For Gay Catholics, an Alternative to the Collection Plate

By donating gift cards to local priests, churchgoers can support their parishes without accidentally funding political causes.

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Salvatore Cordileone is the archbishop of San Francisco. Although -- or, perhaps, because -- he lives in the American city most identified with same-sex relationships, he is also the chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' Subcommittee for the Promotion and Defense of Marriage. During a press conference last Tuesday, a reporter asked Cordileone to comment on the string of successes for same-sex marriage during this month's elections. The archbishop responded, "This is not a time to give up, but rather a time to redouble our efforts."

The Catholic bishops may be holding firm, but their flock is drifting away from them. According to a recent poll by Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, the number of religiously unaffiliated Americans has risen over the last five years. The poll's authors attributed this decline in part to public cynicism about religious leaders who tap revenue streams from their congregations to advance their own political goals.

For gay Catholics our straight Catholic allies, this question became especially relevant during the recent elections. We saw the highly-coordinated efforts by some bishops to stanch the growing marriage equality movement - and the Catholic church resources that helped fuel their effort - and wondered, "Is it really possible to support marriage equality while still being a church-going Catholic who tithes?"

Take Minnesota, one of the four states where voters faced referenda on gay and lesbian couples. Using resources from churchgoers, the Minnesota Catholic Conference was able to give $600,000 to "Minnesota for Marriage," an anti-marriage equality group. In Washington state, some Catholic bishops were so aggressive in their fundraising that the Public Disclosure Commission, the state's campaign finance agency, had to warn the Washington Catholic Conference that they were not permitted to collect donations at Mass. (To comply with the law, volunteers were required to collect donations in separate envelopes.) In Baltimore, Archbishop William Lori headlined a pre-election fundraiser for Maryland's anti-marriage equality group.

According to the Human Rights Campaign's report Catholic Church: Top Funder of Discrimination, the Church and affiliated organizations - the Knights of Columbus and the National Organization for Marriage - were responsible for a whopping 60 percent of all funding for anti-marriage equality campaigns in the four states where the issue appeared on the 2012 ballot.

Yet according to a 2011 Public Religion Research Institute poll, nearly three-quarters of the American Catholic laity support state recognition of same-sex marriage or civil unions. According to that same poll, when same-sex marriage is explicitly defined as civil marriage - having no involvement with the church - support for it jumps from 43 percent to 71 percent.

Still, the reality is this: Every time Catholics tithe at a local parish, they are not only helping to keep the lights on for Mass and to make sure the priest has enough food in his stomach, they are contributing to diocesan coffers, which are often tapped for anti-equality ballot initiatives. So far, the IRS has not seemed especially interested in investigating allegations that the Catholic Church has violated its tax-exempt status by conducting political activity. And as Melissa Rogers, a legal scholar at Wake Forest Divinity School, told the Religion News Service, "When there's an impression that the IRS is not enforcing the restriction - that seems to embolden some to cross the line."

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Timothy Villareal is based in Miami and writes regularly at timothyvillareal.wordpress.com.

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