Bishops mull the future of CCHD, with financial concerns looming

(OSV News) — During their annual spring assembly in Louisville, Kentucky, the U.S. Catholic bishops spent time privately evaluating the future of their domestic anti-poverty agency, the Catholic Campaign for Human Development.

Over more than half a century, the campaign has awarded hundreds of millions of dollars to efforts to combat poverty’s root causes — but not without occasional controversy over how grantees’ efforts align with Catholic teaching.

Now, as declining donations and a post-pandemic charitable giving landscape have brought the initiative to an inflection point, OSV News looks back at how the CCHD has fared over the years, with an eye to what its still-to-be-determined future may be.

Evaluating the future of CCHD

Discussions about CCHD at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ 2024 Spring Plenary Assembly June 12-14 were held behind closed doors in an executive session, prior to the assembly’s livestreamed public sessions.

Although media could not access the executive-level gatherings, the USCCB’s president, Archbishop Timothy P. Broglio of the U.S. Archdiocese for the Military Services, noted at a press event afterward that “the bishops had a good discussion, including time to share in small groups. The CCHD subcommittee will take this feedback and discern the best way to incorporate it into the future work of the CCHD.”

He added that “in all these discussions, the bishops’ ongoing commitment to the vital work of fighting poverty was clear.”

History and mission of CCHD

In 1969, that same commitment had led the U.S. Catholic bishops to found the National Catholic Crusade Against Poverty, which soon became the Campaign for Human Development, formally established in 1970. “Catholic” was added to its name in 1999.

According to research by Catholic editor and journalist Joel Schorn, the initiative’s concept emerged after several Catholic clergy had met in 1969 in Ontario, Canada. The campaign sought to create a national-level response to poverty that empowered community-based groups to develop economic and political power. Target projects included voter registration, credit unions, job training programs, cooperatives and nonprofit housing corporations.

Those goals in turn were inspired by Scripture and the Church’s social teaching. Citing Luke 4:18, the USCCB states on its CCHD webpage that the campaign’s “primary goal (is) to carry out the mission of Jesus Christ ‘… to bring good news to the poor … release to captives … sight to the blind, and let the oppressed go free.’”

CCHD was “a unique undertaking by the bishops of the United States to support and encourage community-based groups to empower themselves — a way of putting Catholic social teaching into practical action,” Msgr. Robert J. Vitillo, CCHD’s executive director from January 1997 to January 2005 and now secretary general of the International Catholic Migration Commission in Geneva, told OSV News.

Dual pastoral strategy

CCHD has what the U.S. bishops describe on their website as a “dual pastoral strategy” — working to break the cycle of poverty by (empowering) those experiencing it, and educating about the root causes of poverty.

CCHD funds are collected in most U.S. dioceses in November, usually on the weekend before the U.S. Thanksgiving holiday — and in recent years coinciding with World Day of the Poor, established by Pope Francis in 2017. Of those donations, 25% support local organizations within a given diocese that align with CCHD’s mission, with 75% directed to the CCHD national office for distribution to grantees in dioceses across the country.

To date, CCHD has awarded over $440 million to almost 12,000 community organizations working to end the root causes of poverty in the U.S., according to the USCCB.

Controversies and criticisms

But Schon noted in a 2007 assessment of CCHD that the campaign has since its earliest days faced criticism from “a small but vocal network of social and religious conservatives” who have objected to the initiative on both doctrinal and political grounds.

Opponents have accused CCHD of funding groups that promote abortion, gay rights and other issues at variance with Catholic moral teaching — or, in some cases, enabling otherwise qualifying organizations to support such causes thanks to a financial boost from CCHD, wrote Schon.

Additionally, critics have said that CCHD represents a deviation from the Church’s traditional commitment to helping the poor through direct charity toward a path of social, economic and political change. A number of critics have flatly charged CCHD of funding leftist interests — a claim that the Virginia-based Lepanto Institute vigorously echoes today, declaring on its website that the CCHD “has a history of funding organizations that promote abortion, homosexuality, contraception and Marxism.”

Ensuring adherence to Catholic values

The U.S. bishops have firmly denied that CCHD monies are allocated to groups that act against Catholic values.

The CCHD website states that “all initiatives that are supported with CCHD funding have gone through a thorough application process and are endorsed by BOTH the local bishop and national subcommittee of bishops as organizations with objectives and actions that are fully in accord with the moral teaching of the Catholic Church.”

“CCHD’s funding policies and procedures have strong policies and clearer mechanisms to screen and monitor grants and groups to ensure that CCHD funds go to organizations that uphold the life and dignity of the human person in every way,” the website states, noting that grant recipients are closely monitored, with “each allegation” of violation “rigorously reviewed” and funding immediately terminated when complaints have been substantiated.

The CCHD website also states that while CCHD “encourages groups to work across geographical, racial, ethnic, economic, and ideological lines to overcome poverty and advance the common good,” it “will not fund groups that are knowingly members of coalitions that have as part of their organizational purpose or coalition agenda, positions or actions that contradict fundamental Catholic moral and social teaching” on issues including abortion, same-sex marriage, euthanasia, racism, the death penalty and “punitive measures toward immigrants.”

The campaign engages a moral theologian for “additional guidance on the ethical implications” of CCHD-funded groups in working such coalitions, the website states.

Yet despite the doctrinal and political concerns that have dogged CCHD over the years, the campaign’s future may in the end come down to what The Pillar called in a June 11 analysis “much more a matter of dollars and common sense than of competing partisan agendas.”

Financial challenges

According to The Pillar, “Over the last nine years, from 2014 to 2022, for which audited financial statements for the national collections are available on the USCCB website, the CCHD had expenses in excess of revenues in all but one year,” with “a cumulative net loss of $30.6 million” over the nine-year period.

The Pillar’s analysis also showed that “after accounting for investment gains/losses and internal fund transfers, the net assets of the CCHD have decreased from $58 million at the end of 2013 to $8 million at the end of 2022.”

More broadly, a 2023 study by Villanova University’s Institute for Church Management showed that the number of Catholic donors dropped 26% during the COVID pandemic and remains down 16% compared to pre-COVID levels.

That stark financial picture is a grim irony for CCHD and its anti-poverty mission — and one not lost on the U.S. bishops as they continue to assess the viability of the initiative.

This post Bishops mull the future of CCHD, with financial concerns looming appeared on Our Sunday Visitor.

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