The Catholic Campaign for Human Development almost from its inception has attracted its share of critics uncomfortable with its mission to empower low-income and politically disconnected communities. Its ambition to counter poverty by building up poor people themselves into active agents of change has been dismissed as naive, even denigrated as Marxist. In recent years some of CCHD’s critics have launched self-styled “investigations” of grantees to chase out community groups engaged in action or issuing statements deemed inimical to Catholic teaching, often because of loose alliances with other community organizations that support same-sex marriage or access to abortion and contraception.
On June 10 Faith in Public Life issued its own investigation, "‘Be Not Afraid?’ Guilt by Association, Catholic McCarthyism and Growing Threats to the U.S. Bishops’ Anti-Poverty Mission,” a historical account of efforts to defund CCHD initiatives—or the CCHD itself—and an analysis of its contemporary critics and their activities. Though the by-now regular investigations of CCHD have been consistently rebutted by the U.S. bishops who direct the campaign, they have created no small degree of almost annual consternation. Supporters of CCHD worry that the impact on donors is real and that the persistent criticism is damaging efforts to improve living standards among the nation’s poor and combat the political invisibility of low-income Americans. Grant-seekers have become confused and hesitant because of the campaign’s various efforts to placate its critics. In one notable case a grant was returned based on a misunderstanding of CCHD guidelines and some long-time grantees say they will no longer seek support from the campaign because they can’t adapt to its new rigidity.
In the report retired Archbishop and former U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops president (1998-2001) Joseph Fiorenza of Galveston-Houston, urges church leaders to stand up to CCHD’s critics more boldly. He argues that the ability to work in broad coalition with and fund groups that share common goals—even if there is disagreement on some issues—is critical in combatting poverty. “At a time when poverty is growing and people are hurting we should not withdraw from our commitment to helping the poor,” he said. “Catholic identity is far broader than opposition to abortion and same-sex marriage. Catholic identity is a commitment to living the Gospel as Jesus proclaimed it, and this must include a commitment to those in poverty.”
The Faith in Public Life report was endorsed by a number of Catholic congregations and well-known church leaders and social justice activists, including two former presidents of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Archbishop Fiorenza and retired Bishop William Skylstad of Spokane, Wash. The list of supporters includes eight other bishops, a number of former U.S.C.C.B. officials and two past CCHD executive directors. The report was also supported by one-time editor-in-chief of America, Drew Christiansen, S.J.
The Roots of Poverty
CCHD was founded in 1969 as the National Catholic Crusade Against Poverty. Inspired by Pope Paul VI’s encyclical on human and economic development issues, “Populorum Progressio,” the U.S. effort sought “to address the root causes of poverty in America through promotion and support of community-controlled self-help organizations and through transformative, social justice, education, and solidarity between poor and non-poor.” The campaign relies on donations to fund its grants to community groups, primarily from an annual appeal to all U.S. Catholic parishes. Responding to CCHD critics, a handful of bishops have in recent years refused to sponsor the CCHD collection in their dioceses.
According to the FPL report, “Over the past four decades, conservative Catholic activists and their ideological allies on the political right have worked to undermine the U.S. Catholic bishops’ most successful anti-poverty initiative…In recent years, these efforts have grown more intense and effective. A small, but well-financed network has emerged as a relentless opponent of the bishops’ social justice campaign, which has long been recognized as one of the most influential funders of grassroots community organizing.… Using guilt by association and other tactics from the McCarthy-era playbook, these activists are part of an increasingly aggressive movement of Catholic culture warriors who view themselves as fighting for a smaller, ‘purer’ church.”
The report specifically notes the frequent efforts of the “Reform CCHD Now” coalition, which includes the American Life League and more than two dozen supporting groups. Faith in Public Life charges that CCHD critics are “putting at risk vital anti-poverty work and creating a culture of fear around community organizing.”
