For years, apologists for Alinskyian political organizing have been trying to make the case that such organizing is a development of Catholic Action and therefore deserves support and respect. For instance, a 2011 National Catholic Reporter article reported that several speakers at a Catholic Campaign for Human Development seminar expressed the idea that community organizing – specifically citing the work of an Alinskyian PICO affiliate – is “a major contribution of the U.S. church to Catholic teaching on social justice.” The title of the article was “Community organizing celebrated as Catholic action.”
Another writer, citing an affiliate of the Alinskyian Industrial Areas Foundation network, among other groups, opined that they provided a: “‘blowing the dynamite’ approach to proactive Catholicism that would characterize the highly diverse groups coming under the umbrella of Catholic Action.”[i]
One could multiply examples that claim Alinskyian organizing is a form of Catholic Action – and therefore an authentic Catholic response to social justice – but the two actually have very little in common.
To understand the differences, let’s look at one, extraordinary example of Catholic Action.
Blessed Father Jerzy Popieluszko
Blessed Father Jerzy Popieluszko was a young Polish priest living under Communism when, in 1980, the trade union Solidarity conducted an “illegal” strike at the Lenin Shipyards in Gdańsk. As the days dragged on, the predominantly Catholic strikers wanted Sunday Mass and, despite incredible personal danger, Father Popieluszko volunteered.
He continued to celebrate a weekly Mass in his Warsaw parish church, about 250 miles south of Gdańsk, for the intentions and welfare of Solidarity. He organized a monthly Workmen Fellowship for Solidarity members that included prayer, preaching, and a lecture series that covered a broad range of subjects including Polish literature, history, the Church’s teaching about social science, law, and economics.
Needless to say, Solidarity’s popularity among the Polish people and its relationship to the Church, were a cause of tremendous concern to the Communists. The government imposed martial law and arrested about 5000 key Solidarity workers, leaving their families without livelihood.
Father Jerzy countered the arrests by organizing relief services for the affected families. He coordinated monitoring of the trials of those arrested and also served a monthly “Mass for the Homeland” that drew crowds of thousands to his Warsaw parish, where his sermons were taped and disseminated underground throughout the country. Long story short, after much harassment and many threats, arrests, and interrogations, Father Jerzy was kidnapped and assassinated.
A Stark Contrast
While some of what Father Jerzy said may bear similarities to the words one hears from Alinskyian organizers, there is a vast difference between the two. Father Jerzy operated according to the principles of Catholic Action.
Catholic Action is ordered toward Christianizing society, diffusing it with Christian culture and values. Alinskyian organizing, on the other hand, is entirely about growing political power, with Alinsky explaining that “The Prince was written by Machiavelli for the Haves on how to hold power.” His book, however, Rules for Radicals is written for the Have-Nots on how to take it away.”[ii]
Nothing changed after Alinsky died. His organizers were frank about their intentions: “In places like San Antonio and Baltimore, we are as close to being a political party as anybody is. We go around organizing people, getting them to agree on an agenda, registering them to vote, interviewing candidates on whether they support our agenda. We're not a political party, but that's what political parties do.”[iii]
This is a tremendously consequential difference. Proponents of both Catholic Action and Alinskyian organizing may agree that the Church cannot be neutral in the face of injustice but is the defender of the oppressed, the two are not always coming from the same understanding of oppression or how one addresses it.
Having different moral frameworks means that the issues Catholic Action finds of concern will not always be the same as those of progressives associated with the Alinskyian organizing networks who, for example, may feel that the Church’s moral position against same sex marriage is “oppressive.”
