Catholic Citizenship: an Electoral Force? And Who Are These Guys Anyway?

(Update: October 22, 2012. I am grateful to Professor Maurice Cunningham, whose research I cite in this post, for recommending it on his blog MassPoliticsProfs.)

A dust-up in Attleboro between a former state representative and an organization called Catholic Citizenship has caught my attention.

In a letter to the Editor of the Attleboro Sun Chronicle earlier this month, the former Democratic state representative from Attleboro, Bill Bowles, asserted that his 2010 election loss to Republican George Ross had to do with some “nasty” literature that Catholic Citizenship volunteers had “dropped on the windshields of cars in churches on the Sunday before the election…with no time for a response.” The literature described Bowles as  a co-sponsor of a bill in the State Legislature extending civil rights protections to transgender persons, a piece of legislation pejoratively called the “Bathroom Bill” by its opponents. As a co-sponsor, Bowles had lots of company — a majority of the state’s 200 legislators were also co-sponsors in 2010. (A scaled-back version of the bill was enacted into law in 2011.)

Mr. Bowles declared Catholic Citizenship “a disgrace to Catholics” that local churches “disavowed any connection” with; he accused the organization of violating the conditions of its tax-exempt status by coordinating with the Ross campaign; and he predicted similar attacks on other legislators who had supported the transgender bill.

For its part, Catholic Citizenship’s Executive Director Patricia Doherty wrote a letter to the editor confirming that Catholic Citizenship volunteers had distributed the literature, which she described as a candidate questionnaire. She added that publicizing information about the positions taken by political candidates is a common and entirely permissible activity for non-profit organizations to undertake (a correct — if somewhat abstract — statement of the law). And she went on to suggest that Mr. Bowles’ defeat might have been caused not by his position on the transgender bill (which she described as giving “transgender people what amounts to special rights based on how they identify their gender on any given day”) but instead by his pro-choice position on abortion or his support for gay marriage, which were also documented in the questionnaire.

When Mr. Bowles predicted that what had happened to him in 2010 would continue, he was already speaking the truth. For a contested primary election in September in a Fall River District between Democratic incumbent Kevin Aguiar and challenger Alan Silvia, Catholic Citizenship prepared this voter questionnaire. Question 2 lists Rep. Aguiar as opposed to the repeal of the Transgender Bill and Mr. Silvia in favor.

The Aguiar-Silvia contest also featured a mailing by an organization called the Coalition for Marriage and Family highlighting Rep. Aguiar’s support for the bill.

The primary election on September 6 was close enough to warrant a recount, with Aguiar losing by fewer than 30 votes. Like Bowles had done, Aguiar charged that his opponent ran a campaign of “blatant lies” and “distorting of records,” such as “being accused of voting for a bathroom bill.”

So what do we know about Catholic Citizenship? Well, for one thing, the organization describes itself as a “a project of Coalition for Marriage and Family Education Fund, a 501 (c)(3) public charity.” So the candidate questionnaire (by Catholic Citizenship) and the anti-Aguiar mailing (by the Coalition for Marriage and Family) were a coordinated effort.

And what’s their connection to the Catholic Church? Is Mr. Bowles correct in saying that local churches disavow Catholic Citizenship these days? According to a useful history of the group written in 2009 by Prof. Maurice Cunningham (Paywall), the organization was formed in 2004 after some influential members of the Catholic laity, including former Mayor Ray Flynn, presented a plan to the four Massachusetts Bishops for “an organized effort to educate and mobilize lay Catholics.” The bishops’ support was critical to the effort, Cunningham emphasized. “Without that imprimatur, no Catholic political organization could get off the ground.”

And at one time, Catholic Citizenship acknowledged the bishops’ ongoing leadership. Here’s the mission statement of Catholic Citizenship as it appeared on the organization’s website on March 29, 2008 (thanks to the valuable Wayback Machine):

Catholic Citizenship is the official Catholic grassroots education organization of the four bishops in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. As a network of devout Catholics throughout the state, we work in full cooperation and collaboration with the Massachusetts Catholic Conference, the offices of the four bishops and our pastors to help educate the laity on how to more effectively involve ourselves in the political process.

