New Orleans Without any question for the last forty years the single largest funder of basic, hard scrabble community organizing has been CCHD, the Catholic Campaign for Human Development. For years roughly $9 million in donations received across the country through a special collection administered by all Catholic churches has made the support of building community organizations among lower income families, its signature program. In recent years as the Church has become ever more conservative in the United States, staffing has been eviscerated at the national level of the campaign and there has been a fierce internal battle within the church over many of the most effective grants since the hierarchy was engaged in its own culture wars around women, gays, and abortion. Worse still, prominent groups like the American Life League and the Reform CCHD Now coalition have used, to quote a recent report, “McCarthy-era tactics to create a culture of fear around community organizing.”
Finally there are a couple of rays of hope, one of which is a new group called Faith in Public Life, which includes many prominent Catholic leaders numbering past Archbishops, Catholic Conference leaders, and other progressive church forces. A report issued by the group included the painfully accurate description of McCarthy-era tactics. The other hopeful sign is the refreshing fact that at least thus far it appears the folks at Faith in Public Life can also justly claim that Pope Francis and his often articulated commitment to refocusing the Catholic Church’s commitment to the poor and dispossessed, is on their side, not the side of darkness.
The report details case studies of CCHD retreating from its mission under attack and minces no words. Tom Allio, the retired Social Action Director of the Diocese of Cleveland, squares up by saying, “Many of these critics are bomb throwers who believe that by destroying the credibility of those working for social justice they will somehow enhance the pro-life agenda. Nothing could be further from the truth. They want to make social justice and faith-based organizing dirty words…CCHD is a target of radical right groups because it is effective, engages people at the grassroots and empowers low-income individuals. Its mission is needed more than ever.” The irony in the current rightwing attack on CCHD is that they are also targeting faith-based community organizing networks like Gamaliel and PICO which have affiliates around the country. More progressive groups have been pushed out regularly for providing the same services for all people, including gays. Some groups detailed in the report were defunded solely because they were minor participants in coalitions that included gay groups or groups like Planned Parenthood as part of their witch hunt.
To win a fight for the soul of the church and its unique mission of supporting community organizing as a primary anti-poverty and empowerment strategy, you have to be on the battlefield. The Faith in Public Life coalition of groups and individuals seems suited up and ready to give as good as they have gotten. This is a holy war that they must win!