Solidarity Will Transform the World:
Part 11 in a series on JustFaith

Author Jeffry Odell Korgen examines the schizophrenic advocacy practiced by Catholic Relief Services in his book 'Solidarity Will Transform the World: Stories of Hope from the Catholic Relief Services'.

By Stephanie Block

The next book under consideration in this series examining JustFaith, the program that partners with the annual Catholic Campaign for Human Development appeal to educate laity in the Church’s social justice mission, is Solidarity Will Transform the World: Stories of Hope from the Catholic Relief Services by Jeffry Odell Korgen. Catholic Relief Services (CRS) is another JustFaith partner.

Author Jeffry Korgen has been in the social justice business for quite some time. Currently, he is Executive Director for the New Jersey Diocese of Metuchen’s Office of Diocesan Planning but he was active with the National Pastoral Life Center until it closed down in 2009, serving as its director of Social Ministries and, at one point, as director of its Roundtable Association of Diocesan Social Action Directors, which is now an independent entity and a JustFaith partner. Korgen has also served on the board of the Alinskyian organization Interfaith Worker Justice.

As for Catholic Relief Services (CRS), its long history of doing heroic good has been occasionally marred by unfortunate “partnerships” and poor judgment. In 2001 executive director Ken Hackett announced at the annual Catholic Social Justice Ministry Gathering that CRS’s work was shifting from its former mission “to do good efficiently” to a new mission – specifically, to help “evolve a more just society.”

That has translated into rather un-Catholic activities, at times. For instance, CRS distributed a “Flipchart for Client Education” through its AIDS Relief project, a program in sub-Saharan Africa and the Caribbean to offer therapy and support to HIV/AIDS patients in these areas.
The cover letter accompanying the flipchart said the flipchart was based on an earlier WHO [World Health Organization] product and that it did not bear the CRS logo “due to the potential sensitivity of the information contained in these materials among Church partners.”

A detailed description of the flipchart reveals why CRS didn’t want its logo used. The materials were amoral – that is, the only relevant value was to protect one’s health: While the first section of the flipchart begins promisingly with “Safer sex behavior – Abstinence” (p. 25), it at once points out: “Partners who abstain from sex can still enjoy other expressions of affection. Remember hugging and kissing will not transmit HIV” (p. 26) and shows a couple, dressed but lying together, exploring “other forms of sexual pleasure” (p. 27). It defines “safer sex”: “Safer sex expressions are sexual activities which do not allow semen, fluid from the vagina, or blood to enter the anus, vagina or the mouth of the partner” (p. 28). In a page on “Counseling young adolescents,” the information the flipchart offers is: “Delay sexual activity. If in an intimate relationship, explore other forms of sexual pleasure (massage, touching, hugging)” (p. 35). Similarly, women with HIV are informed that they can still have a fulfilling life with their “partners”—i.e., husbands or men to whom they are not married—if they “choose to abstain from sexual intercourse and focus on other ways to please each other — for example, touching, cuddling, or massaging each other” (p. 118). Thus, obtaining sexual pleasure by what is euphemistically called “massage” is presented as acceptable for both young adolescents and married couples. Other sections promote the use of condoms.

Another example of CRS’s schizophrenic “advocacy” was found in “A Catholic Call to Justice” activity book jointly produced by the Catholic Campaign for Human Development and the Catholic Relief Services. Designed to raise social justice awareness, the resource provided consciousness-raising lesson plans for young people who were asked “to play the role of refugees” and given new “identities.” Participants were instructed to think “about the way our society, our government, our Church” treats the poor or immigrant, with a goal of giving young participants an empathetic sense of the economic difficulties others face but, in actuality, guided them to see such problems solely in class and economic terms.

These examples of distorted, worldly viewpoints seem to be most evident when CRS links itself to other organizations. Where it has remained faithful to its mission, however, its work has been exemplary. Korgen’s book largely reflects this side of CRS and provides some exhilarating stories of its creative, humanitarian projects around the globe.

For example, Solidarity opens with a detailed description of microloans and small banking arrangements offered to struggling entrepreneurs and family farms in Mexico. It is a small but extremely meaningful – and effective – effort that not only addresses poverty but also the immigration issue in very positive ways. Further, these microenterprises created in Mexico are effective in other parts of the world and have counterparts in India and Nicaragua.

Korgen describes CRS projects in Zambia to respond to the AIDS epidemic that include, not too surprisingly, provision of medications, nutrition, and a home-based care program but also agricultural programs and assistance to help keep children in school. Another CRS project in Rwanda, perhaps the most significant in the book, has attempted to bring forgiveness and reconciliation between the survivors of a genocidal war and the ethnic group responsible for having attacked them. It is difficult to grasp either the level of offense or the depth of grace that victims and perpetrators must embrace to overcome it. CRS’s work to bring peace, including and most importantly, public confession is, in this situation, beyond remarkable and in no way simplistic or naive.

