By JOHN L. ALLEN JR.
From the outside, much of the drama of a bishops’ meeting pivots on what the conference will or won’t say about a given issue – what sort of texts it adopts, statements it issues, and so on. For those with eyes to see, however, sometimes how the bishops vote with their feet is just as telling as anything they may eventually put on paper.
Monday night in Baltimore offered a classic case in point, as a reception sponsored by the embattled Catholic Campaign for Human Development, the major domestic anti-poverty initiative of the U.S. bishops’ conference, drew a high-profile overflow crowd at the Marriott Waterfront hotel.
Founded in 1969, the CCHD offers grants to local anti-poverty initiatives around the country, such as the Miami Worker’s Center, an organizing and advocacy group for low-wage workers in Miami, Florida, and the Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement, which advocates for the preservation of family farms. The CCHD also sponsors programs in economic development and “education for justice.”
For years, the CCHD has drawn fire from critics who see it as overly secular in its methods and/or overly leftist in its politics. Recent months, however, have been especially turbulent, following revelations that CCHD has funded local groups affiliated with ACORN, the controversial community organizing network linked to the Obama campaign and charged with embezzlement and voter registration fraud, to the tune of some $7.3 million over the last decade.
Although the CCHD suspended that funding last June, and although officials insist that CCHD funds were always directed to local programs rather than to the national ACORN office, the criticism has nevertheless sparked concern about possible declines in the annual collection for the campaign in American parishes, set this year for Nov. 22-23.
It was in that light that the robust turn-out last night at the CCHD reception in Baltimore took on special significance. A number of cardinals were on hand, including Cardinals Justin Rigali of Philadelphia, Sean O’Malley of Boston, and Francis George of Chicago. Also in attendance was Bishop Gerald Kicanas of Tucson, meaning that the president and vice-president of the bishops’ conference were both there, as well as Bishop William Skylstad of Spokane, the immediate past president of the conference.
That all-star turnout is all the more meaningful given that the CCHD shindig was hardly the only game in town. At the very same hour, other receptions or events were being sponsored by the National Leadership Roundtable on Church Management, The Catholic Church Extension Society and FADICA (Foundations and Donors Interested in Catholic Activities), as well as St. Meinrad Seminary and the Bishops Plan Insurance Company.
Several bishops said privately that they turned out for the CCHD reception in large part to show support, especially in the lead-in to the annual collection later this month. (To be fair, invitations distributed for the event promised “heavy hors d’oeuvres” and an “open bar,” which may also have had something to do with it.)
In effect, the reception sent a signal that the recent controversies have not caused the bulk of the bishops to lose confidence in the CCHD or its objective of funneling Catholic resources to anti-poverty groups around the country, whether they’re church-affiliated or not.
Those who showed up for the CCHD event were also treated, among other things, to what so far has to rank as the best line of the November ’08 bishops’ meeting.
During the reception, a young lay woman named Stephanie Garza was presented with the “2008 Cardinal Bernardin New Leadership Award,” honoring her work on behalf of women and immigrants. She's part of the Southwest Organizing Project in Chicago, which receives funding from the Catholic Campaign for Human Development. Among other things, Garza spearheaded the exchange of 40,000 postcards between immigrant and non-immigrant parishes in order to promote a sense of solidarity.
George was called upon to help make the presentation to Garza. As he took the podium, he looked out over the large crowd, smiled, and quipped: “I guess this is the year for community organizers from Chicago!”
Later today, the bishops are expected to receive a report on how CCHD has responded to the controversy surrounding its now-severed ties to ACORN from Auxiliary Bishop Roger Morin of New Orleans, who chairs a subcommittee of the bishops’ conference on the Catholic Campaign for Human Development.