The Systemic Wars: CCHD funded Change Agents

By Stephanie BlockThe Catholic Campaign for Human Development [CCHD] uses a diagram with two footprints to explain its work.  One footprint says “Direct Services” and lists good works such as feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and sheltering the homeless.  The other footprint is labeled “Social Change” and lists, among other things, legislative networking, advocacy, and community organizing.  “You need both to walk,” the diagram explains [CCHD, “Poverty and FaithJustice,”

The distinction between direct services and “systemic” issues – the changing of problematic social structures – isn’t difficult to understand.  One can translate through a pro-life illustration: We see a frightened woman about to enter an abortion clinic.  She is threatening to “terminate her pregnancy” because she needs many practical things: diapers, rent money, a friend to talk to, and a place to stay.  Those are the goods and services the prolife community offers her.  They are celled “direct services,” that is, they respond directly to the immediate needs of this suffering human being.

Prolife people are also interested in “social change,” however.  The problem isn’t only one woman’s moral choices.  She has come to the abortion clinic because the society she lives in tells her that this is the right thing for her to do.  It’s legal, for one thing.  Her boyfriend and her girlfriends and perhaps even her minister have assured her that she’s making a responsible decision.  In such a climate, pro-life activists must work not only to offer each troubled young mother an option to abortion but to help the people around her understand that the life of the pre-born child is precious.  So long as there is a culture of death, the numbers of women seeking abortions will be high.

How do pro-lifers work to change this prevailing culture?  They do several things. 

Pro-lifers work legislatively – that is, they attempt to change bad laws and work for life-sustaining legislation, eyeing the day when there will be a Human Life Amendment to the Constitution protecting a human person from the moment of conception to the moment of his natural, God-ordained death. 

They also work educationally – that is, by attempting to teach people about the horror of abortion, the humanity of the fetus, the practical options to a mother in difficult circumstances, and the beauty of chastity. 

Lastly, and most significantly, they work spiritually – that is, with the prayerful and humble certainty that injustice is a fact of life unless every heart is turned toward God.  Irresponsible personal behavior must be changed before the society at large will change.

That’s the ideal battle plan against abortion.  It includes a response to the individual’s immediate needs and it works for social change.  It’s a two-pronged, common sense approach to a complex problem. 

Now, apply the same principles to another issue: poverty.   Just as there is a community of people who are pouring out their hearts and goods to “stop abortion,” there is a community of people who want to “end poverty.”  This is not only a good thing, it’s what those who follow in the footsteps of Jesus are called to do.  Therefore, it’s not surprising that Christians have an impressive history of direct services to the poor. 

Like pro-lifers, people who work to help the poor recognize that there are problems in the fabric of society that tend to exacerbate poverty.  Irresponsible personal behavior or unfortunate circumstances such as ill health may be causes of poverty but it, too, may be rooted in societal structures – take the epidemic of divorce, for example.  Any attempt to address poverty that fails to recognize societal structures imprisoning even responsible people in crushing situations will fail. 

Added to which, there is certainly ignorance among some people who are materially comfortable about the problems the poor face.  Like pro-life issues, poverty is complex and calls for both direct services and a gamut of legislative, educational, and spiritual responses.

Therefore, a Catholic examines the Catholic Campaign for Human Development collection, which purports to “help the poor,” and wants to know how it accomplishes its mission.  He does not ask this because he believes the Church should stick to direct service and eschew “social change” but because he needs to know that the changes proposed by CCHD grantees are something Catholics ought to be supporting. Are they commensurate with Church teaching?

What do CCHD grantees seek to change? How do they seek to change it?  These questions aren’t academic.  Catholics pour a lot of money into the CCHD. 

Saying one simply wants to “change” is too vague an ambition.  Libertarian, free-market capitalists and the card-carrying communists both believe their economic system will help the poor, and they work hard to change present structures to resemble the ideals of their own philosophies.  Both have potential benefits for the poor; both have historically wronged the poor in unspeakably horrible ways.  Neither adequately reflects the Catholic position.

So again, one asks, what is the change CCHD promotes and how does it seek to bring about that change?


