MANASSAS, Va. -- From an unmarked building amid the suburban malls, the Cardinal Newman Society pores over statements by professors at the nation's Catholic colleges in an effort to find ''heretics and dissidents," including prime targets at Boston College. The allegations frequently make headlines and help the group raise hundreds of thousands of dollars, mostly from small contributors.
The society boasts it has influenced some Catholic colleges, pressuring them to cancel performances of the play ''The Vagina Monologues" and to reject commencement speakers who favored abortion rights. Earlier this year, it contended that it played a role in stripping a school of its Catholic identity and that a bishop the society won't identify wanted to know how to ''put the screws" to a college in his diocese, including ways to run off ''dissident theology faculty."
But following the society's focus on Boston College, questions have arisen about the group's contentions, tactics, and connection to the church.
The group's president, Patrick J. Reilly, said in an interview that ''it is clearly a mistake" that the society has tax-exempt status under church auspices, instead of as an independent group. The group lists Boston's archbishop as an ''ecclesiastical adviser," but Reilly acknowledges that he's never spoken to him and that he has only sent him information.
Founded in 1993, the society made news last week for fund-raising letters it mailed targeting three Boston College professors as part of a ''culture of death" for supporting the decision to remove a feeding tube from Terri Schiavo, the brain-damaged Florida woman whose case sparked a national debate. Donations will ''finance a major effort to expose the heretics within our Catholic colleges," the society says, and will help pay for a guidebook for students and parents.
Though only the church can declare heretics, the society says it does so simply as a matter of opinion. ''It is red-baiting in ecclesiastical garb," said the Rev. John Beal, canon law professor at Catholic University of America. In his view, Beal said, none of the professors on the society's target list fit the definition of heretic.
After Boston College last week dismissed what it called the society's ''unfounded accusations," Charles L. Currie, president of the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities, followed suit. The society's ''attacks can no longer go unchallenged," he said. Their most recent activities ''follow a long trail of distorted, inaccurate, and often untrue attacks on scholars addressing complex issues."
Michael James, vice president of the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities, said the society is ''destructive and antithetical to a spirit of unity in our commitment to serve society and the church." Boston College is a member of both associations.
Reilly, however, stands by his allegations: ''In our judgment, we have seen heresy at Catholic colleges and universities. Anyone who wants to suggest [otherwise] clearly is not aware of the facts."
The society lists 10 bishops -- including Archbishop Sean O'Malley of Boston -- as his ''ecclesiastical advisers." Society chairman J. Laurence McCarty called O'Malley a ''passive adviser," but Terry Donilon, the archbishop's spokesman, said O'Malley is an adviser ''in name only" and isn't involved in the society's activities.
The Cardinal Newman Society sought and received recognition as a Catholic organization, is listed in the official directory of the Arlington, Va., diocese, and was granted federal tax-exempt status under the auspices of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops. Reilly said the group's exemption as a church affiliate ''happened by a mistake by someone" and he's working on correcting it: ''Whether it was our mistake or the diocese's mistake or the IRS, someone made a mistake."
Reilly, 35, said his concern about the direction of Catholic higher education began when he was studying journalism at Fordham University. Back then, he said, Fordham was considering whether to allow student groups for gays and lesbians and those who favored abortion rights -- something Reilly, the student newspaper's top editor, opposed in editorials.
In 1993, Reilly founded the Cardinal Newman Society, named after a 19th-century cardinal, and became its president in 2001. Though the society's official goal is ''the preservation of Catholic higher education," a fund-raising letter Reilly signed is more provocative: Catholics should demand that universities fire ''any professor who refuses to conform to Catholic teaching" and strip any college ''of its Catholic identity" if it doesn't comply.
Reilly's presidency coincides with an aggressive new fund-raising strategy in which the society attacked Catholic colleges that staged performances of ''The Vagina Monologues" and that invited commencement speakers who favored abortion rights. The society's annual income soared from $126,000 in 2002 to $622,000 in the fiscal year that ended in June; membership during that time multiplied from about 3,000 to more than 18,000, Reilly said.
Yet it's difficult to independently verify some of the society's claims of influence. For example, a recent society document included this contention: ''Recently a Catholic bishop contacted Patrick Reilly to discuss how he could put the screws to a wayward Catholic college in his diocese, including ways of encouraging the removal of dissident theology faculty." Reilly said the bishop spoke confidentially.
