A 4-inch-square, 96-page booklet once was considered the embodiment of social justice and empowerment of the poor in Portland, and for years its publisher attracted financial backing from the Catholic Campaign for Human Development through the Archdiocese of Portland.
The local Catholic Campaign -- a private nonprofit foundation operated by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops -- helped launch the booklet with a $5,000 grant in 2008, making sure information on health care, shelter, employment and supportive services was in the hands of people experiencing homelessness and poverty.
That was until this spring, when a call to the office of Justice and Peace of the Archdiocese of Portland pointed out the offense on page 25. There, under the category of health care, was a listing for Planned Parenthood, which in a half-inch space included a description of the various basic services, including contraception, that the organization provides to low- or no-income customers seeking health care.
The message from CCHD managers, although supportive of the booklet's overall mission, was clear in terms of funding: If Planned Parenthood remained in the booklet, CCHD, in keeping with Catholic teaching, could no longer fund Street Roots, the publisher of the Rose City Resource guide. Street Roots decided to keep the listing.
But what was behind the call? Why now? What changed after five years of CCHD support for Street Roots? How did a piece of information suddenly morph into a theological offense?
Starting in autumn 2009, other groups began asking the same questions. The Chinese Progressive Association in San Francisco was among the first to get the call: CCHD, which was one of the founding funders for the 38-year-old association, had to cut ties with the workers' rights program. Also in California, the Young Workers United was told it was being cut from funding as well, as was the Rebecca Project for Human Rights, which helps homeless and disadvantaged women who have children. L.A. Community Action Network was "defunded" at its own request after CCHD tried to censor its newspaper. Women in Transition in Louisville, Ky. had its grant rescinded, and Preble Resource Center, which serves homeless youths in Portland, Maine, was ordered to return CCHD funds for its Homeless Voices for Justice program.
Besides CCHD's support, and beyond the commonality of their missions, these groups share something else: They were all targeted, investigated and determined unfit by a campaign of Catholic conservative groups that, via the prolific capacity of the Internet, have formed a nationwide coalition calling for the defunding of more than 50 poverty-alleviation organizations, and a radical overhaul -- and even disbandment -- of CCHD.
To date, 10 U.S. bishops, an unprecedented number by Catholic news reports, have publicly suspended their annual, mandatory collection among parishioners for CCHD because of claims that CCHD funded "anti-Catholic" organizations. The allegations by the group called "Reform CCHD Now" against grantees begin as crimes against the Catholic Church for supporting abortion and gay-rights issues, and extend to direct attacks on community organizing and social empowerment. It could be dismissed as a fringe element, if not for the use of the campaign by politically vested parties to discredit, disrupt and defund the work of community organizing groups long-supported and heralded by U.S. bishops.
This year, Catholic Campaign for Human Development celebrated 40 years of funding community programs that address the root causes of homelessness and poverty. Nationwide, it has distributed more than $400 million in self-help grants to 8,000 agencies across the United States, making it the nation's largest private funder of self-help groups for the poor.
CCHD is a rarity in the world of charitable investment in that it does not fund direct services like its faith-based counterparts, Catholic Charities or St. Vincent DePaul. Instead, CCHD's grantees are organizations that work to foster systemic change through partnering with common-cause groups and community organizing.
The attacks by Reform CCHD Now and its followers are prompting a "review and renewal" process by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. What the bishops decide could have major consequences for the thousands of cash-strapped nonprofits that CCHD supports, and the millions of poor and disenfranchised people who rely on these programs that today serve as proxy to government initiatives.
Eternal vigilance is the price of freedom
In the summer of 2009, the Texas-based Bellarmine Veritas Ministry, an opaque "Catholic grass-roots organizing ministry" traceable to one man, Rob Gasper, released an investigation into CCHD grantees. This June, the Virginia-based American Life League released a report echoing Bellarmine's conclusions: that CCHD was funding what it called "anti-Catholic organizations" based upon the grantees' actions and the actions of their partners and affiliates. These groups called on parishioners to boycott their donations to CCHD until the bishops revise the granting oversight. The groups specifically target 50 organizations they are demanding the CCHD stop funding.
