Dissing the Organizer: Obama, ACORN, and Catholic Action

by Stephanie Block

When the Catholic Church takes up the collection November 23 for the Catholic Campaign for Human Development, will Catholics in the pew know they are supporting abortion and other immoral causes?

Over at the Catholics for Obama blog, the headline screams, “Palin Continues to Smear Catholic Action.” This preposterous thesis has been crafted from her comments about Barack Obama’s past as a community organizer. The blog contends, “Catholics across the country continue to be outraged by Republican politician Sarah Palin who repeated her smear against Catholic Action by mocking Barack Obama’s service as director of a community group sponsored by the Catholic Campaign for Human Development (an arm of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops) and led by eight Catholic parishes on the South Side of Chicago.”

Well! That’s quite a leap. Ms. Palin said nothing whatsoever about Catholic Action. It was the Catholics for Obama blogger who drew the connection between community organizing, the Catholic Campaign for Human Development (CCHD). There’s no secret here. The CCHD gives between a third and a half of its grants to Alinskyian organizing networks.

Alinskyian what?

If you are saying “Alinskyian, what?” you need to know that there are over 200 organizations operating in cities around the United States training social justice activists according to the theories of Saul Alinsky. Over the past 30 years, the Catholic Campaign for Human Development has given millions of dollars from Catholic donations to these groups. That’s a lot of money going to train people in a very distinctive way of looking at the world and its problems.

Alinsky’s writings contain a number of disturbing premises:

“The third rule of the ethics of means and ends is that … the end justifies almost any means.”

“The seventh rule of the ethics of means and ends is that generally success or failure is a mighty detriment of ethics. ... There can be no such thing as a successful traitor, for if one succeeds, he becomes a founding father.”

“The tenth rule of the ethics of means and ends is that you do what you can with what you have and clothe it with moral garments. ... Moral rationalization is indispensable at all tunes of action whether to justify the selection or the use of ends or means.”

“An organizer working for change ... does not have a fixed truth — truth to him is relative and changing.”

The book from which those “rules” are taken is called Rules for Radicals and it opens with the disturbing lines: “What follows is for those who want to change the world from what it is to what they believe it should be. The Prince was written by Machiavelli for the Haves on how to hold power. Rules for Radicals is written for the Have-Nots on how to take it away.”

The reader can glean a great deal of information from those opening remarks. Machiavelli’s The Prince used to be on the Catholic index as forbidden reading (when the Church had an index) because Machiavelli was so completely amoral. The Prince and Machiavelli’s companion piece, “Discourses,” are cold-blooded examinations of political power, how it is obtained, maintained and expanded. In “Discourses” one reads: “Cunning and deceit will serve a man better than force to rise from a base condition to great fortune” and “A prince cannot live securely in a state so long as those live whom he has deprived of it.”

In The Prince, Machiavelli makes it clear that he believes the moral law does not apply to leaders. He says, for example: “So you see a wise ruler cannot, and should not, keep his word when doing so is to his disadvantage, and when the reasons that led him to promise to do so no longer apply. Of course, if all men were good, this advice would be bad; but since men are wicked and will not keep faith with you, you need not keep faith with them…But it is essential to know how to conceal how crafty one is, to know how to be a clever counterfeit and hypocrite.” (54) Elsewhere, he writes: “So a ruler…should do what is right if he can; but he must be prepared to do wrong if necessary.”

This is Alinsky’s model, rewritten for “the people.” It’s the antithesis of Catholic teaching. It cannot, therefore, be used to promote Catholic Action.

Ditching moral truth

Marxism teaches that “truth” is a social construction, determined by consensus. Alinsky teaches the same thing, writing, “An organizer....does not have a fixed truth – truth to him is relative and changing.” The organizer, for whom the “ends justify the means,” can’t be bound by moral absolutes. To support a utilitarian ethics, the truth must be fluid.

This is not what scripture or the Church teaches, of course. It isn’t enough that organizations acquire “good things” for their constituencies. They must accept and teach moral truth; they must be principled. A lying or bribing political lobby may win all its temporal battles, but it will have lost its soul.

Contemporary Alinskyian networks, far from repudiating Alinsky, have built upon his work: Mary Beth Rogers writes, “All participants in the Industrial Areas Foundation [the first Alinskyian network, founded in 1940] national training programs are given a reprint of a 1933 article by John H. Randall, Jr. titled ‘The Importance of Being Unprincipled’. ...The thesis is that because politics is nothing but the ‘practical method of compromise,’ only two kinds of people can afford the luxury of acting on principle...everyone else who wants to be effective in politics has to learn to be ‘unprincipled’ enough to compromise in order to see their principles succeed.”

