Putting Your Best Foot Backward

The Campaign for Human Development has been a bright spot on an increasingly bleak Catholic landscape for three decades now. But at least 10 bishops would rather risk that singular asset by refusing to collect funds for the Campaign in their dioceses.

In so doing, the defecting bishops invoke their own form of subsidiarity by choosing to funnel money to local projects. On the face of it, their justifications make a certain sense. Most dioceses are in financial straits and struggle to meet Catholic Charity goals. The idea of collecting and spending funds on hometown needs rather than sending money to a "national bureaucracy" echoes the wider instincts of the Tea Party movement. "Don't trust anyone over 30 miles away," or something or that sort.

While the dioceses may achieve the Campaign's goals of enabling the poor to gain opportunity and improvement, I am skeptical. From its beginning in 1970, the Campaign has aimed at justice beyond charity. In the spirit of the reform era in which it was founded, the Campaign supported social change as well as personal development. It took on relatively traditional varieties of human assistance but was also open to taking some risks. It became a model that has won praise from a wide spectrum of Americans.

Given that reputation and the positive attention it has brought the church, the Campaign's virtual rejection by the 10 bishops is the very kind of thing that worsens an already dismal public relations picture for the Catholic church. It's as if the town's leading bank decided to stop financing its widely coveted college scholarships after an audit of the bank's books turned up shady dealings.

Perhaps all the rebel bishops will be visionaries with regard to Human Development but it's hard to imagine. As they announced their non-compliance, there were ominous, unspecified hints that some of the recipients of Campaign funds violated Catholic values. The Campaign is on the hunt for such unworthies.

It's unlikely that the reason for this protest is about particular cases but about the Campaign's spirit itself. As a product of the social justice themes of Vatican II, Paul VI's encyclicals and the American bishops themselves, the Campaign has become a symbol of the "worldiness" and "secularization" in the minds of many current bishops: well meant but misguided. Many of them prefer to limit such activites to traditional acts of charity within their dioceses where they can maintain control.

Several motives play into this break away from the Campaign, of course. It signals the growing abandonment of key aspects of the Council's mission to the world. In the process, it may also soon deprive the church's of a much-admired representative.

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