These reports surfaced during the thick of the health care reform debate, a flagship in President Obama's agenda, which the bishops opposed over abortion issues. In fact, the reformers singled out the bill and demanded that any grantees that supported the health care reform legislation "must state clearly and publicly that they will not promote any piece of legislation which gives federal support to abortion or family planning."
Bellarmine, American Life League and Human Life International, also based in Virginia, are the three primary organizations behind Reform CCHD Now, although the coalition claims more than 20 organizations working on behalf of the nationwide campaign. These three groups have driven the reform movement to viral levels online with blogs and video and through the multitude of online Catholic and pro-life news services, including LifeNews.com and LifeSiteNews.com.
"Because of the Internet, we've been able to get the information out to much [sic] more people in a much shorter period of time," says Michael Hitchborn, a researcher with the pro-life organization American Life League. "Which is why the CCHD is finding it much harder to hide ... tactics they've been using."
Those tactics, according to Hitchborn, are to fund groups that do not conform to Catholic teaching, deny they are "anti-Catholic" groups, and then continue funding with the complications essentially swept under the rug. Many of the organizations already defunded this past year were longtime recipients of CCHD funding, praised for their work in building cross-community partnerships and networks to fight the causes of poverty. However, it's those partnerships that factor into nearly all of the groups singled out by the reform movement. In fact, more than 30 groups reformers want defunded are listed because they are members of the Center for Community Change, a D.C.-based cross-community organizing movement that stopped receiving CCHD funding in 2001.
"The groups that are receiving CCHD money are getting trained by [Center for Community Change], Hitchborn says. which means they are being trained in cross-issues advocacy. And that's a problem. So what we called for is an immediate disassociation from [Center for Community Change] for any group receiving CCHD money."
Hitchborn says he will continue investigating organizations to weed out the grantees and says he's working on a new report for release soon, as the bishops conference and the annual CCHD collection approaches.
"Because of the long history of CCHD funding errant organizations, there's no way that we could let up," Hitchborn says. "Eternal vigilance is the price of freedom. And if we are going to make sure that an organization that claims to be Catholic remains Catholic, they need to adhere to Catholic teaching."
We didn't even do anything wrong
For nearly four decades, the San Francisco-based Chinese Progressive Association organized the Chinese and Asian immigrant community, including thousands of restaurant workers who received less than minimum wage or were living in the margins. With the support of CCHD, the organization engaged workers to successfully raise San Francisco's minimum wage from $6.75 to $8.50, and in 2006, helped lead the charge for all workers in the city to receive paid sick leave. This work, along with its housing program, youths and environmental justice work, and its workers center, was funded by CCHD for years. But by September, the local CCHD said the relationship was over.
The issue was the association's publication of a voter pamphlet that opposed California's Propositions 8 and 4, which banned same-sex marriages and required parental notification for some abortions. It was an effort that had nothing to do with the CCHD's funding, which was specifically allocated for the organization's Worker Center.
"It was right when the economic crisis happened," Tom says. "It was really poor form, poor taste and very bad timing when they decided to revoke the funding."
"In general, worker centers don't have the easiest time. Anti-poverty work is not something that is heavily supported," Tom says. "That was why CCHD was important. It helped us build a movement."
Preble Street in Portland, Maine, received CCHD grants for 13 years for its work in empowering the homeless, however, it was defunded at the end of 2009 and asked to return unspent grant money to CCHD because the organization joined the campaign against a measure to overturn the state's same-sex marriage law. For Preble Street, it was an extension of their advocacy for rights and opportunities for the homeless youths within the LGBT community. The CCHD grant, however, actually was awarded to Preble Street's project called Homeless Voices for Justice, which works for social change on behalf of -- and with the leadership of -- people in poverty and homelessness. Homeless Voices did not participate in the campaign on the law. However, as Homeless Voices' fiscal agent, Preble Street was called to return funding, and did so with a $2,400 check. In a letter to CCHD Director Ralph McCloud, Preble Street Executive Director Mark Swann defended his group's position: "Throughout our history, when Preble Street and Homeless Voices for Justice have taken differing positions, there has never been any effort to force or stifle the opinion of the other. Indeed, regardless of Preble Street's point of view, we have chosen to facilitate the expressions of opposing positions such as those of [Homeless Voices] by the support we offer them -- embodying the principles of CCHD social justice teachings.