Civic action predicated on “truth by consensus” is the antithesis of Catholic truth. It cannot, therefore, be used to promote Catholic Action.


Alinskyian organizing, operating within faith-based institutions, is liberationist – as in liberation theology. Liberationism uses religious language to promote socialism.

Consider again, for example, the words quoted above: “What follows is for those who want to change the world from what it is to what they believe it should be. The Prince was written by Machiavelli for the Haves on how to hold power. Rules for Radicals is written for the Have-Nots on how to take it away.”

Christians don’t think in those terms. Catholic social teaching stresses the mutual dependency on God and one another that exists between the Haves and the Have-nots. They aren’t rivals. It’s an entirely different worldview.

Then there’s the pedagogy – the teaching method by which liberationists educate people into their worldview. Charlie Curran, a dissident Catholic theologian who admired Alinskyian organizing, writes: “Although Alinsky does not use the word ‘conscientization,’ there is no doubt that such a process is the cornerstone of his method….The people must learn that through their power they can bring about change. Raising consciousness is a part of Alinsky’s overarching commitment to popular education.”

Contemporary Alinskyian networks continue to use this pedagogy. Maryann Eklaund, in her Master’s thesis on one of these networks organizing in southern Texas, details the values clarification exercises – her term – its organizers used to get people to change their perspective on things. We’re talking serious manipulation of people.

Another writer, Mary Beth Rodgers, describes the same thing. “Cortes [an organizer for the Industrial Areas Foundation network, southwest region] knew that Mexican parents willingly sacrificed for their children – and often for their church. By talking about family values, could you motivate and organize people to act politically in their own genuine self-interest?...the new organization had to reach into the heart...The idea of protecting and enhancing families might make that possible.” The implication of this passage is that the religious and family values of Catholics have been used to generate a conversation between them and the organizers. The organizers use the relationship built from the Catholic values of the Mexicans to introduce another set of values – those of the organization.

That brings us to yet another element of liberationism, which is its deliberate use of scriptures and religious symbols for a political end. For example, St. Timothy’s Catholic Church in San Antonio used “new catechisms” that connected biblical and Mexican historical and cultural themes with the current issues of the Alinskyian organization to which it belonged. Now, Catholic catechisms don’t contain this sort of information. These “catechisms” were not designed to present Church teachings but the organizers’ teachings.

Liberation theology isn’t Catholic. It doesn’t support the Catholic faith any more than it supports authentic justice or truth. It cannot, therefore, be considered Catholic Action.

The big picture

What are contemporary Alinskyian organizations trying to build?

In general terms, their “vision” can be expressed as a practical philosophy of governance called variously a third way,” “participatory democracy,” or “democratic socialism.” All these terms, and others, describe a system of government that seeks to use “mediating institutions” – churches, unions, schools, and the like, held together by the relationships they have forged through the Alinskyian organization – to control all facets of its citizens’ lives.

To achieve this, Alinskyian networks are engaged in “restructuring” activities of all kinds. On the political level, they work among the Democratic Socialists of America, the New Democrats, and the New Party, and the Democratic Party. In the economic arena, they have promoted and overseen the Empowerment Enterprise Community Zones in dozens of communities. They support universal health care and are experimenting with church-based health-care clinics. They have driven federal education “reform” and are insinuated in many school-to-work programs. In short, the programs they support involve centralizing benefits that effect larger and larger groups of people.

Catholic social teaching has never supported socialism. In fact, Pius XI writes “No one can be at the same time a sincere Catholic and a true socialist.” The work of Alinskyian organizations cannot be considered – by any stretch of the imagination – to be Catholic Action.

Yet, This Is What the Campaign for Human Development Supports

Those are the foundational problems with the CCHD. Its political problems are twofold.

In the first place, millions of charitable Catholic dollars are being poured into organizing networks that are furthering a pro-abortion, pro-homosexual civic agenda. Nearly every legislative healthcare package they propose has an abortion-supportive element to it. There is not one politician of which I’m aware who has been endorsed by or emerged from these networks who publicly opposes abortion or homosexual “rights.”

By funding the Alinskyian networks, Catholics have become practical allies of the very groups they profess to oppose in the public square.

