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But critics say that he supports conservative Catholic groups that paint an inaccurate picture of Catholics as a whole and are exacerbating a split between conservatives and moderates in the church.
Fieler, for example, continues to oppose same-sex marriage, saying it’s damaging for children and marriage writ large. Of the Supreme Court decision that legalized same-sex marriage, he says, “Obergefell is a huge impediment to moving forward with family formation in the United States.”
Disagreement over the issue caused Fieler to leave his board position at the Institute for American Values, a family-values think tank, when its director, David Blankenhorn, changed positions and endorsed same-sex marriage. The loss of Fieler and other donors led to the group’s collapse. Blankenhorn says Fieler’s decision grew out of his faith.
“There’s a group of thinkers — and Sean is one of them — for whom this issue has not changed. And these are people who come at it from the point of view of their religious faith and their commitment to the religious institutions they’re a part of,” Blankenhorn says. “They believe that certain things are the way they should be.”
Fieler is a longtime donor to a large number of Catholic groups, many of which oppose abortion. While his annual donations to them are often $150,000 or less, these groups tend to be small with budgets well under $1 million. It fits with his philanthropic philosophy of finding organizations where he can have an impact, even with smaller sums of money.
These relatively small Catholic anti-abortion groups have wealthy benefactors that give them an outsize voice, says Jamie Manson, president of Catholics for Choice. “Sean Fieler represents something really important, which is that the radical anti-choice Catholic movement is small, but it is exceedingly well funded,” she says. “And because it’s so well funded, it is able to claim a narrative that is simply false, which is that Catholics are all anti-abortion.”
In fact, she says, the majority of Catholics support the right to an abortion, and one in four people who get abortions in the United States are Catholic, a share that’s roughly equal to their numbers in the population.
The Chronicle sent several emails to the spokeswoman at the John Paul II Center for Women, which Fieler supports, but she did not respond.
Discord in the Church
Fieler has long supported Catholic-oriented groups that are not officially associated with the church. Many of those conservative nonprofits have been part of a recent and sharp ideological split among Catholics, says Massimo Faggioli, a professor of historical theology at Villanova University.
He says conservative Catholics got used to having the Vatican reflect their views through the tenures of Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI. But Pope Francis’s more liberal ideas present a challenge to their worldview. Catholics have lined up on opposing sides of many issues over the last decade in what he calls an attitude of mutual excommunication — proponents on both sides believe that people who disagree with their views aren’t really Catholic.
Philanthropy has played a big role in this fissure by funding Catholic nonprofits that are taking hard-line stands on issues and engaging in politics, he says.
Faggioli says the church is also competing for money from these donors and is responsive to their interests, often more than the interests of the church as a whole. “The conservative side has been very active, and they were not intimidated by the fact that the pope was interested in different issues,” he says. “In practice, donors usually have a much more influential voice than bishops.”
Fieler dismisses the critique. “The implication somehow that I’m giving money and that’s changing the way the church is behaving in the United States writ large is kind of crazy,” he says. Fieler says he finds opportunities to give in ways that strengthen the family, Catholic education, and the church itself. “I don’t think that makes the church conservative.”