Although the group does not speak for or represent the church, its listing among other Catholic groups has raised questions about whether its policies are in accordance with the church itself.
The US Conference of Catholic Bishops referred questions about the society to the Diocese of Arlington, Va. In a statement, diocese spokesman Soren Johnson said the church ''has established procedures for investigating allegations of heresy."
Beal said a charge of heresy -- officially defined as ''the obstinate denial or obstinate doubt after the reception of baptism of some truth which is to be believed by divine and Catholic faith" -- is rare.
Also, earlier this year, the society claimed credit for stripping Marymount Manhattan College of its Catholic identity after contending that the school's commencement speaker, Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, supported abortion rights. The college said at the time, however, that it had previously shed its Catholic identity.
The society has targeted three Boston College faculty members -- law professors Milton Heifetz and Charles Baron and theology professor the Rev. John Paris -- because they signed a legal brief filed on behalf of those wishing to remove Schiavo's feeding tube.
In 2004, according to the society, Pope John Paul II made clear that it is ''morally obligatory" to provide nourishment to irreversibly comatose patients such as Schiavo. But the legal brief the professors signed contends the pope's statement doesn't supercede other Catholic teachings they believe ''acknowledge the right of a patient or proxy to decline disproportionately burdensome medical treatment."
Baron, who has written in favor of physician-assisted suicide, said the society accurately quoted his views, but insisted he is careful to leave his opinions out of the classroom. Still, the law school ''is not a seminary," he said, and a top university ''doesn't short-change its students' education by allowing them to hear only some group's version of revealed truth."
Heifetz, an adjunct professor of neurology at the law school, said, ''to demand that Catholic-sponsored universities only toe the line of Catholic dogma is an affront to education."
Paris, a priest and professor of bioethics at Boston College's Theology Department, stood by his comment -- quoted by the society -- that ''the problem here is that non-Catholics think when the pope says, 'Jump!' we all say, 'How high?' " His comments on Schiavo, he said in an interview, were in line with Catholic teaching, adding, ''No one has ever accused me of a doctrinal error in my 45 years as a Jesuit."
One of Paris's former students, Briana Hoffner, said Paris never told her class what he thought about the Schiavo case. ''I actually went to his office, saying, 'It is so frustrating -- you play devil's advocate, you never, ever tell us what you think,' " Hoffner said. ''He just laughed because that is not how he runs that class; you are supposed to think for yourself."
Paris said the society targeted him to raise money. and he questioned the group's political agenda. But Reilly said the society isn't involved in politics. Still, some of its board members have ties to politically conservative groups.
Board member L. Brent Bozell III runs the Media Research Center, a self-described watchdog for liberal bias. Bozell's website says he is the executive director of the Conservative Victory Fund, a political action committee that has raised money for congressional candidates. He did not answer two messages seeking comment. Another board member, Connaught Marshner, was an executive with the Free Congress Foundation, run by conservative activist Paul Weyrich.
In an issue of Crisis magazine, which focuses on Catholic issues, Reilly wrote an article stating that professors and staff at 10 top Catholic colleges gave disproportionately to the presidential campaign of Senator John F. Kerry, a Massachusetts Democrat. The January 2005 article said personnel at Boston College donated $17,000 to Kerry, who is Catholic and supports abortion rights, but gave nothing to President Bush, who is Methodist and opposes abortion rights.
A fourth Boston College professor, the Rev. James Keenan, is targeted in a separate fund-raising letter, which alludes to ''heretics and dissidents" teaching at Catholic colleges and accuses him of testifying against a Massachusetts initiative that would define marriage as the union of a man and a woman.
In an e-mail interview, Keenan said he ''explicitly upheld church teachings on chastity and on social justice, and I never supported gay marriage." He said he testified against a proposal that would have taken away social benefits from same-sex partners.
''There is something terribly indicative here of the degree of contentiousness in the United States Roman Catholic Church today," Keenan said about the Cardinal Newman Society. ''Hopefully, someday our bishops will call us to end this awful conduct, which hurts not only those of us targeted, but more importantly, the unity of the church itself."
Michael Kranish can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com