There are legitimate grounds for disagreement with Fr. Val Peter’s article on the Catholic Campaign for Human Development, but Richard Wood’s reply , posted this past Wednesday, does not offer a single concrete counterexample to the initial charges. Instead, the reply begins, continues, and ends with a broad reassurance that has much in common with the raw assertion of a press release.

Wood claims that Fr. Peter is simply “living in the past””specifically, the 1960s and 70s”for arguing that the CCHD might possibly still be in need of oversight and reform. Yet Wood, in his response, did not address the abundant source material provided at the end of Fr. Peter’s piece, a collection of supporting evidence which included a direct link to documents detailing CCHD grantees in the latter part of this past decade. There is it recorded, for instance, that the CCHD was funding ACORN, a group which practically embodied Alinskyite principles, right up until the organization’s near-total collapse in 2009. The money was flowing as little as two years ago.

And the money continues to flow to dozens of other questionable recipients. A just-published survey by the American Life League highlights case after case of CCHD-funded groups either cooperating with or tacitly endorsing the promotion of abortion, contraception, and alternative lifestyles. Furthermore, as the report indicates, many of these organizations have reputations for being overtly political, engaging in lobbying efforts targeting specific elected officials, grassroots activism pushing voters to back specific options in statewide referenda, and more nebulous activities under the umbrella of “voter mobilization.” This report, by the way, was released on October 27, 2011 and covers the 2010-2011 fiscal year”hardly “living in the past.”

Wood, perhaps understandably, is eager to write off the continuing controversy over the CCHD as a dead issue. Wood wants readers to believe that the CCHD has successfully reformed itself from within (that it is now engaged in “only those efforts that reflect core Catholic commitments”). It’s not clear that has transpired as perfectly as he thinks.

In 2010, after more than a decade of this criticism, the bishops released a document calling for “Reform and Renewal” which announced new procedures for the CCHD grant process. But, as the ALL report shows, the program itself chugs on, and despite the honest intentions of the bishops, many lower-level bureaucrats (and their vested interests) remain untouched. There may be some signs of progress, but much remains to be done. Specifically, much more investigative work needs to be done regarding the tangential or incidental endorsement many of the grantees give to policies which violate Catholic teaching. The CCHD should be at least as eager to engage in this as they are to defend their organization’s track record.

But beyond the pervasive problem of some CCHD grantees explicitly violating Catholic teaching, there remains a larger implicit issue: The overall tenor of many of the grantee organizations. Many of the groups receiving money have more than coincidental involvement with a wide array of left-wing cause célèbres, from campaigning on behalf of public sector unions to strong support for illegal immigration to tussles over gender roles. This fact is curious enough in and of itself to raise questions of prudence (is it seemly for the Church to continue to fund a long list of secular organizations who espouse such clear and consistent political tendencies, even if they do not technically run afoul of moral teaching?). But many CCHD grantees are not only political; they are ideological. They speak in terms of “us vs. them,” and do not desire to “mediate” society so much as forcefully alter it. They use the language of identity warfare: ‘power relations’ and ‘institutional inequality’: These are terms of political struggle and not of Christian charity.

Wood is correct in pointing out that Catholic social teaching does not simply call for charity, but for social transformation. Indeed, the Church has, for more than a century, supported workers’ rights in an effort to create truly Christian democracies. But it is a mistake to think that the call for transformation in Caritas in Veritate , the encyclical Wood cites, is a call for community organizing in the mode of many CCHD grantees. Indeed, the encyclical speaks of the “common good” and the life of man in the polis, stressing that any struggle against injustice must not be class-, race-, or ideology-based but rather holistic.

While economic hardship or immigration status may affect some unity among those suffering, those involved in Catholic social justice work must be cautious not to turn these initial divisions into a weapon or a wedge in the service of another agenda. Finding organizations whose methods do not bear the imprint of Marxism and yet are still willing attempt serious structural change may be difficult. But rather than overlook an ideological lean and resign ourselves to what we have in hopes of helping the poor effectively (an implicit endorsement of the notion that the ends justify, or can even be severed from, the means), this situation actually presents a great opportunity to develop an alternative: an authentically Christian model of social change.

The true tie that unites poor and rich must be Christ, and all efforts at social justice must be founded in the Scriptural imperative that our love be genuine, marked by a spirit of “brotherly affection” (Rom 12:9-10) and not indignant belligerence. Against those who would reduce the struggle against poverty and exclusion to material terms, Caritas in Veritate reminds us that “authentic human development concerns the whole of the person in every single dimension,” especially including the spiritually salvific. Authentic social change must be, in both its goals and its methods, centered on the Gospel and building up the Body of Christ, not dividing it into segments of victims and oppressors.

In his original piece, Fr. Peter expressed doubt that the CCHD could be reformed, and suggested that shutting it down and trying new modes of social justice may be more relevant to the pastoral needs of the twenty-first century. I am a bit more optimistic, and think there may be some real promise in Professor Wood’s proposal to engage parish-level participation as a replacement for the current model of issuing block grants to (mostly) secular activist groups. But in order for reform to succeed, theoretical coherence and practical diligence must be restored. Either way, the CCHD as a whole is facing a much steeper challenge than Professor Wood acknowledges.

Matthew Cantirino is a junior fellow at First Things .

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