These are wonderful stories to read. What keeps this from being a thoroughly inspirational book, however, are the political “asides” that betray an undergirding perspective. In dealing with immigration, for example, Korgen references Catholic social teaching emphasizing the “right of migration” and the “right to remain in one’s native place” (p. 13) but makes no mention of a sovereign nation’s right – also articulated by Catholic social teaching – to protect its own borders.

At the end of the book, the reader learns that CRS promotes “solidarity economy,” a leftist movement that supports the “international struggle for social change.” The CRS website carries a 63-page study guide for Solidarity that can be downloaded for free.[1] The study guide asks the participant to “describe ‘the solidarity economy’” in his own words but, like the book, emphasizes the sale of fair trade coffee without really explaining what this notion is.

In fact, the study guide (p. 33, question #4) says: “’Every perspective on economic life that is human, moral, and Christian must be shaped by three questions: What does the economy do for people? What does it do to people? And how do people participate in it?’ (Economic Justice for All, USCCB, #1) How does CRS’ participation in the “solidarity economy” address the three questions posed by the U.S. Catholic bishops?” The implication is that “solidarity economy” is just what the bishops ordered.

JustFaith’s questions about the book mirror this. Week 18, second half, question #7 tells participants to “Describe ‘the solidarity economy’ in your own words. What role and responsibility do you share in solidarity economy?” In this case, the participant is referred to the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church (#194). The Catholic notion of solidarity, with all its economic applications, as expressed in the referenced Compendium passage, is again identified with this “solidarity economy” movement, which has only been defined in the vaguest terms.

It doesn’t really matter what participants think this movement is. What is it actually? One scholarly analysis identifies it as “libertarian socialism” and attributes it to a development of the the thought of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon. Libertarian socialism is proffered as an alternative to capitalism or state socialism, redistributing economic and political power from the state to local communities.[2]

The 2012 Left Forum conference described a panel discussion on the topic: “The solidarity economy is a relatively new framework for building a just and sustainable economy. What is its relationship to other left/socialist/anti-capitalist/post capitalist strands? What are the differences and commonalities of analysis, models and strategies? This round-table discussion will explore these questions from the perspectives of the Community Economies Collective, Committees of Correspondence for a Democratic Socialism, the League of Revolutionaries for a New America and the Solidarity Economy Network.”[3]

The US Social Forum is a regional body connected to World Social Forum, which opposes “domination of the world by capital and any form of imperialism, and [is] committed to building a planetary society directed towards fruitful relationships among Mankind and between it and the Earth.”[4] The first US Social Forum conference was “part of the Social Forum movement and represents this coming together of movements to create a new country and a new world. The organizers …are hoping to use this forum as an opportunity to organize and energize economic alternatives in the US through the creation of a solidarity economy network, similar to those which exist in Latina America, Europe, Africa, and Canada.”[5] With its “People’s Movement Assemblies,”[6] radical pacifism, and “gender equity” (read: abortion[7]) elements, we are not describing a movement compatible with Catholic teaching.

Is the JustFaith participant going to “get” all this as he or she moves through the JustFaith program? Of course, not. What he will get is an undeserved respect for “solidarity economy” and a false identification of this Catholic social teaching. Pretty sneaky.

Spero columnist Stephanie Block also edits the New Mexico-based Los Pequenos newspaper and is a member of the Catholic Media Coalition.

[1] Written and developed by Ted Miles, with contributions from Sean Backe and Fielding Jezreel, “Solidarity Will Transform the World: Stories of Hope from Catholic Relief Services – A Study Guide Companion,” Catholic Relief Services, undated. Fielding Jezreel is the daughter of JustFaith founder and director, Jack Jezreel.

[2] Frere, Bruno, Reinecke, Juliane, “A Libertarian Socialist Response to the ‘Big Society:’ The Solidarity Economy, Critical Perspectives on the Third Sector,” (a chapter from: Dialogues in Critical Management Studies, Vol. 1) Ed. R. Hull, J. Gibbon, O. Branzei, and H. Haugh. Emerald, 2011. Chapter 5. 117-137.

[3] Left Forum Conference, panel discussion: “Solidarity Economy: Toward a Pluralist Socialist, Anti-capitalist, Post-capitalist unity?” March 16th through March 18th, 2012.

[4] World Social Forum webpage: Charter of Principles:

[5] Carl Davidson, Solidarity Economy: Building Alternatives for People and Planet, Papers and Reports from the 2007 Social Forum Conference, Solidarity Economy Network, 2008, p. 101.

[6] US Social Forum website:

[7] “The Gender Justice Working Group (GJWG) of the Second US Social Forum has picked up the baton from the Women’s Working Group of the First US Social Forum in pursuing and ensuring gender justice, women’s issues such as reproductive rights, and representation by a broad range of genders….: Samhita (no last name), “Events, Tents, and Assemblies: Promoting Gender Justice at the US Social Forum,” 6-10-12,

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