The “how” it seeks to bring about “social change” is easy to answer.  CCHD was created in 1970 primarily as a funding mechanism for community organizing projects in its incipient “Crusade Against Poverty.”  Writing in 1989, Sanford Horwitt claimed:

As for the Roman Catholic Church, its commitment [to Alinsky-style community organizing, particularly the Industrial Areas Foundation] both in principle and funding is stronger than ever.  Except within certain religious and activist circles, it is not widely known that the Church’s Campaign for Human Development expends most of its $8 million annual budget in grants to community organizing and related grassroots empowerment efforts.  And many recipients of CHD largess are IAF-directed projects.1

These Alinskyian faith-based organizations are “seeded” with money so they can proliferate in parishes around the country.  They, in turn, educate people in member congregations to engage in “civic discourse,” to understand how the game of politics is played - as they understand it - and to develop the courage to confront public leaders in issues of concern to their communities.

It sounds good, so far.  The problem with Alinsky-style organizations is that, however well-intentioned their organizers and leaders may be, Alinsky’s philosophical understanding of what it takes to engage in civic discourse is extremely unethical.  Specifically, Alinsky taught that the ends justify the means and that “truth” is decided by consensus.

From Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals we learn:

  • “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 determinant 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 times of action whether to justify the selection or the use of ends or means....All effective actions require the passport of morality.”

Elsewhere in his primer for radicals, Alinsky writes:

Pick the target, freeze it, personalize it, and polarize it....By this I mean that in a complex...society it becomes increasingly difficult to single out who is to blame for a particular evil....One of the criteria for picking the target is the target’s you zero in and freeze your target and carry out your attack, all the “others” come out of the woodwork very soon...the other important point in the choosing of a target is that it must be a personification, not something general and abstract...Many liberals, during our attack on the then-school superintendent, pointing out that he wasn’t 100% devil, he was a regular churchgoer, he was a good family man, and he was generous in his contributions to charity.  Can you imagine in the arena of conflict charging that so-and-so is a racist bastard and then diluting the impact of the attack with qualifying remarks...this becomes political idiocy.

The “target” in question here, of course, is a fellow human being who has been unjustly demonized. 

The contemporary IAF, far from repudiating Alinsky, has built upon his work: Mary Beth Rogers, in her book Cold Anger, writes:

All participants in the Industrial Areas Foundation 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.” (FN p. 214)

Then, there is the problem of Alinsky’s relationship to “truth.” Alinsky wrote: “An organizer working for change...does not have a fixed truth – truth to him is relative and changing.”  So how does a community decide what values it will use to do business?  Are those “other people” – the principled ones – welcome in the community or not?  Truth by consensus is as problematic as an ethics that justifies its means by its ends.

Yet the contemporary IAF is confident of its philosophical base to produce good: “Ernie Cortes, a key figure in network [SW Regional Director of the IAF], pointed out, the IAF methodology bears resemblance [to the] ‘critical method’ of Karl Popper, philosopher of science, who argued for a view of ‘truth’ not as a positive assertion, but as theories formulated out of practice and aimed at problem solving that had not yet been refuted.”  [Harry Boyte, Commonwealth: A Return to Citizen Politics]  Karl Popper coined the term “open society,” which refers to a form of social organization in which “nobody has a monopoly on the truth.” 

From where, then, are ethical principles to come?   If they are not fixed in the nature of things – if they are not simply true but are to be determined through a process of collaborative inquiry – anyone with an agenda can easily manipulate the outcome.   

These twin problems of ethics and truth make Alinskyian organizations such as the IAF a dangerous CCHD grantee, because people subjected to IAF training are being taught a way of looking at the world, or at least, a way of looking at politics, that contradicts Catholic social justice teaching, Catholic ethics, and the natural law. 

And yet, over a third of CCHD money is spent on Alinskyian organizing.  Thanks in part to its CCHD grants, the IAF has tripled its presence around the United States in the last decade – and much of that presence is in Catholic parishes.  Do these Alinskyian organizations do no good?  Of course they do, but it isn’t enough to do good works.  Legitimate social justice activism must be predicated on the truth, understanding that although some Church teachings may not be popular (consider the reception of Humanae Vitae), justice can only be accomplished when moral laws that govern the human spirit are obeyed. 

That said, the “works” performed by Alinskyian community organizations often are quite controversial.  For example, a close look at the major CCHD-funded Alinskyian organizations’ – IAF, PICO, Gamaliel, ACORN, and DART – educational policies reveals a support for education “reform” that has often resulted in deeper academic failure.  That failure pales beside the moral failure of the Church to its people who have been trained in Machiavellian politics with the Church’s blessing, but it’s a practical consequence of a faulty philosophy.


