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The time is now for reform of the CCHD

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles ) | Aug 26, 2010

For more than 25 years, since the days of the Reagan administration, conservative Catholics have complained that the Catholic Campaign for Human Development (CCHD), the official “anti-poverty” effort of the US bishops’ conference, has become too closely allied with leftist political causes—in some cases even funding radical groups that promote causes such as legal abortion and same-sex marriage. At long last, those criticisms have begun to have a serious impact.

Last year ten American bishops dropped out of the nationwide collection to support the CCHD. This year the US bishops’ conference (USCCB) is conducting a thorough review of CCHD policies. And judging from the level of concern about supporters of the current CCHD policies, that review could produce a welcome reform of the organization’s approach. [See today's CWN lead headline story]

American Catholics who would like to see a dramatic change in the CCHD should contact their bishops this week to voice their concerns about the organization’s recent track record. The bishops have until Friday, August 27, to respond to a document that suggests minor changes in CCHD guidelines. If enough American bishops call for more sweeping changes, the November meeting of the USCCB could see a truly significant debate, and perhaps an important institutional reform.

The CCHD was founded in 1970 as an initiative to address the root causes of poverty. Funded through a nationwide collection taken up on the Sunday before Thanksgiving, the CCHD provided support for local community organizations involved in a variety of worthwhile projects: educational collaboratives, workers’ cooperatives, nutritional programs, and the like. But within a few years after its inception, the CCHD began to show a special affinity for organizations that embraced a leftist political ideology, blaming poverty on the capitalist system and demanding greater government involvement in the marketplace.

Over the years the alliances between the CCHD and leftist community organizations—many of them inspired by the famous activist Saul Alinsky, including the notorious activist group ACORN-- became more prominent and provoked more criticism. These criticisms became more pointed as leftist groups embraced causes that the Church has condemned, such as the drive for unrestricted legal abortion.

Last year the Reform CCHD Now coalition highlighted the grants that the CCHD had awarded to groups that were involved in distributing contraceptives, promoting abortion, and embracing homosexual rights. While the grants were generally intended for unobjectionable causes, the coalition asked whether the Catholic Church should be entering into alliances with such groups. The questions they raised have prompted ten bishops to pull their dioceses out of the nationwide CCHD collection, and spurred the preparation of a new report entitled “The Review and Renewal of the Catholic Campaign for Human Development.”

To date the “Review and Renewal” report has not been made public; it is only available to the US bishops and their staff members on a private web site. So outsiders cannot judge whether or not the reforms suggested in the report would eliminate the problems that have troubled the CCHD. It is evident, however, that supporters of the CCHD hope that the reforms will go no further than the report’s recommendations—and fear that they might.

The “Review and Renewal” report being circulated for the bishops’ comments is now in its 5th draft. The number of changes that the document has undergone suggests that it has been the subject of a keen debate—as does the intensive lobbying now being done by the bishops’ own staff members.

“CCHD is being closely examined and its mission questioned,” wrote Robert Gorman, the executive director of Catholic Charities in a Louisiana diocese, in a letter urging allies to speak up in defense of the CCHD. Gorman’s letter went on to disclose that CCHD officials are nervous about the outcome of a debate within the bishops’ conference. “Our concern at this time,” he wrote, “is that the vast majority of bishops, while supportive of CCHD, have remained publically silent in the face of the attacks and critiques that have become so vehement.”

Defenders of the CCHD argue that the grants denounced by the Reform CHD Now coalition were rare lapses of judgment. New scrutiny of applicants will ensure that those mistakes are not repeated, they say. In a more combative vein, they charge that the critics of the CCHD are motivated by ideology rather than by concern for Catholic truth. Thus Robert Gorman complained that some critics “just don’t like the Church’s focus on justice, empowerment of the poor, defense of the rights of immigrants, environmental stewardship, etc.”

But a closer look at CCHD operations, even after last year’s controversies, shows an organization that has its own distinct ideological preferences. Earlier this week, Deal Hudson reported on the Inside Catholic web site that critics have discovered 16 more “problematical” recipients of CCHD grants, in addition to the 51 mentioned by the Reform CCHD Now coalition last year. Since the national CCHD makes about 250 grants a year, Hudson’s report suggests that roughly one-fourth of the grants go to organizations that are at least radical enough to raise concerns among some thoughtful Catholics.

Perhaps more to the point, Hudson noted that the CCHD retains its ties with a network of leftist groups: activist organizations that frequently attack the positions held by the Catholic Church on controversial public issues. For illustration, Hudson pointed to the US Social Forum, held in June in Detroit and attended by 21 different groups that had received CCHD funding as well as a smattering of other Catholic social-justice organizations allied with the CCHD. At that conference, he pointed out, the workshops included sessions on these topics:

  • Reproductive Justice 101
  • Maintaining abortion as a reproductive right for low-income women
  • Reproductive justice in the Age of Obama
  • Marxism for the 21st Century: Capitalist Crisis, Socialist Solutions
  • Why Capitalism is Organized Crime & Socialism is the Alternative
  • Meet the YCL (Young Communist League)
  • Radical Queer Festivals
  • Queer Injustice: the Criminalization of LGBT People in United States
  • Integrating LGBT Equality into Social, Racial & Socio-Economic Justice Movements

The CCHD recipients may not have participated in these workshops. Yet their involvement in a program where such workshops are held points to a deeper problem. Hudson sums it up:

The presence of 21 CCHD grantees at U.S. Social Forum isn't problematic because grantees are keeping company with the wrong people, but because they're actively participating in a forum designed "to set a national action agenda."

