Academic journal article Theological Studies

The Influence of Saul Alinsky on the Campaign for Human Development

Academic journal article Theological Studies

The Influence of Saul Alinsky on the Campaign for Human Development

Article excerpt

[Editor's note: The author argues that the Campaign for Human Development, founded in 1969, is U.S. Catholicism's most significant and longest social experiment in the 20th century. A postconciliar response to an America in crisis, the campaign is a unique theological resource in the development of an indigenous North American theology. Central to its uniqueness was the bishops' embrace of the dean of community organizing, Saul David Alinsky.]

The national conference of catholic bishops initiated in 1969 the most significant and longest-running experiment of 20th-century U.S. Catholic social action. The founding resolution for this project read as follows: "There is an evident need for funds designated to be used for organizing groups of white and minority poor to develop economic and political power in their own communities.... Therefore be it resolved that the National Conference of Catholic Bishops establish a National Crusade Against Poverty. The crusade will commit the Church to raise a fund of 50 million dollars over the next several years."(1) This crusade came to be known as the Campaign for Human Development (CHD).(2) Twenty-nine years and over $225 million later,(3) the experiment became an official department of the United States Catholic Conference.(4)

What was the origin of this experiment? Why would Catholic bishops approve funds for the poor to organize for power, much of which went to the community-organizing projects associated with Saul Alinsky?(5) Was there a theology behind the CHD? Why was the original $50 million permitted to expand to over $225 million? What was validated within the experiment that led to the conclusion that providing funds for organized power groups was an official function of the U.S. Catholic Church, or perhaps more clearly stated, a constitutive dimension of U.S. Catholic life. By answering these questions one can show how the CHD became a unique theological resource in the development of a North American theology.(6)

The origins of the CHD have not yet been definitively researched and established.(7) Former NCCB President Bishop James Malone identifies two forces as foundational to the CHD: "the crisis of human needs and aspirations which was being experienced with peculiar urgency in American society," and the "impact of the Second Vatican Council."(8) I shall briefly examine Malone's two forces here, and then, in the body of this article, deal with third force in the development of the CHD, the underrecognized influence of Saul Alinsky (1909-1972), the "dean of community-organizing."(9)

At first glance, such a claim about Alinsky and Catholics may seem preposterous. How could the U.S. bishops be influenced by an agnostic Jew popularly known as "Machiavelli in modern dress"?(10) Yet Alinsky organized his first community organization in Chicago's Back of the Yards in 1939, and critical to the success of Alinsky's first organization and all subsequent organizations was the foundational participation of the Catholic Church.(11) Despite its foundational role, however, the relationship between the Church and Alinsky has not been the subject of theological reflection within the Catholic community.(12) Here I wish to provide some background for engaging in such reflection.

Human Needs in America in the 1960s

The decade of the 1960s has been described variously as "the most eventful and tumultuous decade of the twentieth century,"(13) "a period of crisis,"(14) "a profound cultural upheaval,"(15) and as a "revolutionary moment."(16) This was the decade of Neil Armstrong's walk on the moon, the Cuban missile crisis, the escalation of the Vietnam conflict, and the Civil Rights movement. It was the time of the "New Frontier" and the "Great Society," a time influenced by the powerful oratory of John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr., and then shattered by their deaths. These were years marked by an ever expanding national obituary: June 1963, NAACP leader Medgar Evans murdered; September 1963, four children die in a church bombing; November 1963, President John Kennedy assassinated; August 1964, three civil rights workers found dead; February 1965, Malcolm X murdered; March 1965, "Bloody Sunday"; March 1965, Viola Liuzzo murdered; April 1968, Martin Luther King assassinated; June 1968, Robert Kennedy assassinated. …

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