"Punishing Homeless Voices by demanding the return of much-needed funds because of Preble Street's advocacy around issues of social justice is deeply troubling," Swann wrote.
Women in Transition in Louisville, Ky., is but a shadow of its former self after CCHD rescinded a $25,000 grant at the end of 2009. The organization runs skill-building programs for at-risk women and organizes on issues of affordable housing and health care. CCHD had sponsored the organization since 2005, until this past year when it received a letter from someone pointing out Women in Transition's relationship with Wench Self-Care Collective, a local women's health organization. Wench is pro-choice, and has helped escort women to and from the city's abortion clinic, but it also focuses on women's nutrition and education around healthy eating habits, which is where Women in Transition and Wench crossed paths. Women in Transition says it never worked with Wench on reproductive rights, just healthy eating, cooking classes and health fairs.
Women in Transition's executive director, Khalilah Collins, says her organization had received CCHD grants for $20,000 and $25,000 each year since 2005. The 2009 fall grant for $25,000 had been approved and the check in the hands of their fiscal sponsor, Catholic Charities, but it was never delivered. Collins says she was told by Catholic Charities that unless she signed a letter saying that her organization regretted the situation and would not work with the Wench group or any other group whose mission contradicted Catholic teaching, the money was in jeopardy. It was more than a third of the organization's budget and money they had counted on.
"The more I thought about it, the more upset I got," Collins says. "We didn't even do anything wrong."
Collins didn't write the letter. "I felt that our integrity was questioned as an organization, and all we have is our integrity and our voice, and you're questioning that," she says.
But the funding is gone. "We have no money right now. None. I didn't get paid last week, the rent hasn't been paid, because we're out of money," Collins says.
?"These are politically motivated attacks," says Chris Korzen, executive director of D.C.-based Catholics United, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization doing online advocacy and education programs around the Catholic Social Tradition. "And they fit into this broader narrative that we're unfortunately seeing in our system now, where social change is limited to charity and not actually fixing social structures that cause poverty and other problems."
The intent of these attacks, Korzen says, is to demonize community organizing behind the arguments against abortion and same-sex marriage.
A Catholic himself, Korzen says Catholic social teaching is being hijacked by political agendas.
"This hyper-individualism that some are pushing in a political context does not have a lot of support in Catholic social teaching," Korzen says. "So, essentially what we're seeing is groups who are using Catholic teaching to promote what really is a secular agenda," Korzen says.
"For sure, we've seen a movement to the right in Catholic institutional settings, and I'd even go so far to say there are some elements of the Catholic institutions and some parts of the [U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops] that have essentially been taken over by the Republican Party. That sounds like a strong statement, but it's the truth. Over the years, the conservative movement has worked very hard to cultivate support in the Catholic churches."
Case in point, Korzen says, is the U.S. bishops' opposition to the health care reform bill, which was singled out as a defundable offense by the reformers, "even though the Catholic Church believes that health care is a human right," Korzen says. "That never would have happened in the 1980s."
In response to the reformers' investigations and allegations, bishops across the country have issued statements in defense of CCHD's operations, including Archbishop John Vlazny of the Portland Diocese.
Ralph McCloud, the executive director of CCHD based in Washington D.C., says CCHD isn't beholden to the partisan arguments behind the attacks. "We go to where poor people are, where nobody else wants to go, to let them speak boldly. I think we're somewhere boldly embedded between the right and the left, and neither one of them can have a claim on it," McCloud says.