The second political problem with the CCHD collection is much worse, however. Not only does CCHD fund people whose goals are antithetical to Catholic Action but it provides the vehicle through which Catholics are systematically educated to work against Catholic Action.

How? CCHD-funded Alinskyian organizations organize in Catholic parishes, reeducating Catholic activists to work according to liberationist principles (not Catholic Action principles). There is widespread use throughout American-Catholic parishes of materials crafted to support Alinskyian organizing. The confusion, therefore, that Catholics express over fundamental moral issues and their comparative weight and urgency in public affairs isn’t just zeitgeist. It’s been systematically inculcated.

Obama and the Alinskyian Organizations

If one must fault Governor Palin's comments about Obama’s community organizing experience, it’s that she minimized the seriousness of that experience. CCHD gave $40,000 in 1985 and $33,000 in 1986 to the Chicago Developing Communities Project, of which Obama was then lead organizer. It also gave millions to Gamaliel and ACORN, the Alinskyian networks that trained Obama and which today are stumping for his election.

The most recent accounting of CCHD grantees available (2006-2007) indicate that in just that one year, $1,146,000 was given to the ACORN network and well over $2 million went into the other major Alinskyian networks.

What did ACORN give us for that investment? Last year, The Seattle Times reported the biggest voter-registration fraud scheme in Washington history. Three ACORN employees pleaded guilty, and four more were charged for filling out and submitting more than 1,800 fictitious voter-registration cards during a 2006 registration drive in King and Pierce counties.” (Keith Ervin, “Three plead guilty in fake voter scheme,” 10-30-2007)

This year, an ACORN employee in West Reading, PA, was sentenced for to up to 23 months in prison for identity theft and tampering with records. A second ACORN worker pleaded not guilty to the same charges and is free on $10,000 bail.

Those are convictions from the past year. There are also examples of indictments this year, such as the four ACORN employees in Kansas City charged with identity theft and filing false registrations during the 2006 election and the Reynoldsburg fellow indicted on two felony counts of illegal voting and false registration, after being registered by ACORN to vote in two separate counties. And there are current investigations into ACORN for voter fraud all over the map:


the Milwaukee ACORN for 200 to 300 fraudulent voter registration cards;

the Cleveland ACORN for its submission of 75,000 voter registrations, many of which are fraudulent;

the New Mexico ACORN, which claims to have taken 72,000 new voter registrations in the state since January, is under suspicion for 1,100 possibly fraudulent voter registration cards turned in to the Bernalillo County clerk’s office recently.

These are recent complaints, but ACORN’s history is riddled with criminal activity. During the last major election, the Wall Street Journal did a story about ACORN. Four ACORN workers had been indicted by a federal grand jury for submitting false voter registration forms to the Kansas City, Missouri, election board; other ACORN workers were convicted in Wisconsin and Colorado and investigations, at the time the article was written, were under way in Ohio, Tennessee and Pennsylvania. [“The Acorn Indictments,” WSJ 11-3-06]

Programs that don’t work

The Wall Street Journal article points out some additional facts that have particular interest to us, two years later. “Operating in at least 38 states (as well as Canada and Mexico), ACORN pushes a highly partisan agenda, and its organizers are best understood as shock troops for the AFL-CIO and even the Democratic Party. As part of the Fannie Mae reform bill, House Democrats pushed an ‘affordable housing trust fund’ designed to use Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac profits to subsidize ACORN, among other groups. A version of this trust fund actually passed the Republican House and will surely be on the agenda again next year.”

ACORN was a tremendous force for the Community Reinvestment Act (CRA), created in the late 70s to force banks to make loans to low-income borrowers. Besides fighting for passage of this act, ACORN monitored banks compliance. Some analysts of the current housing crisis contend the CRA policies are in good part to blame. Representative Michele Bachmann (R-Minnesota), a member of the House Financial Services Committee, takes the analysis a step further. The “housing bailout” package signed into law to rescue Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae with an unlimited credit line not only increases the federal debt but also gives millions of dollars to La Raza and the ACORN. [Elizabeth Williamson & Brody Mullins, “Democratic Ally Mobilizes In Housing Crunch: Acorn Leads Drive to Register Voters Likely to Back Obama; New Federal Funds,” WSJ, 7-31-08]

Brought to you, ladies and gentleman, in part by the Catholic Campaign for Human Development. Remember that in November.

© Stephanie Block, Los Pequenos

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