In mid-November, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops discussed a report detailing an extensive “review and renewal” of its domestic-poverty program, the Catholic Campaign for Human Development. The reevaluation came in response to complaints that the CCHD’s grant recipients were involved in efforts that contradict Catholic teaching.

In 1969, the bishops established the Campaign to help the poor “develop economic strength and political power,” and to educate Catholics about the causes of poverty. Since its founding, the program has disbursed about $290 million—all with the approval of grantees’ local bishops. Grants are funded by an annual parish collection before Thanksgiving. For years, the Campaign has faced influential critics who questioned where the grant money ended up. Some of them lobbied for an end to the Campaign, and urged Catholics to boycott the annual collection. In recent years, as many as ten bishops have refused to allow the collection to take place in their dioceses.

As political and ecclesial polarization has intensified over the past decade, so has criticism of this crucial social-justice program. Last summer, the protest group Reform CCHD Now sent a report to all U.S. dioceses alleging that about fifty of the 2009 grantees had ties to organizations that promote abortion, gay marriage, or—strangely—socialism. In response, CCHD conducted a review that found 6 of the 270 recipients had violated its grant requirements, which stipulate that funding be withheld from organizations that act in conflict with Catholic teaching or engage in partisan political efforts. The Campaign apologized for the errors, withdrew funding from the offending groups, and published a fifteen-page report presenting reforms designed to safeguard the Catholic character of the program.

The “Review and Renewal of CCHD” effort by the bishops establishes new oversight structures, provides clearer guidelines for grant applicants, and gives priority to groups that work with Catholic parishioners and pastors. It also provides fewer but larger grants, thus making it easier for CCHD’s relatively small staff to investigate applicants. In addition, the review emphasizes the program’s longstanding focus on “self-help” programs rather than simple handouts.

Critics insist that there remain grant recipients who are not in compliance with the revised guidelines. A CCHD grant to the Coalition of Immokalee Workers to help in an effort to persuade fast-food chains to increase wages and improve labor conditions is cited as one example. Critics learned that Coalition representatives (and those of twenty other of the Campaign’s grantees) attended the 2010 U.S. Social Forum, where they discussed the agreements they had won from fast-food companies. Among the thousand-plus workshops were a few that supported abortion and gay rights. That was enough for the Campaign’s critics to conclude that these poor migrant farm workers had “partnered with several proabortion, prohomosexual organizations.”

The Campaign’s guidelines rightly forbid the funding of groups that participate in coalitions whose aims contradict church teaching. But should funding be denied to groups whose members merely attend conferences where other participants object to church teaching? That is the argument of guilt by association—as well as what the Bible calls bearing false witness.

In the middle of the worst economy since the Great Depression, when the true unemployment rate hovers near 17 percent and 50 million Americans—17 million of them children—go hungry, the aggressive tone of the Campaign’s critics seems misplaced. Yes, in finding grantees that formed alliances with groups whose aims are antithetical to Catholic teaching—especially on abortion—critics of CCHD have provided a service to the church. But no amount of reform is enough for some critics who want the Campaign shut down entirely. Michael Hichborn, a spokesman for Reform CCHD Now, calls the program “philosophically flawed” because it fails to address “sin as the root cause of poverty, which means it never addresses Christ as a remedy.” Never mind that the Campaign explicitly grounds its work in Scripture and tradition, often citing Pope Benedict’s teaching that “the institutional path...of charity [is] no less excellent and effective than the kind of charity that encounters the neighbor directly” (Caritas in veritate).

The USCCB recently elected Timothy Dolan as president and Joseph Kurtz as vice president—two bishops with experience running major Catholic efforts to serve the needy. It seems likely that they will help the Campaign implement the reforms required to carry out its mission. They know that funding groups that promote abortion would scandalize believers, just as they realize that a bishops conference without a domestic-poverty office could hardly be called Catholic.


Related: Blueprint for Peace, by Archbishop Timothy Dolan
In Defense of Politics, by the Editors
The Economics of Charity, by Daniel Finn
Always With Us, Michael J. Baxter's review of Poor People, by William T. Vollmann

Published in the 2010-12-03 issue: 
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