The anti-CCHD campaign: Guilt by association or just guilty of helping the poor?

For those who have been following the ongoing campaign against the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' Catholic Campaign for Human Development (CCHD), Faith in Public Life has a very interesting report out today entitled "Be Not Afraid? Guilt by Association, Catholic McCarthyism and Growing Threats to the U.S. Bishops’ Anti-Poverty Mission" (for those who need to catch up, read Bob McClory's 2010 story in U.S. Catholic on the controversy here).

The report is worth a read, as it details a number of the attacks on CCHD and the groups that have lost funding because of accusations of being involved in things that are in conflict with Catholic teaching. Or more often, groups have been targeted not for things they have themselves become involved in, but things that other groups they've worked with have done–in other words, their only sin is being friends with sinners.

For example, the Minneapolis-based Land Stewardship Project lost a $48,000 grant for its work with immigrant farmers because of its involvement with a larger coalition, TakeAction Minnesota, that had separately taken a position on same-sex marriage that conflicted with that of the U.S. bishops. The Land Stewardship Project had not taken a position on marriage, nor was it involved in TakeAction Minnesota's work on marriage, as the two were only working together on issues pertaining to farmers. But the Land Stewardship Project lost its funding because of a partnership with someone who disagreed with the church. That's like losing your job because a coworker yelled at the boss when you weren't even in the room. And really, how many of us would pass the test of never working with someone who doesn't follow Catholic teaching in our jobs, our communities, and our daily activities?

Reading through the arguments against CCHD, you'll find that there isn't just a concern about "anti-Catholic" activities but a general skepticism surrounding "community organizing," which has somehow gotten a bad reputation in Catholic circles. "We already have charities," some will argue. "Why do we need community organizing?" And of course, charity is a big part of the Catholic mission (and something faith-based groups do exceptionally well at), but it is only one piece of the puzzle. Someone who is struggling to pay their bills and put food on the table benefits greatly from a free meal at a soup kitchen, but the next week they will have the exact same problem of trying to make ends meet.

The work of CCHD-funded groups, on the other hand, aims to empower people to change their situations, and honestly, I wonder if sometimes that is what people are afraid of. If we change the structures that are keeping people on the margins of society, that requires admitting that there's something wrong with those structures that we have failed to address. And it also means giving others a chance to rise up from poverty, which may sound threatening to people who are doing just fine already and don't want to jeopardize their own socio-economic status.

The other frequent argument against community organizing and social justice is that it requires the involvement of the government, which is also false. Yes, sometimes government programs do play a role, but that's far from a necessity for social justice. Take for instance two CCHD-funded groups that we wrote about in our September 2012 issue, The Intersect Fund and the Capital Good Fund. Both were started by college students who wanted to help people who were struggling, and with funding from groups like CCHD they are able to provide small loans, business training, and assistance that gives would-be entrepreneurs the means to start their own businesses. Whether those businesses sink or swim depends entirely on the market and those that succeed can even create jobs for others in the community–all without any government involvement.

The criticism of government assistance and social welfare programs for the poor is well documented. But I wonder if perhaps those who don't want to see the government giving "handouts" to the poor are also the same critics that don't like community organizing, and they'd rather see the church stay out of social justice even if it means fewer people would actually need that government assistance to stay on their feet. Maybe all of this digging for possible connections or associations that would discredit CCHD and its grant recipients is less about a concern for keeping the church pure and more about just not helping the poor.

About the author

Scott Alessi

Scott Alessi is a former managing editor of U.S. Catholic.