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Bishops' campaign sets path for reform, renewal

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Members of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers and their supporters picket a Publix supermarket in Columbus, Ga., in 2009. The coalition, which has received funding from the Catholic Campaign for Human Development, urged the store chain to pay 1 cent more per pound for tomatoes so wages would be higher for farm workers in Florida. (CNS/Jim West)

WASHINGTON -- A renewed Catholic Campaign for Human Development -- never again linked to funding of any organizations that advocate positions contradicting basic Catholic social and moral teachings -- is the goal of a report released Oct. 26.

The campaign has come under repeated attack by critics, some of whom oppose its work and have sought to kill it. In many cases, the accusations from conservative quarters were about organizations that received no direct funding but had become allied over time, often loosely, with campaign-funded organizations.

“The Review and Renewal of Catholic Campaign for Human Development,” available at www.usccb.org/cchd/reviewandrenewal.shtml, was approved in September by the Administrative Committee of the U.S. Catholic bishops’ conference. It strongly reaffirms the bishops’ 40-year-old campaign -- whose purpose is to help the poor lift themselves out of poverty -- as an integral part of the church’s Gospel call and social mission.

At least partly as a result of a storm of criticism last year by conservative Catholic groups, about 10 diocesan bishops announced plans to drop the campaign collection and replace it with a collection focusing solely on local Catholic charity, antipoverty or other social programs.

Bishop Roger Morin of Biloxi, Miss., head of the bishops’ subcommittee on the campaign, said the subcommittee will personally contact those bishops and seek to bring them back into participation.

“This is a [bishops’ conference] program that was established by the bishops, and the urging of the bishops is that all of the dioceses take part in this important work of assisting the poor and [addressing] the issue of poverty in our country,” he said.

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A sampling of funded projects listed on the campaign’s Web site includes:


  • In Miami’s Liberty City neighborhood, the Miami Workers Center, an advocacy group, fought to block the demolition of 1,000 low-income housing units and later secured an agreement for 450 new units.

  • In Boston, the T Riders Union Project of Alternatives for Community and Environment works for equity, affordability and quality of service in public transportation, especially for low-income, transit-dependent riders.

Morin noted that campaign funding helped the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, tomato pickers in Southern Florida, convince growers and wholesalers to add a penny a pound to the price of tomatoes and pass that on to workers in the tomato fields. This is “a small increase, but nevertheless it made a significant difference in the lives of the farm workers,” Morin said.

The report says, “For 40 years the Catholic bishops and the Catholic community in the United States have carried out a serious and sustained commitment to help low-income people and poor communities improve their lives and address the causes and costs of poverty.”

In the intervening four decades, many things have changed, it says, but “one thing has not changed -- the Gospel call to hunger and thirst for justice. In fact, Pope Benedict has placed concern for the poor at the very center of the church’s life. The current economic distress and widespread poverty that comes with it have made the mission and message of CCHD more urgent, timely and important.”

The report apologizes for past instances in which community-organizing groups that received funding also subsequently engaged -- or were subsequently discovered to be engaged -- in advocacy or other activities promoting positions not in line with basic church teachings, especially in the areas of birth control, abortion and same-sex marriage.

This past year, the report says, five of the 270 organizations that received national grants in the last round of funding were found to be in violation of the already existing campaign rules prohibiting such activities, and they were defunded.

The report establishes stronger procedures to specify more clearly to grant applicants from the start those activities contrary to Catholic social and moral teaching that would make the organization ineligible for a grant, and establishes stronger monitoring and review procedures that would weed out ineligible organizations or more quickly detect departures from the funding norms and defund those who violate them.

John Carr, executive director of the bishops’ Department of Justice, Peace and Human Development, whose department includes Catholic Campaign for Human Development staff, said Oct. 26 that this is not just an administrative change.

“We believe that it is exactly the same principles of human life and dignity, of the priority for the poor and vulnerable, that lead the church to stand with the poor, that require us to defend the unborn and to oppose efforts to redefine marriage. These are not administrative burdens -- they’re an expression of who we are and what we believe,” he said.

“If good work is being done but it’s being done by a group that acts in conflict with Catholic teaching, social, moral teaching, then they can’t have CCHD money,” he said.

In an interview with NCR shortly before the report’s release, Morin said criticisms of the campaign have been taken seriously and are being addressed.

He said the criticisms have also highlighted the need for the campaign to tell its own story better.

“We need to tell the good news stories about what has been able to be accomplished with the funds that have been given to the [campaign] so that people will begin to hear with their own ears and see with their own eyes that in fact poor people can help themselves and poor people can be directly involved in bringing about institutional change,” he said.

When the bishops met in San Antonio last June, members of the subcommittee and group that wrote the report met at Sacred Heart Parish with leaders of COPS -- Communities Organized for Public Service -- a primarily Catholic interfaith organization that got some of its main initial funding from the campaign in the 1970s and continues to receive funding today.

Missionhurst Fr. Walter D’heedene, Sacred Heart’s pastor, told NCR that the campaign over the years has played a significant role in funding COPS programs of human development and leadership training.

Since its founding in 1974 by six mainly Hispanic Catholic parishes, COPS has been instrumental, through community organizing and civic activism, in channeling hundreds of millions of dollars in investments into streets, schools, libraries and other infrastructure in the city’s poorer neighborhoods, which previously had almost no voice in how public funds were spent in the city.

Critics of the campaign, who last year formed an online coalition, ReformCCHDNow.com, consist almost entirely of conservative Catholic groups -- among them the American Life League and Human Life International.

American Life League president Judie Brown reacted to the report with a mixture of praise and skepticism. “While we are heartened by the promise of reform ... we are anxiously waiting to see how these reforms will be implemented,” she said.

She asked that the campaign’s annual collection be postponed “until the [2010] grantee list is released and full transparency is achieved for this year.”

In most dioceses the annual collection takes place the weekend before Thanksgiving -- this year Nov. 20-21.

One-fourth of what is collected in each diocese remains in the diocese for local antipoverty work. Three-fourths goes to the national campaign, which in turn funds local organizations across the country, following a grant-making process in which both a national board of bishops and the local bishop approve each individual grant application.

[Jerry Filteau is NCR Washington correspondent.]

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