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Richard L. WoodJune 07, 2024
Bishops attend Mass at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary Nov. 14, 2022, on the first day of the fall general assembly of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in Baltimore. (OSV News photo/Bob Roller)

Catholic leaders face a critical decision next week at the semi-annual meeting of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. The bishops will discuss whether and how to continue their support of the Catholic Campaign for Human Development, which for 50 years has served as one of the Catholic Church’s primary investments in fighting poverty in our country. Its work is urgently needed and reflects core Catholic principles.

For five decades, C.C.H.D. has supported the church’s love for the poor and respect for their dignity by adopting a strategic approach to funding empowerment and self-sufficiency in low-income, working-class and struggling middle-class communities. In my work as a researcher, I have seen the positive impact of C.C.H.D.-funded work at the community level.

Across the country, lay volunteers for C.C.H.D.-funded groups convene in church basements in gatherings that may be mostly white, mostly Hispanic or mostly Black but are often multiracial. They plan meetings with mayors, city councils, school boards, police officials and congressional representatives regarding quality-of-life issues consistent with Catholic teaching. They share stories about how a particular issue affects their families and then decide what concerns to raise with their political leaders. They typically receive training, also from C.C.H.D.-funded groups, on how to lead an effective meeting and hold officials accountable. That training is often framed around Catholic teaching related to the specific issue or to civic responsibility generally, drawing on ideas of human dignity, solidarity and the needs of the family. At the end, they always pray together, perhaps for the Holy Spirit to illuminate the minds of the elected leaders and open their hearts to the needs of their families and communities.

This work witnesses to the Catholic faith in action in the world, forming leaders who take responsibility for their home communities.

Other philanthropic organizations and local communities themselves have seen how effective C.C.H.D. has been and have stepped in with their own funding for this model of anti-poverty work. But C.C.H.D. has continued to play a crucial strategic role by funding this work in struggling dioceses and supporting national initiatives reflecting Catholic teaching. C.C.H.D. thus serves as a foundational pillar for a Catholic vision of a society centered on the common good, shared by all.

Through the years, American Catholics have continued to generously fund that work from the pews—so generously, in fact, that C.C.H.D. was able to build up a reserve. The bishops wisely chose to spend down that reserve from 2014 through 2019, increasing support for anti-poverty work as the country faced unparalleled rates of inequality. This was in keeping with a program designed to fight poverty, not hoard money in investment accounts.

Unfortunately, neither the bishops nor the rest of us foresaw the pandemic that began in 2020. Suddenly, empty pews across the United States meant that the 2020 C.C.H.D. collection came in at about half of previous levels—a dramatic drop. But C.C.H.D. was not alone: Revenue for 2020 to all the national collections taken up by the bishops in the first year of the pandemic saw declines of 46 percent to 62 percent, according to online audited financial statements. C.C.H.D.’s funding drop was thus typical, not an outlier or evidence of fiscal mismanagement, as some have alleged.

Like the leaders of many private foundations, to alleviate suffering during the pandemic the bishops decided to continue funding C.C.H.D.’s work despite lower revenues. This was a calculated risk. Would Catholics reinvest in the Campaign as the country recovered? In fact, they have: C.C.H.D. collections have gradually risen and in 2022 were nearly back to where they were before the pandemic (though still down 14 percent from 2019, according to the online statements).

The investment by everyday Catholics in C.C.H.D. is even more remarkable given the criticism of the program from some Catholic groups that do not share its priorities for the church’s social witness. Recently this criticism has extended to the Campaign’s charitable work and services for refugees via Catholic Charities and Catholic Relief Services, other pillars of Catholic service. Despite the distortions about its work, the faithful have consistently funded C.C.H.D. as a powerful tool that directly supports the church’s commitment to a caring community beyond church walls.

The U.S.C.C.B. is about to decide the future of that witness. Its decision comes during a contentious period in American politics when the view of a caring community is under siege, with the poor, immigrants and other marginalized groups often pilloried as less than fully human.

Against that ugly background, C.C.H.D. represents the witness of the church—as an institution and as a collective of everyday Catholics in the pews—that Americans of every income, race, social background and creed share in the dignity of all human persons. The Campaign works beyond ideology to support a Catholic faith that gives generously to charity and also works for solidarity and institutional change by promoting dignity and justice in the real world.

Both Pope Benedict XVI and St. John Paul II endorsed the traditional moral imperative that Catholics—regardless of race, class or political beliefs—support the common good through action, both individual and collective.

As St. Pope John Paul II taught in “Laborem Exercens (No. 38):

[Solidarity] is above all a question of interdependence…in its economic, cultural, political and religious elements, and accepted as a moral category. When interdependence becomes recognized in this way, the correlative response as a moral and social attitude, as a ‘virtue,’ is solidarity…a firm and persevering determination to commit oneself to the common good.

And as Pope Benedict XVI taught in “Caritas in Veritate” (No. 7):

The more we strive to secure a common good corresponding to the real needs of our neighbors, the more effectively we love them. Every Christian is called to practice this charity, in a manner corresponding to his vocation and according to the degree of influence he wields in the pólis. This is the institutional path—we might also call it the political path—of charity, no less excellent and effective than the kind of charity which encounters the neighbor directly.

C.C.H.D. has spent five decades living out the virtue of solidarity and funding an institutional path of charity on behalf of American Catholics throughout the country.

Like his predecessors, Pope Francis has embraced those priorities while promoting “the new evangelization,” whereby whole cultures and institutions could be guided to more closely reflect God’s love for humanity and the societal priorities embodied in Catholic teaching. C.C.H.D. advances that work by training new generations of the “missionary disciples” that Francis has called forth to pursue the new evangelization.

When the bishops meet next week, they have an opportunity to reaffirm, renew and recommit the church in the United States to continue to carry out Jesus’ mission “to proclaim liberty to captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim a year acceptable to the Lord” (Lk 4:18).

[Read next: “Catholic charities and religious freedom are under fire at the border”]

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