In parishes across the country this weekend, the collection plate will be passed to support the U.S. bishops’ domestic anti-poverty initiative—the Catholic Campaign for Human Development. At a time when 1 in 6 Americans live in poverty and extreme income inequality is growing, a contribution to C.C.H.D. is a powerful way to affirm Catholic identity and empower those struggling to lift themselves out of difficult situations. Over the past year alone, C.C.H.D. provided more than 214 grants worth more than $9 million to community and economic development organizations dedicated to equipping low-income citizens with tools to knock down walls that confine 47 million Americans in poverty. This bottom-up, grassroots advocacy “brings the Gospel message to issues of social justice,” Bishop Jaime Soto of Sacramento, chairman of the U.S. bishops’ C.C.H.D. subcommittee, said in a press release announcing the collection. Bishop Soto emphasizes that C.C.H.D. focuses on “long-term solutions to poverty and “complements the work of direct-assistance programs like Catholic Charities and pro-life activities."
While C.C.H.D. has earned national kudos for its essential work over more than four decades, the campaign is also dogged by an increasingly aggressive network of opponents who claim the anti-poverty initiative funds groups that promote “abortion, birth control, homosexuality, and even Marxism,” according to a “Reform C.C.H.D. Now” coalition led by the American Life League. Many of these same groups also target the bishops’ international development arm, Catholic Relief Services. Most bishops have done a noble job of standing strong in the face of these constant attacks. Bishop Robert Lynch of St. Petersburg, Fla. deserves particular credit for challenging groups that seem determined to undermine the work of C.R.S. and C.C.H.D. Writing on his diocesan blog, Bishop Lynch took issue with opponents he described “as not really pro-life but merely anti-abortion.” In other cases, some bishops have ended C.C.H.D. collections in their dioceses and seem to be swayed by critics’ claims that funding community organizing isn’t a particularly Catholic thing to do. This is a longstanding challenge C.C.H.D. has faced from its inception. When opponents claim that C.C.H.D. is simply a vehicle for an activist liberal agenda, I’m always reminded of the famous quip by the late Brazilian Archbishop Helder Camara: “When I feed the hungry, they call me a saint. When I ask why they have no food, they call me a Communist.”
What is Catholic about organizing the poor?
Critics of C.C.H.D. often argue that the church should focus on the delivery of charitable services rather than addressing social structures that perpetuate injustice. This is a willful misreading of Catholic social teaching, which emphasizes charity and justice as indivisible. Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI wrote in his encyclical "Deus Caritas Est" ("God is Love") that “justice is the primary way of charity.” Pope John Paul II praised C.C.H.D. for working to remove what he called “the causes of poverty and not merely the evil effects of injustice.” He described the anti-poverty campaign as “a witness to the Church’s living presence in the world among the most needy, and to her commitment to continuing the mission of Christ.” Indeed, the mission of C.C.H.D. is guided by several core pillars of Catholic teaching—including the life and dignity of the human person, the preferential option for the poor and the call to participation and solidarity. It also embodies the Catholic understanding of subsidiarity, a concept frequently distorted by some in the political and pundit class. Subsidiarity acknowledges the importance of institutions and influences closest to those in need such as local agencies, community groups and churches, while insisting that larger societal institutions also play a vital role in serving the common good. C.C.H.D. requires that organizations receiving funds have low-income citizens represented in decision making roles and “works from the bottom up, emphasizing self-help, participating and decision-making by poor people themselves to address their own situations,” according to the campaign.
Speaking as president of the U.S. bishops’ conference during a 15th anniversary commemoration of C.C.H.D., Bishop James Malone of Youngstown, Ohio emphasized the biblical foundation of organizing and empowering low-income citizens. “The person of Jesus, reflected in the parable of the sheep and goats comes forward to us today not only singly but in groups, classes and communities of people who are forced to live in conditions that impede them from experiencing full social participation…these conditions often result from imbalances in political influence and economic power. Like personal sins, such as selfishness and hatred, social sins must be named and rooted out.”
This is an important reminder during a time when some Americans and elected officials prefer to demonize the poor. Those living in poverty, the flawed argument goes, deserve their fate because they are “takers” who don’t work hard enough. Congress is now slashing food and nutrition benefits (SNAP) that largely help children, seniors and those with disabilities. Twenty-five governors have refused to implement Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act, a stance that denies the working poor, pregnant women and others quality medical care. Gov. John Kasich of Ohio, one of the few Republicans to expand Medicaid, used blunt language recently to challenge those in his own party, noting in an interview with the New York Times that “there seems to be a war on the poor.” This backlash against the working poor conveniently ignores basic facts. Today’s minimum wage does not pay enough to lift hardworking people out of poverty. (Until the 1980s, earning the minimum wage was enough for a single parent to not live in poverty. Indeed, a minimum-wage income in 1968 was higher than the poverty line for a family of three. But today’s minimum wage is not enough for single-parents to reach even the most basic threshold of adequate living standards.) McDonald’s was widely criticized recently for setting up a financial planning guide for its workers that ended up dramatizing precisely how impossible it is to make ends meet on a fast-food paycheck. A Walmart in Ohio received similarly embarrassing media attention just this week for setting up a food drive for its own impoverished workers.
C.C.H.D. puts the Gospel and Catholic social teaching into practice by supporting organizations and individuals fighting for policies that affirm human dignity. For example, the Coalition for Immokalee Workers, led by Latino and Haitian farmworkers in Florida, has negotiated agreements with Taco Bell to increase wages and improve working conditions for those who pick its tomatoes. Communities Organized for Public Service has fought for over $1 billion in public projects in San Antonio to improve housing, education and job training for its low-income members. Started by Italian immigrants in 1943, Holy Rosary Credit Union is a not-for-profit credit union supported by C.C.H.D. that provides development and financial education services that encourages thrift, savings and the wise use of credit for low-income residents in Kansas City, Mo.
When the collection plate comes around this weekend, please give generously to a vital church ministry that affirms Pope Francis’ call for us to take the Gospel message “to the streets” and “to the peripheries” of a world in desperate need of not only charity, but justice.
John Gehring is Catholic program director at Faith in Public Life, and a former assistant director for media relations at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. His June report about CCHD can be found here.