Far too often, the CCHD and the groups it supports have acted on the presumption that the stated goal of the CCHD—addressing the root causes of poverty—requires a commitment to radical social change, as prescribed by leftist political ideology. Not so. There are other ways to fight poverty. Indeed, there are other ways to understand the true meaning of poverty. In the Chicago archdiocese, a thorough reform of the local CCHD program has begun with a recognition that the Catholic Church has something special to say about the nature of poverty. “The greatest poverty,” notes Chicago’s Cardinal Francis George, “is not to know Jesus Christ.”

Expanding on a theme that the national offices of the CCHD have regrettably ignored, the Chicago archdiocesan branch notes that Catholic social teaching has explored the problem of poverty in some depth, and identified some types of poverty that the secular world does not recognize: such as the poverty of spirit that is evident in campaigns to prevent the birth of children or hasten the death of the elderly and the infirm. Some of the groups that have received funding from the CCHD have been guilty of spreading this sort of spiritual poverty.

Catholic social teaching also has something distinctive to say about the causes of material poverty. The strength of society, the Church constantly teaches, is measured by the health of the family, based on marriage. For that reason, an attempt to address the “root causes” of poverty should focus on the spread of divorce, the breakdown of the nuclear family, the epidemic of out-of-wedlock births, and the political drives to eliminate the unique legal privileges that have been traditionally provided to married couples.

Another “root cause” of poverty, in which the Catholic Church has a keen interest, is inadequate schooling. If children from needy families cannot receive a proper education, they will be far less likely to escape from poverty. In Birmingham, Alabama, Bishop Robert Baker has concluded that the best way he can address the root causes of poverty in his diocese is by supporting parochial schools in the inner cities, rather than sending the funds to the CCHD.

Finally, Catholic social teaching, with its emphasis on the principle of subsidiarity, suggests that the best solutions to the problem of poverty may be found in local initiatives rather than nationwide movements. Rather than encouraging the development of an ideologically motivated “national action agenda,” an authentically Catholic approach to the problem of poverty should encourage neighbor-to-neighbor initiatives, recognizing that individual contact is the hallmark of Christian charity.

An approach that supports local initiatives, that favors individual charity over government intervention, that supports education, that strengthens marriage and family life—this would be a truly worthwhile Catholic response to the roots of poverty in America. Such an approach is certainly possible. But it would require a profound, dramatic change from the current policies of the CCHD.

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Show 6 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: Paul - Ave Law '07 - Aug. 31, 2010 10:15 AM ET USA

    The way one diocese has reformed CCHD: http://catholickey.blogspot.com/2010/08/model-for-reforming-cchd.html

  • Posted by: mrschips19308196 - Aug. 28, 2010 11:49 PM ET USA

    I have long thought that maybe the best HUMAN DEVELOPMENT would be to teach our Catholic children in real Catholic schools in order to produce our future Catholic laity. So many Catholic parents cannot afford to send their children to a Catholic school. Now there is a type of poverty one hears about rarely. But it exists.

  • Posted by: mwquacker4169 - Aug. 28, 2010 8:07 PM ET USA

    Perhaps part of the problem in some parts of the country is a lack of knowing what Catholic Social Teaching is. Subsidiarity needs to be explained more often, both in print and from the pulpit, as well as other major themes. When we know what authentic Catholic social action is, we will be able to recognize the counterfeit. Some groups (not necessarily conected with the CCHD)say they follow the Gospel, but on further investigation & reading "between the lines" of their goals & statements, one can see it is not compatible with Catholic teaching. Thank you for this article & a place where concerned laity may research to know what is Real Catholicism!

  • Posted by: Phil_Homer7612 - Aug. 27, 2010 8:54 PM ET USA

    The Church abandons its most fundamental responsibility by supporting secular, non-Catholic charity organizations and by promoting the government take-over of charity. We are getting in bed with the devil and we are loosing our moral authority. As Archbishop Charles J. Chaput, O.F.M. Cap. put it in Living within the Truth: Religious Liberty and Catholic Mission in the New Order of the World: “The temptation in every age of the Church is to try to get along with Caesar. And it’s very true: Scripture tells us to respect and pray for our leaders. We need to have a healthy love for the countries we call home. But we can never render unto Caesar what belongs to God. We need to obey God first; the obligations of political authority always come second. We cannot collaborate with evil without gradually becoming evil ourselves. This is one of the most vividly harsh lessons of the 20th century. And it’s a lesson that I hope we have learned.” The bishops need to dismantle CCHD entirely.

  • Posted by: paul.goodell1892 - Aug. 27, 2010 6:12 PM ET USA

    I disagree with those who say that CCHD is beyond reform. My own interactions with the Chicago CCHD clearly indicate otherwise. Here, CCHD strives to be faithful to all of Catholic social teaching, which is a welcome change. Another change is its focus on what it calls the "root causes of prosperity", which it identifies as healthy families, quality and widely-available education, and a solid respect for human life in all its stages. If these changes can happen here, they can happen anywhere.

  • Posted by: jbryant_132832 - Aug. 26, 2010 7:25 PM ET USA

    The CCHD is beyond "reform". The "root cause" of the problems there are the "roots" of their Catholicism. They need to pull this outfit up by its roots and start over, anything less is lipstick on a pig. In keeping with subsidiarity this outfit needs to be disbanded and kept at the parish level.

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