Evangelizing for the world, not the Word: the secularized Catholic Relief Services

politics | Sep 02, 2015 | By Stephanie Block

Various Catholic dioceses, including the dioceses of Baltimore, Grand Rapids, Trenton, Chicago, and Washington DC, are active in “Parish Partnerships,” a program designed by Catholic Relief Services (CRS) to develop global “solidarity.”  
 
In its “Parish Partnership Manual,” CRS explains that this program is “geared specifically to those partnerships that involve two parishes from different cultures with a disparity of material wealth’ but its principles could be applied to “two parishes in the United States, or between two parishes of relatively similar socio-economic circumstances in different countries.”
 
Given recent revelations[i] about how secular CRS has become, any program it promotes – particularly if it’s being used in a Catholic parish – bears close examination.
 
Does it represent a genuinely Catholic perspective or is it attempting to inculcate non-Catholic perspectives and/or ideologies?
 
Carolyn Woo, CEO and president of CRS
 
 
The fundamental approach of the program, “From Helping to Solidarity,” de-emphasizes “direct services” or what were traditionally called “corporal works of mercy” and emphasizes, instead, relationship building. (Manual, p. 4) 
 
In traditional Catholic Action, this is not either/or.  A loving relationship is the prerequisite of any corporal work of mercy.  In the CRS program, this “relationship” is accomplished in the context of a committee that includes (ideally) “People who are committed to global solidarity and justice; People with networking, advocacy, organizational, language, and/or fundraising skills;” and other things. [pp 6-7, emphasis added]
 
“Advocacy skills” are hardly an impediment to traditional Catholic Action but the inclusion of such skills in the parish partnership “relationship” suggests that the “solidarity” being proposed by CRS will go beyond “relationship” and “direct services” into another kind of work altogether.
 
Indeed, that proves to be the case.  After providing practical advice for structuring the “parish partnership,” the manual lists various questions for a “Partnership Annual Checkup,” in which the partners are asked to provide regular assessment of their “twinning experience.” One set of questions makes clear where this advocacy is going:
 
     “IV. Work to change unjust systems and structures.
 
     * Is the relationship helping your parish to learn about the root causes of injustices affecting the overseas parish community---the economic and political forces and      systems which are at play?
 
     * Have you and your partner created opportunities to brainstorm ways to work together to address these systems of injustice?
 
     * Has your parish increased its commitment to actions for global social justice as a result of your partnership?” [p 16, emphasis added]
 
The above, italicized terms can be understood in the larger context of the program. 
 
A. Root causes of injustices
 
The CRS program discusses what it means by “the root causes of injustice” in the section about what sorts of projects the wealthier U.S. parish might consider undertaking with its poorer and needier “partner":
 
 
     "Good development projects take into account the wider context of policies and practices that perpetuate the situation of poverty or injustice. Projects should include a careful situational analysis which might imply necessary actions at the local, regional, national or international level to correct injustices. U.S. parish partners should be ready to support these actions at various levels, either through financial or technical assistance for local level actions or through their own advocacy actions to affect U.S. and international policies.” [p19]
 
In other words, the U.S. partner is being invited to involve itself in both local and foreign politics.   
 
This is not necessarily a bad thing if one is addressing genuinely unjust structures (e.g. abortion, or, the example given in the manual, fair trade for agricultural products); it is an abomination if one is, say, fomenting revolution to further socialist governance.
 
B. Systems of injustice  
 
A hint as to how the CRS program intends for participants to “address systems of injustice” is found in the section about CRS Justice Education Resources:  
 
     “Advocating For Change: Bring your faith to bear in the public square. The root causes of world poverty are often connected to international and U.S. policies that profoundly affect the lives of poor people around the globe. CRS complements its humanitarian and development activities overseas with policy analysis and advocacy at home. Get involved in the political process and bring about changes that uproot the causes of poverty, conflict and injustice. Visit our Action Center now to find out what issues you can influence today.” [p. 29, emphasis added]
 
That is a highly ideological point of view. 
 
     C. actions for global social justice The manual section “Advocacy in Partnership” begins by telling participants that “Your parish partnership is a vehicle for societal transformation:”
 
     “Through this unique opportunity [of parish partnership], you will gain knowledge of each other’s personal, economic and social realities, and begin to understand the injustices that your partner confronts daily both on a personal and structural level. This leads to an acute awareness of how unjust structures are leaving some people with barely the means to survive, while others have more than they will ever need.
 
     “It is this awareness that leaves all of us, especially as Catholics, with a tremendous responsibility to work to change those systems and structures. We are called to advocate with and in support of our sisters and brothers around the world to remove the structural impediments to justice. U.S. citizens especially, have a tremendous opportunity to dramatically impact international policy issues affecting our brothers and sisters overseas because of our nation’s influence on the world’s stage. Solidarity clearly involves advocacy for justice for our sisters and brothers in our partner community and in other parts of the world.” [p 30, emphasis added]
 
In addition to highly political and ideological perspective expressed above, participants are then directed to engage in specific “legislative advocacy” to support this perspective.  Promoting fair trade coffee is one thing; becoming a legislative drone for a highly secularized CRS is another. 
 
To help participants “advocate for legislation,” CRS will send (if requested) updates and action alerts.  Further resources include CRS webcasts, blog postings, video podcasts, backgrounders, prayer services and discussion guides on “global issues like improving and increasing international development assistance and fighting global disease.” (p 33)
 
“Parish Partnership” is a well thought-out program…one in which a Unitarian would feel right at home.


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Spero News columnist Stephanie Block edits the New Mexico-based Los Pequeños newspaper and is the author of the four-volume Change Agents: Alinskyian Organizing Among Religious Bodies, which is available at Amazon.

The views and opinions expressed herein are those of the author only, not of Spero News.

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