Head of Catholic Charities USA Steps Down as Talk on Poverty Shifts

After a decade as president of Catholic Charities USA, Father Larry Snyder planned to step down on Jan. 31 and return to his beloved Minnesota.

On Feb. 2, he was to become vice president for mission at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul. At Catholic Charities USA in Alexandria, Va., Father Snyder headed the national office of more than 160 local Catholic Charities agencies that serve more than 9 million people a year.

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Father Snyder told Catholic News Service that during the last 10 years the work of the organization began to shift toward setting goals to ensure that social services also helped people rise out of poverty. He said the country must continue to change its perception of the poor so that people realize their God-given dignity.

Below is an edited transcript of the conversation.
 

Why leave CCUSA now?
I had this invitation to go back to my home archdiocese and work at the University of St. Thomas. I thought I was probably going to stay a couple more years, but when I was approached to consider this, it seemed like a unique opportunity to do something that I would love to do. The other piece is that right now everything is in very good shape here at Catholic Charities. It's better to hand something off in good shape to somebody who is then able to take this platform and build it to the next platform.

What do you consider to be significant accomplishments?
The biggest thing is our initiative to reduce poverty. Catholic Charities has always been an integral part of the safety net in this country, providing human service in the social work sphere. But in the last 10 years we have started to change the game, if you will. It's not enough just to provide services to people. We have to look at the impact of those services on getting people out of poverty.

One of the huge changes at Catholic Charities has been in our disaster response. We now we have this full-blown department that not only helps when there is a natural disaster, but also helps prepare organizations prepare for disaster. We have grown to be the third largest disaster response organization in the country behind the Red Cross and the Salvation Army. It's something I'm very proud of.

In 2007 CCUSA announced its poverty initiative to cut poverty in half by 2020. Within months, the Great Recession hit and hampered those efforts. What progress is being made in reducing poverty?
It's more difficult because people tend to deny poverty. When you say 45 million people live in poverty, that doesn't mean anything to them. And we have always struggled with this concept that there's the deserving poor and the undeserving poor. The vast majority of people who are poor really deserve our help and are appreciative. There are always people who are going to be prophetic among us and be our conscience. They can see that if you're going to take the Gospel or the Torah or the Quran seriously, then you have an obligation to make sure everyone is living a life that is decent and respectful of who they are.

We talked about accomplishments, but what things did not get accomplished?
That the work is not done. Catholic Charities has a definite trajectory that we are going to keep working to change the conversation around poverty. I wish we could have done more. I think if we had not had the recession of 2007-2008, we could have made more progress.

Society keeps changing and our (political) leadership keeps changing. An interesting thing is how (House budget committee) chairman Paul Ryan is interested in looking at what we do for poor people. We've had meetings with him and have presented the case from the people we serve, and I have seen him change because of that. We're not going to like everything he puts into his plan, but we have to stay in dialogue on this.

I have to ask about CCUSA's relationship with the bishops.
Over the last several years, the bishops' conference has focused, in my opinion, primarily on religious liberty and has not been as vocal as I would have liked about other social issues that are still here and the church is still involved in. You look at the leadership of Pope Francis and that's the kind of leader people in social work in the church relate to, who puts the poor first and our efforts there as a priority. There's a pendulum in the church. We're swinging back now to that appreciation of the social priorities of the Gospel.

What resulted from your time serving on the president's Advisory Council of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships?
The important thing to realize is that we're not a Catholic country. We're a pluralistic society and whether we like the opinions of others or not, we have to be in engagement with them as we work to build up this society. A lot of times that's a tension more than anything else. As I look at the way we've been engaged with the White House, it gave importance to the message we bring. Did the result always go in sync with us? No. But the important thing is that we're at the table and we're getting that message out.

What parting advice might you have for policymakers and church leaders?
Let me start with my wish for the church. What is a concern for me is that our church is very divided. We need to realize that we are all people acting in good faith and that we are people who are inspired by the Second Vatican Council even though we might interpret the actions that we should be taking in a little different way. (I hope) we could get a little more respect for each other and an appreciation why people think differently and realize it's all legitimate. It would further the Gospel.

As far as policymakers here in Washington, to me the frustration is the same. Unfortunately, people are more concerned with getting re-elected. That's how they base everything rather than what is the common good that we should be working for.

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