But today, the relationship between the Massachusetts bishops and Catholic Citizenship appears to be more distant. It no longer claims to be the “official grassroots organization of the four bishops” — in fact, it doesn’t mention those bishops or the Massachusetts Catholic Conference at all, instead declaring its loyalty to Pope Benedict XVI.

A significant turnover in the organization’s leadership occurred about the same time as the change in its mission statement.  Of the five individuals listed as officers on its 2009 tax return (including Gerry D’Avolio, the former Director of the Massachusetts Catholic Conference and the most direct connection with the bishops) only one, Michael Gilleran, was still there in 2010.

So, despite the fact that the Catholic church hierarchy in Massachusetts was instrumental in creating Catholic Citizenship, there’s now evidence of a rupture between the two organizations. Perhaps one or both sides could clarify?

And a last question that former Representative Bowles asked — what is the connection between Catholic Citizenship and the Republican Party? According to Prof. Cunningham, Catholic Citizenship has always had a Republican tilt — the issues selected for inclusion in Catholic Citizenship’s voter questionnaires, for example, demonstrate “a clear partisan direction toward Republican legislative candidates.” The Catholic Citizenship questionnaires exclude any questions pertaining to social justice or workers’ rights that other voter education materials, including, notably, the ones prepared by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, include.

And now the ties between Catholic Citizenship (including its parent organization, the Coalition for Marriage and Family) and the State Republican Party are much closer. This year, three individuals affiliated with Catholic Citizenship were elected to the Republican State Committee (two others made unsuccessful bids). Here’s a list of the connections between the two organizations I’ve come up with so far:

  • Patricia Doherty is the Executive Director of Catholic Citizenship and was elected to a seat on the Republican State Committee this year. If her name sounds familiar, she is also the State Committee member who publicly urged the state party to adopt the national Republican platform prohibiting abortion in all cases, without exceptions for rape or to save the life of the mother, then later (at a meeting the from which the Boston Globe was excluded) asked that a vote on that issue be postponed.
  • Michael Gilleran is a Board member and was elected to a seat on the Republican State Committee this year.
  • Chanel Prunier is the President of Catholic Citizenship. She ran for the position of National Committeewoman (a higher eschelon), but lost to Kerry Healey.
  • Paul Adams is the State Representative from Andover and a member of the Republican State Committee. He is running against Barry Finegold for a State Senate seat from that area. His resume was called into question during the primary election when the “private sector” experience he claimed to have turned out to be work as a political consultant for the Coalition for Marriage and Family.
  • Lisa Barstow was elected to the  Republican State  Committee member this year. She has been a spokesperson for both Catholic Citizenship and for the Coalition for Marriage and Family, verifying that Paul Adams had done grassroots organizing for the Coalition from 2007 to 2009.
  • Robert Aufiero is in charge of “Parish Outreach” at Catholic Citizenship. He ran for a seat on the Republican State Committee this year (listing his employment as  “IT consultant for a non-profit in Woburn”), but was not elected.

In light of its increasing closeness to the Republican Party and its apparently increasing distance from the Catholic church, Catholic Citizenship might well expect closer scrutiny of its electoral work. Here’s just one of the things I’d like to know:

Question 12 on their most recent questionnaire asks: “Should children of illegal aliens be given the taxpayer-subsidized in-state tuition rate for state colleges and universities?” The Massachusetts Catholic Conference says “yes”. The Massachusetts Republican Party says “no” What does Catholic Citizenship say?

5 thoughts on “Catholic Citizenship: an Electoral Force? And Who Are These Guys Anyway?

  1. Pingback: What’s Catholic Citizenship Up To? | MassPoliticsProfs

  2. This is interesting since I know Alan’s brother. He used to be very involved in progressive politics in the Boston area. He is a lot smarter than Alan is so I was dumbfounded to find out that they are even related. I wonder if he knows about Alan’s same-sex marriage response on the questionnaire.

  3. Pingback: Catholics in Massachusetts Politics 2012 | MassPoliticsProfs

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