Boycotting the Poor Box

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

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Is there any significant social-benefit activity that does not violate church dogma and its currently rigid enforcement?  I doubt it.  Mend you, it is the church and not these activities that are "philosophically flawed".  Catholics, or at least those with a social conscience, can neverthless contribute to genuinely useful activities by giving to those organizations that actually do it.  And, as always, we can be grateful that modern secular governments no longer allow the church its traditional response to "flawed' activities:  mass murder.

If the standard for receiving official Catholic dollars is adherence to Catholic doctrine, than the priests who have molested kids ought to have dropped from the ranks months, years, decades ago. They were not. Instead they were protected by a hierarchy that refused to warn parents and parishes and actively ignored internal alarms and even deflected criminal investigation. 

Adherence to orthodox doctrine is not what gets you in trouble with the hierarchy. If you are connected, you will be protected, despite gross and grave misconduct.

The latest gambit to withhold funds from previously qualified organizations is further evidence of a hierarchy engaged in political pandering to its Right Wing base.

The hierarchy has decided to pretend there no longer is a Catholic left. They are in denial about that just as they denied, for decades, the need to exercise a proper episcopal role in protecting kids from abuse by priests.

Insofar as sin impacts just governance it is demonstrably the "root cause of poverty;" but to say that personal sin has made a given individual poor is surely far from traditional Catholic doctrine.  That's a short step from wealth as a sign of election.  

This is not a new argument, but to hear it coming from a reputedly Catholic source is to say the least astounding.  The notion got a full-on airing in early nineteenth century New York City when the Catholic sisterhoods (themselves relatively recent innovations) began working on Manhattan's streets.  They were invited by the ordinary, the Dominican John Connolly, to meet the needs of the largely Irish poor not simply because he feared for the Protestant influence of other sources of relief, but because this was a period when prevailing wisdom was the Evangelical argument that bible study should be substituted for direct relief.  Because, it was said, the latter encouraged the poor in idle habits and dependence on the state.  The sisters opted instead to feed the hungry and clothe the naked, fueling the virulent anti-Catholicism of the time. Later their willingness to go into the streets and nurse the dying during devastating epidemics made them heroes.  (It's probably worth pointing out that one of the 20th century heirs to their legacy was Dorothy Day.  Also not very popular with the bishops of her day.)        

According to the story, "grant requirements....stipulate that funding be withheld from organizations that act in conflict with Catholic teaching or engage in partisan political efforts." 

Does that also apply to those who engage in the promotion of right-wing politicians under the guise of concern for Catholic values? Next election, can I hope for a windshield clear of flyers from that wholly owned subsidiary of the Republican Party that calls itself Right to Life?

 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.”

I have but two questions - didn't Jesus minister to the poor? and - aren't we called to be his hands and feet today?

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