But the Christian perspective in Catholic Action is not negotiable. Its civic actions must occur within the context of Catholic moral teaching and Truth. Father Jerzy said in one of his sermons: “The culture of a nation is also its morality. A Christian nation must be guided by our centuries-old and proven Christian morality. A Christian nation has no need of so-called secular morality, which, in the words of the late Cardinal Wyszyński, has no face and offers no hope. It creates a permanent threat to all the spiritual values of a nation and weakens the forces binding it together.” (Sermon, 9-25-83)
In another sermon, he said: “Work, especially hard work, shapes love and social justice. It happens only when work is ruled by the proper moral order. If there is no moral order at work, in place of justice creeps hurt, and in place of love - hate. That is why those who in recent decades have destroyed and are still destroying the moral order do such harm to the working people and the whole society. When they want to replace Christian morality, rooted in a thousand years of tradition, against the will of all with so-called secular morality, in a Christian country there will always be a purulent wound. They do harm when they exclude God from the workplace, and believers are discriminated [against] and usually cannot occupy high positions. The workers of August 1980 called more for moral order than for higher wages.” (Sermon, 12-4-83)
One can contrast this to Saul Alinsky’s observation that an organizer “does not have a fixed truth – truth to him is relative and changing.” He advises his radical organizers to, “[D]o what you can with what you have and clothe it with moral garments.” To accomplish this, Alinskyian organizations are comprised of many religious institutions. They provide the moral garments for which the Alinskyian organizers are looking…but they do not assure that the Alinskyian organization is operating within a moral framework, as they often have a very superficial understanding of the Alinskyian organization’s larger goals.
In the work of Catholic Action, politics may be a factor in pushing for a social change that furthers the Catholic understanding of a more just society but it is not an organizational goal. The goal is to form laity who understand the truths of the faith and are prepared to exercise political and social rights in harmony with the principles of Christian morality.
Without that formation, Catholics are easily mislead to accept statist solutions to social problems rather than solutions grounded in subsidiarity. All the Alinskyian organizing networks support comprehensive, universal health care and a national education-workforce system, for example. These two, fundamental social “changes” not only contain elements that are, per se, morally abhorrent but also usurp the rights of families, local governments, and the very religious institutions that support these networks.
The Alinskyian networks, therefore, work from a Marxist perspective, not only in their embrace of statist solutions but also in their working from a vision of class struggle that “rubs raw the sores of discontent,” in the words Alinsky urged his radical organizers.
Promoters of Catholic Action, however, seek unity and solidarity among all groups of people. Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski – who was supportive of the Polish labor movement and zealous in working for the poor – made the point, a year after the Communists took over Poland: “All these social changes and this political and class struggle for social justice are irrelevant. The real struggle is in fact against the Lord and His Christ. All this talk about reaction and obscurantism is irrelevant, and so is juggling with words like "progress", "peace", "justice" and so on. These are poor, overused words; a screen for real aims. The eternal enemy of God has revealed himself on earth today, dressed as an Angel of Light, and claiming to correct God Himself. Evil does not believe in the power of Christian love but promotes struggle. It does not put its trust in the Word but in futile manifestoes.”
So, we read a “Manifesto” written by IAF-trained Catholics in order “to reflect on the Gospels in order to find the proper response to [their] own situation.” It is a reformulation of the Mary’s Magnificat with lines like: “He stretches His powerful arms and liberates us from the clutches and snares of the power brokers – those who rob the afflicted and needy; He brings down bankers, developers, oil barons, and raises our barrios and ghettos…”
This incitement to class warfare is diametrically opposed to Catholic teaching.
In the light of all this, one can see that Catholic Action concerns, first and foremost, a spiritual kingdom, not an earthly kingdom. The earthly “social change” accomplished through integrated, nationalized systems that Alinskyian organizing works so diligently to create through its progressive political alliances is quite another matter.
The progressive, political nature of these alliances places the Alinskyian organizations at further odds with Catholic social teaching as progressivism is not only statist but includes abortion “rights,” legalized euthanasia, redefined marriage, and human embryonic experimentation, among other things.
No matter how dearly Catholic supporters of the Alinskyian organizing networks insist that Alinskyian organizing is a contemporary form of Catholic Action, the two could hardly be less in accord.
[i] Rev. Bruce Nieli, C.S.P.,“A Return to Catholic Action,” Catholic Spirit, Renew International: www.renewintl.org/renew/index.nsf/vPages/ARETURNTOCATHOLICACTION?OpenDocument; reprinted from Catholic Spirit, 10-1-14.
[ii] Saul Alinsky, Rules for Radicals, Vintage Books, New York 1971, p 3.
[iii] William Greider, Who Will Tell the People, p. 224, quoting IAF organizer, Arnold Graf.