bait and switch

By Diogenes ( articles ) | Nov 09, 2007

Yes, it's that time of year again. Thanksgiving is coming, and on the Sunday before the feast, Catholic Americans will be asked once more to contribute to the Catholic Campaign for Human Development (CCHD), the bishops' project to change the world through citizen activism. Well, that isn't exactly how the bishops would describe it. Nor is it the description you'll hear before the collection baskets are passed. It's more conventional to refer to CCHD as an "anti-poverty program."

But let's make the pertinent distinction here. There are anti-poverty programs that ease the suffering of needy people through the altogether laudable exercise of Christian charity. Then there are other programs, more political in nature, designed to change society so as to abolish poverty. As I have explained earlier, the CCHD falls into the latter category; the program's literature announces that it is "working to overcome poverty," not alleviate it.

That's a harder sell, in terms of fundraising. You might reach deep into your pockets to help feed a hungry family down the street; you're less likely to pony up for their campaign to elect officials who, they argue, will raise the economic standards of society at large. So the bishops have to work hard to keep the funds flowing into the CCHD coffers. This week, out in Portland, Oregon, Archbishop John Vlazny is doing his best. Along the way, the good archbishop acknowledges that there are cynics out there questioning the value of the CCHD approach:

Some of our fellow Catholics, sad to say, debunk the work of CCHD. They are quick to fault CCHD if one of the grantees unexpectedly and inexplicably strays from one of the sacred principles of Catholic social teaching. These things can happen when you offer someone help. They may misuse the gift.

Good point. We shouldn't criticize CCHD if a recipient "unexpectedly and inexplicably strays" from Church teaching.

But what of their straying is completely predictable? What if a recipient of CCHD funding has, say, endorsed abortion and same-sex marriage in the past, and allied itself with other organizations wholly dedicated to legal abortion and same-sex marriage? It's one thing to give $5 to a panhandler, hoping that he'll buy himself lunch, and learn with disappointment that he promptly spent the money on booze. It's quite another thing to hand him the money as he stands at the doorway of the tavern. The list of CCHD recipients is pockmarked with leftist groups whose aspirations clash with the basic principles of Catholic morality. The conflicts are inevitable.

But that's not the only problem. Because it was designed to promote social change-- "a relic of early-1970s social activism," as I put it recently, CCHD's activities raise political questions even when there are no clear moral principles at risk. When he cites "success stories" to illustrate the value of the CCHD program, Archbishop Vlazny mentioned minimum-wage increases and adjustments to the Earned-Income Credit-- in other words, successful lobbying campaigns. Citing an old adage, the archbishop summarizes the wisdom of the CCHD approach:

“Better to teach a young man how to fish than give him a fish.”

Good advice, that. But it's not really an accurate description of the program. The CCHD is founded on the understanding that if you teach a young man to lobby the government, he won't need to go fishing.

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  • Posted by: St Thomas More Pray for Us - Nov. 05, 2009 11:30 AM ET USA

    The current Boston grant recipients include organiztions that have focused on overturning the tax-exempt status of telephone poles http://www.micahma.org/issues and changing CORI laws http://bostonworkersalliance.org/index.php I guess those efforts aren't contrary to Church teaching. And I haven't formed an opinion on telephone poles and CORI laws. Good luck to those organizations. But I only have so much money. I'll give to something else.