Energy Foundation grant included several key swing states in the 2012 election.
Ahead of that election, many Catholic bishops named issues such as ending legalized abortion and defending traditional marriage as key priorities.
In 2008, Catholics United came under fire by then-Denver Archbishop Charles Chaput, who said the group and its allies have “done a disservice to the Church.”
The organization, Archbishop Chaput charged, has “confused the natural priorities of Catholic social teaching, undermined the progress pro-lifers have made and provided an excuse for some Catholics to abandon the abortion issue instead of fighting within their parties and at the ballot box to protect the unborn.”
The Catholics United Education Fund is a 501(c)(3) partner of Catholics United, a 501(c)(4) organization that often defends Democratic political causes, at times conflicting with Church teaching. The organizations’ different tax statuses mean the education fund faces more restrictions on political expenditures.
Salt is the executive director of both groups, and the organizations share many of the same leaders.
The Catholics United Education Fund made news in November 2012 for a petition drive against the Knights of Columbus’ support for non-partisan political efforts to defend marriage between a man and a woman. It also received news coverage in 2012 for criticizing the end of a Catholic Campaign for Human Development grant to a Colorado immigrant group that was a member of a coalition that supports same-sex unions.
Catholics United has drawn criticism for downplaying religious freedom concerns about the Obama administration’s HHS mandate requiring Catholic employers, including some Catholic colleges, charities and health-care systems, to provide insurance coverage for sterilization, contraception and abortion-causing drugs.
It also defended the nomination of Catholic Kathleen Sebelius as Department of Health and Human Services secretary, despite concerns about her pro-abortion-rights views.
The Catholics United Education Fund has connections with other groups that have stirred controversy over their political initiatives.
The chair of the organization’s board of directors, Jessica Barba Brown, is vice president for program development at Faith in Public Life, a communications strategy center that favors Democrat-leaning political causes. That organization helped run the “Nuns on the Bus” public-relations campaign promoting several vowed religious who object to budget-cutting proposals from Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis.
Faith in Public Life also ran a behind-the-scenes media effort in 2012 to undercut the U.S. bishops’ efforts to defend religious freedom against the HHS mandate. The organization sent out a memo instructing journalists to corner the bishops with questions about their religious-freedom concerns, which it labeled as “fiction.”