"I think where it gets murky sometimes is when people are in coalitions with a group where their main focus is somewhere else," McCloud says. "That's one of the things hoping to come out of the review and renewal process. We're securing assistance from folks who are theologians and ethicists to find where the line is so we're not arbitrary in our decisions."
The criticism and condemnation of CCHD has for decades been framed by politics. In the 1980s and '90s, former political appointees from the Nixon and Reagan administrations painted CCHD as a political arm of the liberal agenda. One appointee distributed a paper saying CCHD used Catholic money to prop up "leftist political activists plotting to destroy our economic system" and told Catholics to instead give their money to direct services. Repeated attacks conclude that people should not give money to CCHD because its mission is not charity, but rather social justice.
A more recent voice in the opposition to CCHD has been Deal W. Hudson, the former director of Catholic outreach for George W. Bush's 2000 and 2004 campaigns, and now the director of InsideCatholic.com. He has advanced Reform CCHD Now, citing its defunding campaign in his writings online, and added among those to be defunded the attendees to the U.S. Social Forum 2010 that included workshops on reproductive and gay rights.
The Catholic Media Coalition, another Catholic news source, for years has pushed to revamp CCHD, and calls for Catholics to boycott giving money to the charity because "The good groups funded by CCHD are not sufficient to balance the many evil groups supported, groups working for socialism by electing liberal politicians. CCHD helped to give us the radical, left-wing Congress we have today."
Compare that to celebrity pundit Glenn Beck, who told followers earlier this year that if they find the words "social justice" or "economic justice" on their church website, to "run as fast as you can."
"One of the effects of this, too, is essentially these folks are saying to a new generation of Catholics who still believe in social justice that you're not welcome here anymore," Korzen says. "It's going to shift demographics, where folks who still believe in social justice are just not considering themselves Catholic anymore. I don't want to be a part of a church that builds itself as an exclusive club. It's damaging to the church, as is any attempt to use Catholic teaching as a political battering ram."
There's a point where you've got to draw a line
Matt Cato with the Portland Archdiocese office of Justice and Peace and Respect for Life, says that the reform movement's attacks on CCHD have not changed how they consider grantees. He maintains that there are differences between material and proximate relationships between organizations that would determine if a group is eligible for funding.
"There's a point where you've got to draw a line. Just because the organization does this here or is associated with another organization, it doesn't mean this organization is tainted," Cato says.
Planned Parenthood, however, is the exception.
Since 2005, Street Roots has received $40,000 from CCHD for the newspaper, the Rose City Resource guide and for the eastside expansion to open a remote office for vendors. In all those years, Planned Parenthood has been a part of its listings (prior to 2008, the Rose City Resource was included as a part of the newspaper). Likewise, Street Roots has always included information on organizations helping at-risk gay, lesbian, transgender and bisexual youths and adults. Planned Parenthood is a "nuclear" red flag in the Catholic Church, Cato says. It is simply too hot to handle.
"I'm not going to tell you how to run your business, you guys do great work," Cato told this interview. "You make the decision in future resource guides to include that information or not, and if you include [Planned Parenthood], we can't give you a CCHD grant." Cato says.
"It's disturbing that a small group of right-wing fringe elements within the Catholic Church are being successful at undermining CCHD's work to address the root causes of poverty through promotion and support of community-controlled, self-help organizations and through transformative education," says Street Roots Executive Director Israel Bayer.
"At the end of the day, a witch hunt is a witch hunt, and that's exactly what Street Roots and dozens of community organizations working to fight poverty in the United States are facing, a witch hunt born out of fear and intolerance. Every group that currently receives funds from CCHD is being asked to not take part in activities or align themselves with the very groups it will take to dismantle poverty in this country. The [Rose City Resource] Guide gives people experiencing homelessness and poverty a chance to become their own advocates through education, and now it's being used against us because we have chosen to deliver to people, without judgment, the resources that are available to them in our community.
"Saying that, we're not defeated," Bayer says. "Maybe it was a blessing in disguise that one of the groups defunded in this fiasco was a community newspaper like Street Roots that takes its journalism seriously enough to tell the whole story, and get it out to the broader public for a larger debate."