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bishops blogsreuterscomTwo readers have asked me to elaborate on the Marxist connections within the Catholic Church in the 1960s.  I am happy to oblige.

Many American Catholics know of the Campaign for Human Development (CHD), which the national conference of Catholic bishops initiated in 1969.  It is the longest-running social experiment in American Catholic history.  It is the primary example of Catholic social action in the United States.

This is the founding statement for the CHD:

There is an evident need for funds designated to be used for organising groups of white and minority poor to develop economic and political power in their own communities…. Therefore be it resolved that the National Conference of Catholic Bishops (NCCB) establish a National Crusade Against Poverty. The crusade will commit the Church to raise a fund of 50 million dollars over the next several years.

By 1998, the CHD had raised a total $225m.  But why?  Surely, the original goal of $50m would have been sufficient, particularly with a variety of US Government programmes in force at the same time: welfare, aid to dependent children, food stamps, Medicaid.

A former President of the NCCB, Bishop James Malone, says the CHD was started as a response to:

  • ‘the crisis of human needs and aspirations which was being experienced with peculiar urgency in American society’
  • ‘the impact of the Second Vatican Council’

There is also a third reason which largely goes unstated: as a means of support to Saul Alinsky, the daddy of community organisers in the United States.  Since his Back of the Yards programme in 1939, he and the Catholic Church worked closely together.  The ‘Yards’ referred to the Chicago Stockyards, where all the big meatpacking facilities were located.  They moved out at the end of the 1960s to other parts of the nation, but for decades, since the advent of processed meat and commercial packing, they relied on European immigrant labour from nearby neighbourhoods.  (For a turn-of-the-century look at what the Stockyards were like, read Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, a jaw-dropping account of the daily grind, poverty and dire working conditions.)   

The Catholic Archdiocese of Chicago got involved because many of the Stockyard workers were Roman Catholics from various ethnic backgrounds.  Each neighbourhood had its own church reflecting the national identity of the employees and their parents: Poland, Lithuania, Ireland, Germany.  Alinsky organised the parishes one by one to argue for better housing for local families and improved working conditions for the men in the Yards.  Alinsky knew that the Church was the focal point for these neighbourhoods and that any lasting impact would require their support.

The Auxiliary Bishop of the Archdiocese of Chicago at the time, the Right Revd Bernard J Sheil, became the honorary Chairman of the Back of the Yards Council.  His support legitimised Alinsky’s organisation immeasurably.  Alinsky’s additional powerful public support came from  John L Lewis, the head of the Congress of Industrial Organisations (CIO).  Alinsky had what he wanted: a community programme built on the foundation of the Church and organised labour. 

The media were not slow in picking up on this fact. Time magazine that Sheil’s involvement and his application of a papal encyclical (Rerum Novarum) to Lewis’s organizing drive ‘was making not only Chicago, but U.S. history’.  The Chicago Daily News said:

… something new in community organisation is about to happen in the Back of the Yards…. The council is the conception and individual project of Saul D. Alinsky … The residents of the district … are almost completely stockyard workers and Catholics, and on this basis the sociologist [Alinsky] has enlisted churchmen and the CIO leaders to form the main pillars of the neighborhood council.

Both publications were right.  Lewis and Sheil appeared together in public support of the Stockyard workers who were threatening to strike.  Hours later, in July 1939, the four main meatpacking companies — Armour, Cudahy, Wilson and Swift — acceded to the workers’ demands for better pay and conditions.  Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of the Archdiocese of Chicago would state decades later in 1995 that the Back of the Yards victory marked the moment when ‘the great work of community organising began in Chicago’.

This remark was part of the cardinal’s address marking the 25th anniversary of the CHD.  Let’s examine a passage from that speech (emphasis mine):

It is fitting that we are gathered here because since the beginning, Chicago has been important to the Campaign and the Campaign has been important to Chicago. As you may know, Msgr. George Higgins of this Archdiocese wrote a Labor Day message that pointed the way to the Campaign; Auxiliary Bishop Michael Dempsey of Chicago was the CHD’s first spokesperson; Msgr. Jack Egan organised the ‘Friends of CHD’ in the mid-1970s, and for decades has been an inspiration to the Campaign’s work; the great work of community-organising began in Chicago, and Chicago has many important networks and training centres; CHD enjoys a rich tradition of support here, both in the form of active and enthusiastic participation by people in organisations and projects funded by CHD, and in the generous donations to the annual CHD Collection.

Here are the salient facts from that excerpt:

  • Of the individuals the cardinal mentions, Dempsey was the only one with no direct link to Alinsky
  • An Alinsky protege, P David Finks, wrote the Labor Day message for Msgr Higgins
  • Msgr Egan was the first priest to be an Alinsky intern
  • Egan organised the Friends of CHD using Alinsky’s strategy as developed in Rochester, New York
  • The ‘network and training centres’ have direct links to Alinsky’s methods
  • The ‘generous donations’ — hundreds of thousands of dollars — from the Catholic faithful support Alinsky-style organisations   

It was no exaggeration for Heather Booth of the Midwest Academy in Chicago when she remarked, ‘Alinsky is to community organising as Freud is to psychoanalysis’.

You can read more here: ‘The Influence of Saul Alinsky on the Campaign for Human Development’, Lawrence J Engel, December 1998 

Tomorrow: Activism among clergy in the 1960s

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