The Life and Mission of a Liberationist Priest

By Stephanie Block

A biography about Msgr. Geno Baroni by journalist Lawrence M. O’Rouke, Geno: The Life and Mission of Geno Baroni, begins with a couple of notions that crystallize the great divide over what constitutes social justice. “It was no longer enough…to respond with charity to appeals for a food basket, the month’s rent, or a bag of used underwear,” O’Rouke writes about Father Baroni’s vision for helping the poor. “The problems were too big for charity alone. Charity maintained people, but did not alter the system which locked them in their dismal place and exploited their weakness.”(1)

Recognizing the reality of that statement isn’t difficult for most people. However, determining which changes will “alter the system” for good, rather than for ill, is extremely contentious. Some “systemic” change is more reprehensible than the status quo it challenges, as anyone changing from a free state to enslavement will tell you. Furthermore, the means for accomplishing change must be considered, as well. What was the new system that Father Baroni wanted to replace the flawed system of his time and how did he propose to accomplish the change?

The author’s second comment that bears examination is: “Geno Baroni, a loyal priest in the Catholic faith, saw that his Church in America too often refused to recognize values in other religious faiths. He saw the potential strength of a concerned people sapped by unnecessary and self-destroying religious differences.”(2)

Again, there’s a legitimate way to understand such a remark and a problematic understanding. It’s a fact that people living in the same polity share common concerns despite having different religious backgrounds. However, when amorphous, non-sectarian “religious values” are invoked to advance irreligious, political ambitions, there’s great potential for abusing religion.

Father Geno Baroni’s vision of social justice – the “systemic change” he sought and the “religious values” he believed would carry that change forward – was tremendously influential in setting the direction for Catholic activism in America. Between the late 1960s –1970s, Father Baroni was an advisor on national urban policy with the Carter administration and was president of the D.C.-based National Center for Urban Ethnic Affairs. He was a founding “architect” of the Catholic “social justice lobby” NETWORK,(3) and was among the priests who envisioned and pushed creation of the annual Campaign for Human Development (CHD) collection. He served on the Catholic Committee of Urban Ministry and was director of the Urban Taskforce of the United States Catholic Conference (USCC).

The organizations that he helped design – CHD and NETWORK, in particular – were intended to challenge the existing political system.(4) Supported by likeminded priests,(5) Father Baroni urged the 1969 Catholic bishops to create a fund “for human development”(6) that they adopted and understood expressly as a political instrument: “There is an evident need for funds designated to be used by organized groups of white and minority poor to develop…political power in their own communities.”(7) [emphasis added]

Again, the language is vague and raises more questions than it answers. Who are these “organized groups”? What will the “political power” they amass be used to accomplish?

From the perspective of 45 years in the future, we can see where we’ve come but did the progressive priests and bishops who supported Father Baroni create what they intended?

If O’Rouke is reporting accurately, it’s possible to answer that they were emphatically convinced that a new system of government, operating in partnership with community organizations that brokered the public largesse through mediating institutions, was the answer to “social welfare” problems. Father Baroni initially had “believed that government could do it all,” but in the late 60s, observing the failure of Johnson’s War on Poverty, “he began to wonder about the possibility of a cooperative effort involving government, the private sector, and the community.”(8)

Many of the priests who worked with Father Baroni in the late 60s to create a fund for political activism, that is the CHD, “had been involved in or exposed to the Alinsky organization in Chicago and knew that the Church that the Church could support grassroots efforts to change urban public institutions….The Church could become a mediating institution, moving its resources to civil associations dedicated to fighting poverty and getting people civically engaged.”(9)

The Church, serving as a secular “mediating institution” whose resources are under the control of other, secular entities with “civic”, that is, with political, interests is quite a different proposition than an independent institution operating outside secular interests. One can’t help but see an echo of Latin American and Asian efforts to co-opt the institutional Church for liberationist (i.e., for socialist) purposes, creating “people’s churches” – the ironic name for “government churches” – in its stead.

“People’s churches” were never concerned about traditional expressions of the Faith – a personal relationship with God or personal morality – and certainly did not and do not support hierarchical authority. These “churches” viewed the world through the lens of class struggle and saw themselves as part of a revolutionary restructuring that included both governance and social structure.(10)

Poverty was therefore addressed in a classically socialist way – not by encouraging job growth or general economic growth, not by helping individuals to take greater personal responsibility or to learn more marketable skills but by managing more and more elements of society, such as the educational system, the healthcare system, workforce development, and the like. “Urban planning” schemes failed, the thinking went, because they were too small. Society needed a bigger, more comprehensive plan.


How does one produce such a “church” in the United States? Like CHD, it was always about the Alinskyian community organizing.

Father Baroni, who – recall – was director of the USCC’s Urban Taskforce, was also the “USCC’s program director in the creation of the Calumet Community Congress in Gary, Indiana,”(11) and the Calumet Community Congress was set up by Saul Alinsky’s Chicago-based Industrial Areas Foundation.(12)

The organization was short-lived. Democrats and Republicans of the time were unified in their discomfort over the new organization. “John Krupa, Lake County Democrat leader, called the Calumet Community Congress ‘a power grab…motivated by the godless, atheistic forces of Communism.’ Republican Rep. Earl Landgrebe said, ‘One of the favorite tactics of Communists and other radical elements is to find a legitimate concern and take it over. There are strong indications that this is taking place in Lake County.”(13)

But while it operated, it had support from the Bishop Andrew Grutka of Gary, Indiana, and, like any other Alinskyian community organization, had the financial backing of local churches. “Its tone was angry, its behavior was assertive, and its anti-corporate philosophy was radical.”(14)

