Community organizing: the new front in the US Catholic culture wars?

The post-mortem over episcopal interventions in the election is likely to dominate the bishops’ meeting in Baltimore. Thomas Reese SJ here and John Allen over at NCR have excellent analyses of who will be waving the surgical knives and what they hope to establish.

There’s a second front in the war -- the community organizing tradition which shaped Barack Obama. The links between the Catholic Church and community organizing are very strong: Saul Alinksy, whose methods are taught today by the institute he founded, the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF), first "organized" in the Back of the Yards area of Chicago’s South Side in the 1930s, when he teamed up the local Catholic parishes and the labor unions to take on the meatpacking plants and the corrupt landlords. An auxiliary bishop of Chicago, Bernard J. Sheil, was one of Alinsky’s main backers, as would later be Cardinal Bernardin. The great twentieth-centry French scholastic Jacques Maritain, the father of European Christian Democracy, was an admirer and lifelong friend.


The "people’s power organizations" created in Chicago became the template for the dozens of broad-based urban community organizations which exist today across the US. One example is BUILD in Baltimore, where the bishops are meeting. BUILD, according to its website, is a "broad-based, non-profit, community power organization, rooted in Baltimore’s neighborhoods and churches" which is "non-partisan, interfaith, multiracial, and dedicated to making our city a better place for all Baltimoreans to live and thrive."

Most, if not all, of the 65 IAF-affiliated community organizations across the US --  Arizona Interfaith, One LA, Greater Boston Interfaith Organization, the Gamaliel Foundation -- have inner-city Catholic congregations as their backbone. And many have received grants over the years from the US bishops’ Catholic Campaign for Human Development, which began life in 1969 as the National Crusade against Poverty. The organization Obama worked for in the 1980s, the Developing Communities Project (DCP), was in receipt of CCHD grants.

The CCHD describes itself as "the domestic anti-poverty, social justice program of the U.S. Catholic bishops" whose "mission is to address the root causes of poverty in America through promotion and support of community-controlled, self-help organizations and through transformative education."

Lawrence J. Engel’s detailed 1998 study of the influence of Saul Alinksy on the CCHD chronicles the commitment of the CCHD to community organizing, and suggests that Alinsky’s method of enabling the poor to become advocates of social change have had a decisive impact on the American Catholic social justice movement. Alinksy is to Catholic social teaching what Paulo Freire in Brazil was to the rise of liberation theology in Latin America: they were both masters of the "method" by which ordinary people come to exert power over their lives, and expand their productive assets.

The CCHD itself says that "through the years, CCHD has supported and funded efforts of low-income people and communities ... to overcome poverty and injustice and to have a voice in public life .... These community organizations seek to lift people out of poverty by working for decent jobs, just wages, affordable housing, safe neighborhoods, accessible health care as well as the dignity and rights of immigrants".

No doubt because of the Obama connections, the CCHD is the object of a manifestly unjust critique in the recent edition of First Things. With great sarcasm, Fr Neuhaus says the CCHD "used to be called the Catholic Campaign for Human Development but the Catholic was dropped, which is just as well since it has nothing to do with Catholicism, except that Catholics are asked to pay for it." It is, in fact, still called the CCHD, as a quick glance at its website will confirm; and it seems to have everything to do with Catholicism: the first criterion for awarding grants is that the activity to be funded must conform to the moral and social teachings of the Catholic Church. These are spelled out on a linked page and include, under the ’Dignity of the Human Person’ the insistence that "human life is sacred and must be preserved from conception through natural death". 

Fr Neuhaus uses the recent controversy over ACORN to try to discredit CCHD’s funding of community organizations. But a quick glance at its website would have told Neuhaus that the CCHD stopped funding ACORN projects when the irregularities became known. 

But Fr Neuhaus’s real beef is with the CCHD itself -- and is based on a profound misunderstanding.

"What most Catholics don’t know, and what would likely astonish them, is that CHD very explicitly does not fund Catholic institutions and apostolates that work with the poor. Part of the thinking when it was established in the ideological climate of the 1960s is that Catholic concern for the poor would not be perceived as credible if CHD funded Catholic organizations. Yes, that’s bizarre, but the history of CHD is bizarre. The bishops could really help poor people by promptly shutting down CHD and giving any remaining funds to, for instance, Catholic inner-city schools."

Fr Neuhaus fails here to grasp the nature of community organizing, which exists to increase the power of the poor over their own lives. THe Catholic parish on street A is stronger because it is part of an alliance with Episcopalian church on street B and the mosque on street C -- and is far more likely to bring about social change if it is part of a broad-based alliance rather than a "Catholic" cause.

As the CCHD stipulates in the second of its criteria for funding:

"The applicant organization must demonstrate both the intention and capacity to effectively work toward the elimination of the root causes of poverty and to enact institutional change. CCHD defines institutional change as: 1. Modification of existing laws and/or policies; 2. Establishment of participatory and just social structures and/or redistribution of decision-making powers so that people living in poverty can be involved in policy-making that affects their lives."

It’s easy to see why the CCHD likes community organizing. It’s less easy to see why Fr Neuhaus so intensely dislikes the CCHD.

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9 years 7 months ago
When the Church is used rather than being an influence, it becomes a pawn rather than a leader.  Cooperation is one thing.  Submission another.


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