The House That Neuhaus Built

The House That Neuhaus Built November 24, 2008

Upon leaving Mass at St. Matthew’s Cathedral in Washington DC yesterday, I saw an unedifying sight. A man was standing on the pavement with a sign, larger than himself, that said “No second collection for the CCHD.” The Catholic Campaign for Human Development, that is. After a moment of confusion, it suddenly dawned on me what this was about. And then I became rather angry. Yes, it was just one “whack-job”, but I was still angry. And then I thought of Fr. Richard John Neuhaus’s partially-successful attempt to align Catholics with the emergent right-wing evangelical movement, and realized that it had come to this. Catholics, including Neuhaus, were lambasting an anti-poverty program because it simply did not fit with the the ideological talking points of the hour.

According to the USCCB, the mission statement of the CCHD is “to address the root causes of poverty in America through promotion and support of community-controlled, self-help organizations and through transformative education?” In other words, it is the perfect Catholic synthesis of solidarity and subsidiarity. So what explains the onslaught? I refer readers to David Gibson’s nice summary of the controversy. Neuhaus himself tells a blatant lie when he claims that “the Catholic [in the CCHD] was dropped, which is just as well since it has nothing to do with Catholicism.” Sorry, Father, but it was and remains the Catholic campaign. You knew that.

And as for it not being aligned with Catholicism, let us simply go to the source itself. The first listed principle is the dignity of the human person, and the campaign states that “CCHD will not consider organizations which promote or support abortion, euthanasia, the death penalty, or any other affront to human life and dignity.” This is important as many of the critics (including Neuhaus) claim it is funding pro-abortion activities. (Yet again, the mis-use of the abortion agenda as a Trojan horse to further a distinctly less noble cause– will this ever end?) What else? Well, there is the principle that the the “Poor and vulnerable people have a special place in Catholic social teaching.” The CCHD explicitly prefers development initiatives that pay a living wage. It notes the existence of social sin rooted in structures and institutions, and reflects Church teaching on the universal destination of goods by calling for “a just balance of individual- and community-held assets.” It enunciates basic rights including the right to religious liberty, to raise a family, to immigrate, to be free of discrimination; and to food, clothing, housing, health care, education, security, social services, and employment”. It notes that all– including the marginalized and disenfranchised– have the right to participate in society and its organization. It supports the common good, solidarity, peace.

In other words, it is fully in line with Catholic social teaching as laid down from Pope Leo XIII onwards. As David Gibson notes, the “Laity for Life” group formed to oppose CCHD apparently think poverty is pro-life… What then is the real issue? Well, it is a very simple one: the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now. ACORN. It was once funded by the CCHD.

Let us be very clear about this issue. ACORN arose during the last days of the presidential election by a desperate McCain campaign trying to tarnish Obama with a sundry list of left-leaning causes and individuals (remember, by the end of the campaign, McCain was railing against any tax system that entailed redistribution i.e. any progressive tax system). And ACORN became a convenient whipping boy at rallies fueled by Palinesque pyrotechnics. The charge was “voter fraud”, perpetuated by “community organizers”– something on the Republican radar for a number of years (actually, stopping minorities from registering to vote has a long history under the modern GOP).

The proximate issue involved a number of ACORN volunteers making up names for their voter registration rolls. Somehow this was going to lead to widespread electoral fraud. Like so much that comes from the modern right-wing noise machine (with its casual approach to facts), this was always completely and absolutely bogus, as spelled out clearly by Hendrick Hertzberg in the New Yorker back in October. Here’s the deal: ACORN registered 1.3 million new voters, and about 1-2 percent of the names turned out be be fraudulent, due to cheating employees (they get paid to register voters, after all– the fraud is against, not on behalf of, ACORN). Note that Acorn is required by law to submit all names, no matter how dubious they sounds– precisely to avoid partisan shenanigans. But ACORN sets aside the fishy-looking names and flags them to electoral officials. All above board. Finally, there is absolutely no way fake registration can lead to voter fraud, for a very basic reason: federal law states that all new voters must provide appropriate identification. Electoral fraud is simply not a problem: between 2002-05, only 20 people were prosecuted for thic crime in the whole United States (disenfranchizing voters–especially minorities– is a huge problem, on the other hand). But it remains a key “red-meat” issue for the ever-dwindling and ever-more-extreme Republican base– lack of action on voter fraud was a key issue prompting the dubious firing of a large number of US attorneys by the Bush administration a while back. By the way, the CCHD has now ended its association with ACORN– which, by the way, covered 320 poverty-fighting projects.

I don’t expect any better from the modern Republican party, with its message-of-the-day delivered in unison by its impressive media wing. The attack on ACORN was simply the latest in a long line of attacks, as the Republican party mocked the redistribution of wealth called for by Catholic social teaching, and scapegoating the poor and minorities for sundry ills (I’m still trying to wrap my ahead around the noise machine’s attempt to blame the poor and minorities for the financial crisis). I do expect a lot better from Fr. Neuhaus and other Catholics who are calling for a end to a key anti-poverty program under the auspices of the USCCB that conforms to Catholic social teaching.

Let’s be clear here. This is not about the voter registration canard, or any financial irregularities at ACORN. This is an attempt to dump the elements of Catholic social teaching that would not sit well with the politicized evangelical movement. Remember James Dobson’s reaction to the election? I don’t know about you, but I find something very disturbing about Catholics parroting the ill-conceived talking points of the day put out by the noise machine. But, as many predicted, Neuhaus’s alliance would lead to such prostitution. First, they dumped just war teaching– are they now attempting to dump economic teaching too?  We all know that this group is heavily swayed by laissez-faire liberalism to begin with. Is this the nadir of their alliance?

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