According to the report: "The stepped-up campaign against CCHD is draining resources from critical social justice advocacy at a time when more than 1 in 5 children live in poverty and income inequality is the most severe it has been since the 1920s” and having a “chilling effect on the church’s involvement with diverse anti-poverty coalitions.” CCHD efforts to placate its critics have in their own turn frustrated supporters and contributors to its mission, according to the report: “In March of 2013, two members of the CCHD Advisory Board in the Diocese of Cleveland resigned in protest because of rigid CCHD funding protocols that in the words of one former board member ‘value conformity over dialogue...and make lists that exclude rather than act to promote understanding of the common good.’”
Michael Hichborn, director of Defend the Faith for the American Life League and a leader of the Reform CCHD Now effort, rejected the allegations of McCarthyism and guilt by association tactics included in the Faith in Public Life report as “entirely baseless.” Noting that Faith in Public Life CEO Rev. Jennifer Butler was a panelist at a 2008 Planned Parenthood discussion of how pro-choice clergy could “make social change in support of reproductive justice in communities across the country,” Hichborn said, “I find it ironic that it is her organization that is rushing to defend CCHD.” The violations Reform CCHD Now has tracked since 2009 are the result of the “direct actions” of grantees, he said. “This is not guilt by association,” Hichborn said. “Every violation we have documented is by the organization itself or by a coalition that [a grantee] is a direct member of and that is a violation CCHD guidelines.”
Though he said he found a lot to like in “Be Not Afraid,” especially its retelling of the campaign’s history, CCHD Director Ralph McCloud was not as pleased with the report’s suggestion that the campaign’s focus on poverty alleviation was “waning” because of harassment by critics. “We're not shifting [priorities] because of any outside pressure,” he said. The campaign remains focused on its mission, he said. “This is what we are called to do and what we have done consistently over the years.”
McCloud promises that CCHD staff don’t spend a lot of time thinking about their critics, although the agency did undergo a period of “review and renewal” that included a revision of its guidelines in 2010 that attempted to respond to many of the same criticisms the campaign continues to endure today. “The reality of poverty in the United States is so overwhelming,we try to focus on that.” McCloud denied that the various attacks on the campaign and its grantees have discouraged donations to the CCHD. He said its revenues have increased even during the recent economic downturn.
Responding to Critics
The CCHD has itself pushed back against its critics at times. In 2011 Bishop Stephen Blaire, chairman of the USCCB Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development, and Bishop Jaime Soto, chairman of the USCCB Subcommittee on CCHD responded to an ALL expose: “Despite significant progress, some things don't change. The American Life League continues to attack CCHD and the USCCB. ALL continue[s] to recycle allegations that CCHD funds many organizations that are in conflict with Catholic teaching. They simply do not agree with CCHD's mission and how we apply our guidelines and requirements.”
Hichborn denies that his coalition is simply opposed to the community empowerment efforts of CCHD. “We’ve never challenged the CCHD on its mission; we have never said that.” According to Hichborn, ALL/Reform’s standards for evaluating grantees are simply the CCHD’s funding guidelines themselves.
Many of the groups ALL/Reform have targeted in their investigations, he said, “are undermining the Catholic church’s work in the defense of preborn children in their mothers’ wombs.” Hichborn allowed that some local organizations may not be aware of all the positions and statements of the coalitions which they join in order to further their local goals. He said his group would be happy to remove agencies it has listed in error or because of such misunderstandings but has not received satisfactory explanations from CCHD for the problems it has identified. The bottom line for him is that CCHD guidelines require grantees to not take positions on issues contrary to Catholic teaching or to be members of coalitions which do. “If they don’t agree with the guidelines, they shouldn’t take the money,” he said.
McCloud reports that the CCHD national office does look into any allegation of guideline violations which it receives. But, “we’re accountable to the U.S. Catholic bishops solely; they’re the ones who prescribe what we should be about, and the mission has not changed.” But if the mission has not changed, McCloud allows that the same can’t be said of the culture in which the mission takes place. “The reality is something like same-sex marriage was not on anybody’s radar screen five or ten years ago.”
He said CCHD works “up close and personal” with grantees. “The fact that we’re there gives us an insight that other folks don’t have.