That’s how the CCHD seeks to bring about systemic change, but the “what” part of the question remains to be answered: what is the change CCHD-funded Alinskyian organizations promote?

The IAF has waged a long-standing battle to fight the perception that it is “Communist.”  Saul Alinsky, who had no compunction - up to a point - about working with Communists, was investigated by the FBI in 1940 - 1941 and found innocent of any remarks or actions against the United States government, or in favor of any foreign government.

Yet a problem remains. The IAF undeniably holds liberationist – Christian socialist –positions.  It has enjoyed a long-standing relationship with the liberation theology hub of North America, the Mexican American Cultural Center (MACC) of San Antonio, which was used by the Texas IAF as a training institute to educate the clergy and civilians on ‘social justice’ issues.  The lead organizer of the San Antonio IAF local (and later Southwest Regional Director of the IAF) was an instructor at MACC, whose own founder and director was Alinskyian trained.

Besides eschewing absolute or objective truth, the IAF, like Marxist organizations, has adopted the concept of “class analysis,” uses the techniques of “popular education” (conscientization), and seeks to change the values of participants, replacing them with the values of the organizer.   In an organization grounded in much of the same worldview as Marxism, and using many of the same techniques to recruit and organize people, it’s hardly surprising that the IAF also has many of Marxism’s goals.

The function of the Industrial Areas Foundation and similar Alinsky-style organizing networks is to establish the community base for comprehensive federal structures.  Empowerment Zone economic revitalization packages, school-to-work schemes, and Nehemiah Housing Developments all have two common features.  They each deliver a medley of services: health care, childcare, housing, social services and education reform packages, financed with federal money.  Their other feature is that the reception of this federal assistance is contingent upon community-based institutions – like the IAF, Gamaliel, PICO, ACORN, or DART – to coordinate and presumably “humanize” deliverance of these funds.

Such a highly controlled educational, health, welfare and economic system is, in short, a socialized system. CCHD-funded Alinsky organizations seek to eventually draw member institutions into what they call the “third way” of governance – that is, community-based service provision. 

It doesn’t happen immediately.  Newly established community organizations need to be trained to civic action and consensus-building.  Local leadership must be tested.  Religious institutions, useful for their “social capital” (in organizing parlance), networking, and wealth must have their vision bent to work toward a worldly kingdom rather than Christ’s.  That’s accomplished in small, non-threatening steps.

But older, established organizations demonstrate the bigger picture.  Baltimore’s IAF local, BUILD, has been around since the 60s and has received many years of CCHD grants. BUILD is an actor in a federally funded “neighborhood transformation” project whose efforts include providing total health care to all residents, expansion of job opportunities, monetary assistance toward the rehabilitation of old housing, and the construction of new housing. BUILD works with ACORN and the Democratic Socialists of America to promote “living wage” legislation.  These are important social changes.

But the deeper changes are in the religious understanding of people involved with BUILD.  A prayer service conducted by the organization illustrates how the Christian message is distorted and used by the IAF: “Somehow the Kingdom will come on the earth.  BUILD, if you are a mighty people, if you are a noble people, if you are a great people, there’s forests out there.  There’s land to be filled.  There’s work to be done.  Won't you be counted in the army of the Lord?” [Harry Boyte, Commonwealth: A Return to Citizen Politics, (New York: The Free Press, 1989), chapter 7, “Repairing the Commons,” p. 114].

This is not systemic change toward a more just society, but systemic change of a profoundly ideological order.

So we look again at CCHD’s diagram of the two footprints. Where are those feet taking us?  And do we really want to contribute to the journey?

Maybe not.

1. Sanford Horwitt, Let Them Call Me Rebel, (New York: Vintage Books, 1989) p 586.  David Finks confirms this by saying “The largest single contributor to these citizen organizations over the last decade has been the CHD “ (The Radical Vision of Saul Alinsky, p 271) and Rael Jean and Erich Isaac write, “The Catholic Church has also been a major contributor to the utopians through its Campaign for Human Development...The largest grants have gone to community-organizing projects of the Alinsky school: the largest single recipient has been the Industrial Areas Foundation...” (The Coercive Utopians, p 210).

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