WASHINGTON (CNS) — A little self-reflection every now and then never hurts.
Some call it prayer; others a retreat. Peter Maurin and Dorothy Day, co-founders of the Catholic Worker, called it “clarification of thought.”
No matter how it's pegged, something worthy usually emerges.
Stephanie Gyldendan, head organizer for ESTHER, a faith-based organization addressing social justice concerns in Neenah, Wis., finds such reflection a good thing.
Members of the organization, a recipient of funding through the Catholic Campaign for Human Development, have begun to reflect more deeply on their work at the behest of the campaign, the U.S. bishops' domestic anti-poverty campaign.
And they liked what they saw, Gyldendan told Catholic News Service.
“It really brought in a rich discussion on why our faith traditions call us to engage in the community and work for justice,” Gyldendan said.
Under revised guidelines developed in 2010 as CCHD underwent its own “review and renewal” after a period of reflection, organizations seeking church funding for anti-poverty work are being asked to consider how work on affordable housing, immigrant rights, police protection and school reform enhances Catholic moral and social teaching.
ESTHER, which stands for Empowerment Solidarity Truth Home Reform, is an interfaith organization that includes seven Catholic parishes as partners. Gyldendan said CCHD's new guidelines provide “room for conversation” to better understand how faith motivates action.
CCHD-funded organizations are finding that the revised guidelines leave no doubt that Catholic teaching must be upheld in all activities and affiliations.
Rob Sievert-Wagner, lead organizer at Interfaith Coalition for Action in Jacksonville, Fla., told CNS it was a “good thing” for the group to better understand how its issue campaigns align with Catholic teaching, especially in a community with a small Catholic population.
At Teach Our Children in New Haven, Conn., director Camelle Scott-Mujahid, said the guidelines offer the organization “more explicit language, especially about Catholic social teaching.”
The guidelines were implemented after CCHD came under fire beginning in 2008 from critics who claimed the program had lost its way by funding groups that were part of coalitions taking positions contrary to Catholic teaching on issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage. At various times in recent years, at least eight bishops decided not to participate in the annual CCHD collection in parishes, citing questions about the activities of groups being funded.
CCHD director Ralph McCloud said the yearlong review served to “strengthen some of the structures within the system.”
“The intention was to review the mission, remind folks of the mission … offer ways that might be a form of renewal, recommitment, rededication in light of today's reality and the Gospel call of people being concerned about people by themselves who are poor. (We are) looking at Jesus' message of 2,000 years ago and applying it to today,” McCloud said.
The renewal also led to a stronger emphasis on connecting funded agencies with Catholic parishes or institutions. CCHD also decided to award fewer grants but in larger amounts for greater impact.
For the 2012-13 funding year, 214 organizations received more than $9.1 million, an average of $42,731 each, CCHD reported. That compares with 2006-07 when $7.8 million was distributed through 283 grants, averaging $27,550 per grant, according to program records.
The renewal of CCHD has not gone without challenges. One critic identified concerns in administering the grants and blamed the staff for failing to follow funding guidelines.
“What they (CCHD) need to do is find people … who properly understand what the problem with these certain organizations are so they will have a well-formed and balanced approach to whether they should receive Catholic money or not,” said Michael Hitchborn, director of the American Life League's Defend the Faith program and who has spearheaded the Reform CCHD Now coalition.
McCloud acknowledged there is room for improvement.
“I think we're light years ahead of where we were and that we're clearer about CCHD and its mission,” McCloud said. “This has become an opportunity to teach people about the Catholic faith. I think we're moving in the right direction. Everybody would agree we have a ways to go, but we're taking very, very positive steps.”
He added that keeping track of the activities that coalitions' funded groups join is difficult.
Teach Our Children's Scott-Mujahid said she is unable to track every action of the organizations her group works with on school reform.
“It's been a little bit of a headache, not because of the review and the changes to (CCHD),” she said, “but because of the attacks. Every year something new comes out. It does seem like there's a little bit of reaching going on (with the charges by critics).”
The vigilance of the campaign's detractors led CCHD to defund several organizations. And one longtime CCHD recipient, Chelsea Collaborative in Chelsea, Mass., voluntarily returned $40,000 in July, saying funding restrictions were too severe. The controversy emerged over whether the group could work on behalf of gays and lesbians facing discrimination.
Citing a miscommunication over what activities were permitted and what were not under the grant, McCloud said CCHD officials were dismayed that they failed to persuade the collaborative's leaders to keep the funds.
“They were a group doing tremendous work for the Archdiocese of Boston,” McCloud said.
A spokeswoman for the collaborative told CNS the group was proud of its work on behalf of immigrants through its Chelsea Latino Immigrant Committee, the funding recipient, making the return of the grant and the withdrawal of its application for another round of funding all the more difficult. The grant covered 82 percent of the committee's budget.
“We spent months trying to get clarity,” Rita Falzarano, the organization's development coordinator, said of negotiations with CCHD officials.
Despite the challenges, McCloud said the number of grant applications has remained stable. Usually, he said, groups disqualify themselves after reviewing the application and understanding the requirements.
“Even with the requirements, there's still a tremendous amount of work that can be done in terms of anti-poverty work,” he said. “They requirements are not so stringent that they cannot improve local communities.”
— By Dennis Sadowski, Catholic News Service