There was no winner in last month’s vote on abortion rights in Kansas. Technically, nothing changed after voters overwhelmingly rejected a ballot measure intended to strip abortion protections out of the state’s constitution. When the race was called on the evening of August 2, every Kansan retained the same set of rights they’d woken up with that morning. But there was a loser: the ballot initiative’s largest financial backer by a long shot, the Catholic Church, whose dioceses squandered millions of dollars on the failed effort.
The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Kansas City contributed $3.18 million, the Catholic Diocese of Wichita, $652,355; $175,000 came from the Diocese of Salina; tens of thousands more from smaller churches scattered around the state. The Kansas Catholic Conference threw in $275,000. Together, the donations amounted to well over half of the Value Them Both Association’s total haul — an “absolutely stunning” amount of money, says Jamie Manson, the president of the advocacy group Catholics for Choice.
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Come November, though, the exorbitant sum spent in Kansas may represent just a fraction of the Church’s political outlay this year. A record number of referendums on abortion will be put to voters around the country this fall. And in each of the states where an abortion measure is on the ballot, the effort to strip women of their reproductive rights is being largely bankrolled by the Catholic Church and its affiliates.
In Michigan, the Catholic Conference has committed $200,000, the largest donation by far to the campaign opposing the Right to Reproductive Freedom Initiative. The Michigan Knights of Columbus, a Catholic men’s organization, has pledged an additional $50,000 to the committee leading the charge against Proposal 3, “Citizens to Support MI Women and Children.”
The Roman Catholic Diocese of Burlington is the second biggest donor to the campaign opposing Vermont’s Right to Personal Reproductive Autonomy amendment. The church’s contribution — $50,000 — represents one fifth of the total raised to date by the group, “Vermonters for Good Government.”
The Kentucky Catholic Conference is the single biggest donor to “Yes for Life.” “Yes for Life” is the group working to add an amendment to the Kentucky constitution clarifying that the document does not protect a right to abortion. The KCC has given $36,000 to that effort so far.
Churches and religious organizations, by virtue of their tax-exempt status, are prohibited from campaigning on behalf of candidates for public office. But “issue advocacy” — carried out through ballot initiatives and lobbying efforts — is allowed. It can be difficult to ascertain how much churches and their affiliates spend on those political efforts, though, because in addition to not being required to file tax returns, they are, in many cases, exempt from disclosing lobbying activity as well.
A report commissioned by Catholics for Choice found that between 2014 and 2021, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and their affiliates spent at least $10 million dollars lobbying state lawmakers in a handful of states, including Montana. There, the organization found the Montana Catholic Conference lobbied on behalf of five bills. Four of them were abortion related, including the “Referendum to adopt the Montana Born-Alive Infant Protection Act,” a bill that paved the way for a ballot measure voters will weigh in on this fall that would extend legal rights to infants “born alive at any stage of development.”
What makes the Church’s disproportionate spending on anti-abortion advocacy so remarkable, Manson says, is the degree to which it goes against a majority of Catholics’ own views on the issue. A 2019 Pew Research poll found that 68 percent of U.S. Catholics opposed overturning Roe v. Wade, while more than half of Catholics — 56 percent — believe that abortion should be legal in all or most cases. Catholics, Manson also points out, make up one quarter of abortion seekers in the United States, according to data from the Guttmacher Institute.
“Catholics are always well left-of-center on all of these issues having to do with sexuality, and they are governed by church leaders who are fringe hard-right,” Manson says. “These issues of sexual reproductive health are profound issues of social justice. And the Catholic laity see it, but the bishops just refuse to see it.”
Church leaders, ultimately, are the ones who decide how the collection plate money is spent.
“Do parishes have finance councils, and all of those things? Sure they do. But do they ultimately have decision-making authority on how money is used? No,” Manson says. “This whole structure is set up to have lay people completely disempowered.”
Kara Voght contributed to this report.
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