There is nothing particularly unusual about conservative Catholics arguing with liberal Catholics, especially when it comes to hot-button issues such as abortion.
It is unusual, however, for the IRS to jump into these pew wars.
Catholic sociologist Anne Hendershott is convinced that's what happened to her in 2010. This was during the time when IRS leaders, according to their own testimony, were inappropriately targeting conservative groups for extra scrutiny, especially those with "patriot" or "tea party" in their names. Also, some religious groups -- the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, for example -- drew challenges after making public efforts to defend their beliefs on issues such as abortion rights and same-sex marriage.
"I don't think the IRS cares about the Catholic Church's position on life," said Hendershott, who teaches at Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio. Instead, the agency's leaders "care about passing Obamacare, because the health-care program gives the IRS tremendous power. ...
"Anyone who threatens that growth is an enemy to them. Anyone who tries to point out that Obamacare provisions for funding abortion are counter to Catholic teachings is a threat."
Hendershott has engaged in her share of debates about Catholic doctrine and public policy, primarily in the pages -- analog or digital -- of conservative publications such as Catholic World Report, InsideCatholic.com and Catholic Advocate. Then, in the fall of 2009, she wrote a Wall Street Journal piece critical of Catholic groups -- both official and unofficial -- that she believed were serving as "faithful helpers" for President Barack Obama's health care plan.
"Drawing upon support within Catholic community agencies is a strategy that worked well for Mr. Obama when he was running for president," she wrote. "Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good and Catholics United tried to neutralize the abortion issue during the campaign by suggesting that Mr. Obama's proposals on 'social justice' issues like poverty were the way to reduce abortion rates without restricting abortion rights.
"Now personnel from these organizations are playing a role in enlisting Catholic support for health care reform."
The following spring, an IRS agent called to say she would be audited. This didn't surprise Hendershott very much, until she heard that the government was especially interested in whatever income she had earned from nonacademic work. When the requests for documentation arrived, almost all of them focused on deposits linked to her freelance articles and speaking engagements.
Hendershott immediately thought about the Wall Street Journal piece, especially since it reached a much larger audience than her many articles written for small publications targeting Catholics. The "faithful helpers" piece also linked some liberal Catholic activism to groups funded by billionaire George Soros, an atheist known for his opposition to official Catholic beliefs and causes.
During their face-to-face meeting in New Haven, Conn., the agent never asked questions about the "politics" of anyone who funded her writings, stressed Hendershott. Instead, she was repeatedly asked to name the groups or individuals who provided any stipends that had been deposited into the family's bank account.
In one twist, the agent was especially interested in knowing the source of one large deposit -- for $12,000 -- during the period of time being investigated. This was rather ironic, said Hendershott, since that was a refund check from the IRS itself.
The bottom line, she said, is that writers don't make much money when they are writing for small Catholic publications. Most of the documents she was ordered to provide indicated that she received no payments at all.
On one level, these kinds of disputes usually pivot on points of doctrine, with Catholic organizations -- including giants such as the Catholic Campaign for Human Development and the Catholic Health Association -- arguing about how best to apply Catholic social teachings in the muddy realities of public life.
Seen from the government's point of view, said Hendershott, the key is that some Catholics back the goals of the administration that is in power, while others do not. For the IRS, doctrine is secondary.
"I believe that is why I became the enemy" in this case, she said. "I cannot think of another reason that I would have been audited. So, I do believe the IRS is protecting itself by picking sides. ...
"Businesses try to get rid of the competition. The IRS just tried to silence the opposition -- or the competition to their growth model."
Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities and leads the GetReligion.org project to study religion and the news.
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