Bishops play defense on anti-poverty initiative

November 10, 2010

(RNS) For four decades, the U.S. Catholic bishops have maintained a
nationwide program designed to help the poor lift themselves out of
poverty. And for just as long, fierce critics have tried to kill it.

Proponents of the Catholic Campaign on Human Development (CCHD) say
it exemplifies Jesus' preference for the poor and downtrodden;
opponents, including several bishops, say it funds left-wing activists,
some of whom undermine church doctrine on homosexuality and abortion.

As the nation's 200 or so Roman Catholic bishops prepare for their
annual meeting in Baltimore next week (Nov. 15-18), the CCHD has become
yet another battlefield in what some Catholics lament is an increasingly
polarized church.

As the U.S. bishops' flagship anti-poverty program, the CCHD is
funded through a special collection taken up each year on the Sunday
before Thanksgiving. Since 1970, the program has disbursed $290 million
in grants, according to CCHD officials.

But the program's practices and guiding philosophy have been sharply
attacked by conservatives armed with Internet-enhanced research, a sharp
nose for malfeasance, and a deep apprehension for anything that sniffs
of socialism.

At the bishops' meeting in Baltimore, CCHD officials will present a
15-page report that details reforms they say will bolster the program's
Catholic identity. The new policies will also ensure that groups whose
activities conflict with the church's stance on social issues do not
receive funding, they said.

Last June, a coalition called Reform the CCHD Now sent a report to
bishops in all 195 dioceses detailing accusations against nearly 50
groups that it says engaged in pursuits "antithetical to church
teaching."

The CCHD acknowledged such errors at five of the 270 groups that
received funding in 2009; a sixth group's contract was not renewed for
the same reason, said John Carr, executive director of the bishops'
social justice office. The other allegations were unfounded, he said.

"While there are relatively few (groups) that have crossed the line,
that is a source of deep regret," said Bishop Roger Morin of Biloxi,
Miss., who chairs the bishops' subcommittee on the CCHD. "Dozens of
steps are being taken to make sure that will not happen again."

Those steps include revising grant contracts to clearly state
positions, activities and relationships not permitted by the CCHD;
strengthening prohibitions on partisan political activity; creating a
review board; seeking more Catholic grantees; and hiring a moral
theologian to help with complicated decisions.

The CCHD also pledged to develop more effective ways to monitor and
respond to attacks from its critics.

The vast majority of CCHD grants went to programs such as one in San
Antonio that has attracted more than $1 billion for public projects in
low-income neighborhoods, according to the report. Such projects, the
report implies, are endorsed by Pope Benedict XVI, who wrote in 2009
that the "institutional path" of charity is "no less excellent and
effective than the kind of charity which encounters the neighbor
directly."

Morin said he hopes the reforms will woo back some of the 10 bishops
who, according to the independent weekly National Catholic Reporter,
have stopped CCHD collections in their diocese.
"We are going to ask those bishops to reconsider and to once again
walk in step with the bishops' conference on this major initiative,"
Morin said.

Deal Hudson, who directs the conservative website Inside Catholic,
said the CCHD's reforms might eliminate funding errors if they are
doggedly implemented, but said a more systemic problem remains.

"The groups they are dealing with, community organizing groups, are
100 percent committed members of the political left. That's just a
fact," said Hudson, a former adviser to the Republican National
Committee and former President George W. Bush.

Hudson strongly denied that politics play any role in his concern
about CCHD, but said leftist groups nearly always conflict with Catholic
doctrine on issues like gay rights and abortion.

Other Catholics say the reforms do not address another fundamental
question: Is the church, through CCHD, essentially outsourcing its
social justice mission?

Michael Hichborn, a spokesman for Reform the CCHD Now, called the
anti-poverty program "philosophically flawed right from the outset."

"It never addresses sin as the root cause of poverty, which means it
never addresses Christ as a remedy," he said.

Ideological battles over CCHD are distant thunder to the often
desperately needy people who benefit from the program, said Robert
Gorman, executive director of Catholic Charities for the Diocese of
Houma-Thibodaux in Louisiana.

People in his diocese are more concerned with improving police
protection in violent neighborhoods, preventing drowning deaths in local
pools, and restoring the state's oil-slicked coastline, Gorman said.

"It's a red herring," Gorman said of the ideological battle over the
CCHD. "It's a national agenda that is not of importance to people at the
local level who are just trying to work their way out of poverty and
keep their kids safe."

In other business in Baltimore, the bishops will also elect a new
president and vice president of their national conference, and vote on
an agreement with four Reformed churches to recognize each other's
baptisms.