Baroni’s “principles for social action” were a lot like Alinsky’s. He saw the neighborhood as the building block for urban planning and the need for clergy participation in neighborhood organizations. One has to seize a crisis – or, if necessary, create one. And, most interestingly, he believed “that the role of the church in social action is to help convene people.”(15)

If the Church was to support political social action of the kind Father Baroni and other Alinsky trained clerics envisioned, the Church needed to be restructured. To that end, they convened the first Call to Action hearings and conference, orchestrating the process to appear as if there was widespread support for dissenting Catholic positions and community organizing.(16) Among many other things, Call to Action resolutions called for “a budgetary item of every parish to support competent neighborhood/community action groups,” diocesan resources “for training current and potential leaders” in community organizing and diocesan funding to support “competent neighborhood/community action groups.”(17)

Alinskyian organizing – not the Church or the school or any other institution – was seen as the structure by which urban life might be humanized. At a White House Conference on Ethnicity and Neighborhoods he complained that cities were no longer civilizing influences because of a breakdown of civitas: “Civitas was the religious and political association of families and tribes – the people bound together in civic association. ….Urban research and urban policy are bankrupt because of their lack of attention to the civitas — their lack of attention to civic renewal and civic development. By focusing on urban concerns, the physical items, to the exclusion of civic concerns, national urban policy has nearly destroyed the civitas — the various levels of human community which make urban life possible.”(18)

To reclaim civitas was the work of community organizing, backed by religious institutions. In other words, one way to restore civitas was through faith-based organizing, Alinskyian organizing. “[U]rban policy must be rethought and refashioned into a civic policy — a policy which in broadest outline is cognizant of our civic life and supportive of the preeminent features of civic life which have been thoughtlessly squandered — our rich variety of religious and cultural associations which have been the sustaining structures of our urban neighborhoods.”(19)

It was an interesting thesis for a priest.


To emphasis how thoroughly profane Father Baroni’s vision had become, the O’Rourke biography provides a pivotal snapshot of the 1970s, struck by two Supreme Court decisions that legalizing abortion during all nine months of a mother’s pregnancy.

Father Baroni accepted Church teaching that abortion is a moral evil, “but was skeptical about accomplishing that through the legal and law enforcement systems.” He preferred to focus on the business of revitalizing the civets and rebuilding neighborhoods.  “But the Democrats pointed out to Baroni that unless they handled the abortion issue, they could not get elected, and that would doom many of the other programs in which Baroni had an interest. Baroni worked out an answer.”(20)

The answer was to decry single-issue politics, insist that the voter must consider the broad range of issues, and to advise candidates to “dwell on the economic bread and butter issues that had attracted Catholic middle and working class voters to the Democratic Party.”(21)

This strategy has been operational ever since.


1 Lawrence M. O’Rourke, Geno: The Life and Mission of Gen Baroni, (Paulist Press:1991), p. 3.

2 Geno, p. 3.

3 Geno, p 175-8; NETWORK is an organization run by Catholic religious women who are engaged in “progressive” political activism.

4 Despite his best efforts, Baroni expressed frustration that “even the Campaign for Human Development was too wedded to the charities approach, that it failed to take risks on community organizers and developers who would challenge the political system.” Geno, p. 258

5 According to O’Rourke, Father Baroni invited these priests to meet in Combermere, Canada at the Madonna House Retreat Center, in August 1968, where they decided there needed to be a new approach to addressing poverty. Geno, p. 74. See also Marvin L. Krier Mich, Catholic Social Teaching and Movements (Twenty-Third Publications, 1998), p. 337-8.

6 He and several others prepared a report, “Agenda for the 70s,” that described the crisis and the need for a “new agenda.” It called poverty the “greatest scandal of our affluent society,” and asked several “moral questions,” among them how might the Church “develop a spiritual response to meet our urban crisis?” The primary “response” suggested was the development of a national, Catholic fund for human development that would include an education component to develop “a domestic social consciousness.” Geno, p. 74-83

7 “Resolution on Crusade Against Poverty: A Resolution Adopted by the National Conference of Catholic Bishops,” November 14, 1969.

8 Geno, p. 74.

9 Joseph M. Palacios, “The Catholic Social Imagination: Activism and the Just Society in Mexico and the United States,” (University of Chicago Press, 2008), p. 91-2.

10 Bonaventure Kloppenburg, OFM, The People’s Church, Franciscan Herald Press, 1977.

11 Geno, p. 92.

12 James B. Lane, Edward J. Escobar, Forging a Community: The Latino Experience in Northwest Indiana, 1919-1975 (Indiana University Press: 1987), p. 254. The Industrial Areas Foundation’s Chicago training is called in this book and elsewhere the Alinsky Institute.

13 Geno, p. 94.

14 Andrew Hurley, Environmental Inequalities: Class, Race, and Industrial Pollution in Gary, Indiana, 1945-1980 (University of North Carolina Press, 1995), p. 106; 108.

15 Father William Byron, S.J. “The Baroni Principles for Social Action,” Salt of the Earth, Nov-Dec 1996.

16 For a detailed history of the Call to Action hearings, conference, and position papers, see Stephanie Block, Change Agents: Alinskyian Organizing Among Religious Bodies, Volume I, chapter 2.

17 “A Call to Action: The Justice Conference Resolutions of the Church,” Origins, November 4, 1976, Section on “Neighborhoods, Recommendation concerning “The Church and Neighborhood Action,” # 2.

18 Geno Baroni, “Neighborhood Revitalization: Neighborhood Policy for a Pluralistic Urban Society,” in Ethnicity and Neighborhood: Proceedings, Whitehouse Conference, May 5, 1976, pp. 4-5.

19 “Neighborhood Revitalization…”

20 Geno, p. 123.

21 Geno, p. 130-1.

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