“We’re dealing with human beings; people will cross the line and not know it sometimes. I can’t speak to [critics’] standards; we have our own and they are set by the bishops.” He said CCHD grantees are approved only after the review and endorsement of individual diocesan officials including local bishops. McCloud said CCHD’s critics don’t understand its funded groups the way CCHD staff do because of their often long-term relationships with grantees.
As a condition of their written agreements with Catholic Campaign for Human Development, grant recipients must assure that their organization will not engage in actions, issue statements or endorse ballot initiatives that are contrary to Catholic teaching. The campaign “encourages groups to work across geographical, racial, ethnic, economic and ideological lines to overcome poverty and advance the common good.” But, according to its guidelines, it “will not fund groups that are knowingly members of coalitions which have as part of their organizational purpose or coalition agenda, positions or actions that contradict fundamental Catholic moral and social teaching.” The guidelines do allow some wiggle room on the problem of dealing with coalition partners. It adds that “actions of other coalition partners on non-coalition issues or issues not agreed upon by the coalition members, calls for a different moral analysis.”
How should CCHD grantees be held accountable for the decisions and statements of other organizations they may belong to as part of grassroots coalitions, especially when controversial statements may not be approved by all coalition members or may comment on an issue removed from the coalition’s stated purpose? And ultimately how far does the thread of responsibility extend before a group can essentially maintain no allies in the secular world? This is not an academic problem.
In recent years some groups have lost CCHD funding because individual board members as private citizens expressed opinions that were contrary to Catholic teaching, and the persistent campaigns of its CCHD critics appear to have had an impact on diocesan level practices at least. This week the Chicago Sun-Times reports that the Archdiocese of Chicago is threatening to cut off CCHD funds for a number of urban community groups, not because of anything they or their members have said or done, but because the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, a statewide group some CCHD Chicago grantees joined in order to build a solid front on immigration reform, issued a statement in support of Illinois’ same-sex marriage legislation. The archdiocese said the groups must resign from the coalition because of the statement or their CCHD grants will not be renewed.
Commenting on the ultimatum in Chicago, Dylan Corbett, the CCHD’s manager for mission and identity for Catholic Campaign for Human Development in Washington, said the campaign had not yet made a decision about what action to take. But Corbett told the Sun-Times, “It’s in our interest to preserve these relationships…These groups are doing really good work.” The archdiocese will have final approval about any CCHD awards.
Aaron Dorfman is the Executive Director of the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy. While Dorfman agrees that CCHD should not be funding activities that directly violate church teaching, he worries, according to the Faith in Public Life report, that legitimate principles have morphed into rigid positions that leave little room for partnerships. He told FPL that coalition work among groups that disagreed on some issues was vital to achieving tangible public-policy victories on living wages, better schools and improved access to public transportation.
Dorfman said the climate today is much less hospitable because of pressure groups that influence some in the Catholic hierarchy to back away from these strategic alliances. “These trends are creating a culture of fear and making it increasingly difficult for community organizers and community groups to be part of broad-based coalitions that augment their power,” he said. “People can’t partner with other groups that can help them win higher wages for poor people and other goals that are consistent with Catholic teaching. It’s a real problem that’s gotten worse in recent years.”
The report closes with a series of recommendations “to combat growing threats to critical anti-poverty work funded by the Catholic Church." It calls for Catholic leaders to “resist efforts from the American Life League and other pressure groups to isolate Catholic-funded organizations from effective coalitions that are improving the lives of low-income citizens.” It argues that more prudent theological and practical assessments should be made before CCHD grants are pulled from successful organizations “simply because of an organization’s association with other groups or coalitions.”
The report suggests that diocesan officials and CCHD staff at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops convene public dialogue sessions with a diverse group of anti-poverty experts, social justice advocates, theologians and community organizers “with the goal of strengthening CCHD partnerships and finding common ground.” Finally it urges lay Catholics “concerned about protecting the church’s social justice witness in public life” to “redouble their commitment to the Catholic Campaign for Human Development through donations, letters of support to bishops and volunteering.”