Catholic Culture Solidarity
Catholic Culture Solidarity

Welcome budget cuts for the US bishops’ justice-and-peace office

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Jun 28, 2024

This week the US Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) announced cuts in the staff of their Justice, Peace & Human Development office. Although the USCCB did not disclose exactly how many staffers would be laid off, insiders said that the cuts would be deep: perhaps half of the entire justice-and-peace staff.

The announcement caused deep consternation among liberal Catholics, who saw the move as almost a repudiation of the leadership of Pope Francis, if not an outright rejection of Catholic social teaching. John Carr, who had been director of that USCCB office for years, asked: “Why in a world at war, a nation with pervasive poverty, are the leaders of the conference minimizing the Conference’ commitments to overcome poverty, work for justice and pursue peace?”

A few common-sense points should help put the announcement in a more accurate perspective.

The USCCB explained the cuts were dictated by budget concerns. Or as the bishops’ director of public affairs, Chieko Noguchi, put it (assuming the wonderful circumlocutions of her trade): “The reorganization will allow the conference to align resources more closely with recent funding trends.”

The bishops’ efforts in the field of “social justice” have undeniably been expensive. Earlier this month it emerged that the notoriously controversial Catholic Campaign for Human Development (CCHD) had been running up massive annual deficits, with the wave of red ink cresting in 2020 when the CCHD spent $18.8 million, while the annual collection to support the effort brought in a mere $4 million.

But the costs of these programs are not measurable simply in dollar figures. Whenever bishops involve themselves in political issues— and the “social justice” questions invariably involve political debates— they risk dividing their flocks. That cost, too, must be weighed in the balance. So the USCCB leaders should ask not only whether the benefits of their programs justify their dollar costs, but also whether they justify the strains that they put on the unity of the faithful.

In doing that cost-benefit analysis, the bishops next have to ask themselves: What benefits do the faithful receive from the work of the Justice, Peace & Human Development office? There is no easy way to quantify those benefits, of course. But ask a few more questions, and some answers may begin to emerge.

First, how many American Catholics are aware that their bishops’ conference has an office of Justice, Peace & Human Development? How many know what that office does? Or to put the question another way, if half of the staff is laid off, how many American Catholics will notice the difference?

Next, who will suffer as a result of the layoffs? There will of course be some difficulties for those staff members who have made their livings by drafting statements on a variety of public-policy issues ranging from nuclear disarmament to chicken farming. But will the world drift closer to nuclear war because they are no longer churning out statements? Will chickens produce fewer or less nutritious eggs? The overwrought reaction of John Carr (cited above), mentioning that we live in “a world at war, a nation with pervasive poverty,” almost implies that the world will be more violent, the people more impoverished, because the bishops have neglected their responsibilities.

But we all know that the USCCB staff cuts will not increase the likelihood of World War III, nor will they impoverish anyone other than the staffers whose work has been subsidized by the Catholic faithful. At best this USCCB office has exercised a slight— mostly symbolic— influence on federal government policies. At worst the policies that the bishops have supported may have aggravated social problems.

Because— here is the important point— setting public policies is not the responsibility of a Catholic bishop, much less of an episcopal conference. Precisely because political issues always involve prudential judgments, on which good Catholics may differ, the Church teaches that the political world is the proper sphere of the Catholic laity. Bishops are called upon to teach Catholic doctrine and, while avoiding partisan involvement, enunciate the general moral principles that good Catholic politicians should follow. (Ask yourself how well the USCCB has done in persuading Catholic lawmakers to carry out their moral obligations.) From that point, the specific aspects of public policy become questions that lay Catholics— not necessarily employed by the USCCB— can debate freely, hoping to convince others by the force of their arguments, not by ecclesiastical authority.

All good Catholics share the solemn moral obligation to work for peace and to fight poverty. We may and do sometimes disagree, however, on how best to pursue those political goals. If the USCCB leadership, by trimming the staff of the justice-and-peace office, is signaling that lay Catholics can wrestle with these questions by ourselves, that is a step forward in the pursuit of social justice.

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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  • Posted by: ewaughok - Jul. 07, 2024 6:45 PM ET USA

    It is about time. The Justice, Peace & Human Development office did not exist prior to the 1960s. Did the Bishops really lack anything essential before that? Was there no effort for justice and peace before then? Probably it could be folded into the evangelization office …

  • Posted by: grateful1 - Jun. 28, 2024 7:40 PM ET USA

    How can the Vatican require dioceses, & the dioceses in turn require parishes, to continue to urge parishioners to donate hard-earned money to such a profoundly unworthy, mismanaged, & debt-ridden outfit as CCHD? What happened to stewardship? I stopped donating to CCHD in the 90s, when I could get no answers from my parish as to where/how the $ was being spent; I dug deep & discovered the truth in other ways. Scandalous.