Looking at effective programs that address poverty

My dear brothers and sisters in Christ,

The 2024 Spring Plenary Assembly of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) took place June 13-15 in Louisville, Ky. Prior to the public sessions, the bishops spent time in executive session reflecting on the future of the Catholic Campaign for Human Development (CCHD). This discussion was prompted in part by the fact that, in 2022, the most recent year for which information is publicly available, the campaign operated at a $5.7 million deficit. CCHD is also plagued by repeated reports of giving grants to organizations that promote or are affiliated with causes that are contrary to Catholic teachings.

Executive session supposedly provides a confidential forum for brainstorming and frank discussion of proposals before going into public debate and decision-making. I say “supposedly” because shortly after the “confidential” executive session there was a story in the National Catholic Reporter in which Michael Sean Winters wrote, “Several bishops told me that in the executive session where the Catholic Campaign for Human Development was discussed, the support for the program was overwhelming. Springfield, Illinois, Bishop Thomas Paprocki intervened to suggest it was time to sunset the program, and his sentiments were echoed by Kansas City, Kansas, Archbishop Joseph Naumann.”

It is very disappointing that several bishops apparently lack the integrity of respecting the confidentiality of our executive sessions. It is also sad to say that such bishops cannot be trusted.

Moreover, publishing this story is a clear violation of the Code of Ethics of the Society of Professional Journalists, which says, “Identify sources whenever feasible. The public is entitled to as much information as possible on sources’ reliability.” The SPJ Ethics Committee Position Papers rightly say that “anonymous sources are the road to the ethical swamp.” The journalists’ Code of Ethics also says, “Diligently seek subjects of news coverage to allow them to respond to criticism or allegations of wrongdoing.” No one from the National Catholic Reporter has contacted me for my perspective on this story.

Since the leakers of this story apparently want a public debate on this matter, and since my views on this matter are not fully reported in the news story, I will make my position known publicly about the Catholic Campaign for Human Development.

The roots of the Catholic Campaign for Human Development go back to the collaboration of community organizers with church leaders in Chicago in the 1960s. Analogous to President Lyndon Johnson’s “War on Poverty,” the Catholic Bishops of the United States launched the National Catholic Crusade Against Poverty in 1969. The name was later changed to the Catholic Campaign for Human Development.

Just as it is fair to ask if the “War on Poverty” was effective, given the number of people who still live in poverty and have become dependent on the welfare state, it is reasonable to ask if the Catholic Campaign for Human Development has been effective in its mission “to break the cycle of poverty,” having raised and given away almost half of a billion dollars in pursuit of this aim over its 55-year history. More than 9,000 grants have been made to over 200 community organizations.

It is also fair to ask if giving money primarily to community organizers is the best way to lift people out of poverty. As a young parish priest on the south side of Chicago from 1978 to 1987, I worked closely with community organizers. The United Neighborhood Organization (UNO) of Southeast Chicago helped me to co-found the Chicago Legal Clinic to provide legal services for the poor, for which I am grateful. At the same time, the large steel mills on the southeast side of Chicago shut down, putting thousands of steelworkers out of work. The community organizers were not able to prevent this massive unemployment.

Since I am familiar with Saul Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals: A Pragmatic Primer for Realistic Radicals, the manual of tactics for community organizers, I will make a radical proposal: since the best way to lift people out of poverty is through a good education that will lead to gainful employment, we should let the Catholic Campaign for Human Development sunset and establish a new National Campaign for Catholic Education.

When CCHD was founded in the 1960s, Catholic schools were thriving. I graduated from grade school in 1966. I had religious sisters (Congregation of the Resurrection) as my teachers in every grade except seventh grade. Today, most Catholic schools have no religious sisters. As a result, teachers’ salaries have gone up, driving tuition and other costs up as well. Catholic education has become unaffordable and inaccessible for many poor families unable to pay high tuition rates. Many Catholic schools, especially in poorer communities, have had to close their doors in recent decades due to rising costs exceeding revenues. A National Campaign for Catholic Education could be conducted with a similar formula used by CCHD, with a percentage of the monies raised being used for national grants, while the bulk of funds raised is distributed locally.

Allowing the CCHD to sunset would not be retreating from our efforts to address poverty. Catholic Charities in dioceses and parish program like the St. Vincent de Paul Society continue to help vast numbers of people in need. Strong Catholic education will help lift the poor out of the cycle of poverty. We should give serious consideration to furthering and strengthening these causes.

Here in the Diocese of Springfield in Illinois, I  made the decision in 2012 to replace the collection for the National Catholic Campaign for Human Development (CCHD) with the Diocesan Campaign for Justice and Hope (DCJH). Drawing inspiration from the Corporal Works of Mercy, DCJH seeks to address the systemic injustices that contribute to poverty in our diocese and to provide financial support for local programs and organizations that give realistic hope for the poor to break out of the cycle of poverty through effective and efficient interventions. Furthermore, DCJH assists in protecting life at all stages with an emphasis on the unborn by helping pregnant women to have hope for the future of their children and their lives. A stable family life in a home with a married mother and father is one of the most effective ways to break the cycle of poverty and give children hope for their future.

Donations can be made to our Diocesan Campaign for Justice and Hope at dio.org/plasm/campaign-for-justice-and-hope.

Rather than considering the conversation closed about the best way to break the cycle of poverty, we should invite a robust dialogue that welcomes fresh ideas to enhance our efforts and make them more effective in helping the least among us. May God give us this grace. Amen.