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cash continuumjournalscomYesterday’s post examined Saul Alinsky’s influence on the Archdiocese of Chicago.  Today, we’ll look at subsequent developments in the American Church. 

Before his death in 1972, Saul Alinsky said:

The biggest change I saw in the first twenty years or so that I was involved in social action is in the role of the churches … In the 1960s they really moved into the social arena, the political arena. They took over the position organised labor had a generation ago.

By the 1960s, civil rights were at the forefront of American policies and politics.  And, for a brief time, the United States had its one and only Roman Catholic President, John F Kennedy.  Kennedy’s ascent to the White House brought Catholics from both sides of the political spectrum to the forefront of American society and thought.  Some, like William F Buckley, were intellectual conservatives. Others, like Dorothy Day of the Catholic Worker movement, were Communist Catholics active with the poor.  Cesar Chavez, an Alinsky disciple, worked with migrant farm workers in California. 

It wasn’t long before the media spotlight eventually landed on Catholic clergy, who became increasingly active in social movements:

  • Monsignor George Higgins and the labour movement
  • Monsignor Geno Baroni and ethnic urban neighborhoods
  • Fathers Philip and Daniel Berrigan and the antiwar movement
  • Father James Groppi and the civil rights movement
  • Monsignor John ‘Jack’ Egan and Alinsky’s community organisations
  • Thomas Merton and his social critiques from the monastery
  • John Courtney Murray and U.S. civil discourse
  • Andrew Greeley and James Kavanaugh and their radical points of view about the Church and society 

By the end of the decade, the post-Vatican II world was in full swing.  Priests and religious renounced their vows and rejoined the secular life.  Catholic women hoped for relaxed rules on birth control. Many younger Catholics questioned the Church and papal authority.  This revolution in the Church gave birth to the Catholic in Name Only — CINO — even if they weren’t called that at the time.  They made their own rules, and the priests were no longer stopping them.

So, it will come as no surprise that against this backdrop the CHD launched in November 1969 as a vehicle for bringing about a ‘new Catholicism’ in America.  Senior clergy with leftist sympathies were instrumental in bringing the campaign together: Archbishop John Dearden of Detroit, Bishop (later Cardinal) Joseph Bernardin, Monsignor George Higgins and Monsignor John Egan.  Msgrs Higgins and Egan were from the Archdiocese of Chicago.  Furthermore, the NCCB would realign itself to more closely fit what was perceived to be Vatican II theology.  More ‘community organisation’ priests around the US would come to the fore, led by Msgr Egan.  

Egan first met Alinsky in 1954 in Chicago.  Under Alinsky’s tutelage, Egan went from being a conventional parish priest to one with a ‘public role’.  By 1957, he was a community organiser who would have a nationwide influence extending beyond Chicago.  Egan lamented seminary education, saying that ‘nothing in our training enables priests to be administrators or organisers’. Alinsky instructed Egan in his classic methods: power, leadership development, personal relationships, strategy and tactics.  Money was no problem.  Cardinal Stritch of the Archdiocese of Chicago gave Alinsky $40,000 a year for Egan’s internship, which included a three-year study of racially-mixed neighbourhoods in the city.  Those were tidy sums of money 50 years ago.  You could buy a decent house in those days for a fraction of the annual amount Alinsky received

Egan later recalled, ‘Saul and I began working very closely … to focus the power of the Church on the problems of the city.’  Together, they:

  • developed the first Office of Urban Affairs in Chicago
  • organised three major neighbourhood community operations
  • lent a ‘Catholic’ credibility to community organising
  • trained and mobilised organisers
  • raised money to finance their organisations 

Egan was the first Catholic priest to devote his official ministry to community organisation, with the full backing of the Archdiocese of Chicago!  Note how nicely author Richard McBrien cloaks the language:

[Egan was a] pioneer in the urban ministry apostolate … a pioneer in inner city ministry, a pioneer in community organisation, a pioneer in priestly ministry as a ministry to the whole Church and to the whole society.

Sounds awfully impressive and godly, doesn’t it?  It’s no surprise how many people must have pulled out their chequebooks hearing words similar to that.  Remember the Communist Party’s ‘honeyed words to the church people’.

To give you an idea of the sums of money they raised in the 1960s, Cardinal Meyer made an archdiocesan commitment for $150,000 for three years, $50,000 a year to the Woodlawn [a Chicago neighbourhood] Organisation.  $20,000 could buy you a comfortable middle-class house at the time.


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

Tomorrow: The CHD in depth

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