A Little Catholic “Education” History: Getting Alinsky into the Catholic Parish

Recently, while preparing an article on Common Core national standards, someone suggested that I might be interested in the “open letters” written by a group called Catholics for Truth in Education operating in Illinois from 1974 into the 90s. Interestingly enough, a set of these “open letters” just happened to have been sitting on my bookshelf for over a decade, waiting to be examined.

There may have been other Catholics for Truth in Education publications, as well, but the materials in my possession begin around the time of the first Alinskyian Call to Action conference[1] in 1976, an event that galvanized dissent within the Catholic Church of the United States and attempted to manipulate the bishops into supporting it. The ecclesial and social landscape which the “open letters” describe was chaotic, experimental, and hostile to traditional worship.

The first “open letter” examines a 1977 planning document titled the “Position Paper on Networks of Regional Parishes for Corporate Reconstruction” written by the (since deceased) industrial/organizational psychologist Dr. Robert R. Newsome.[2]

Newsome was on the cutting edge of “parish renewal.” To pioneer various renewal strategies and incubate a reformed Church, he conceived of an “alliance” of Chicago parishes, the Parish Corporate Renewal Network, which would operate unmolested until other structures replaced it. A 1977 request grant request for the network wrote that:

“the project faces a challenge of dramatically changing the way Catholic parishes serve themselves and the secular community of which they are a part. Heretofore, parishes have principally focused upon the salvation and grace of their members. The purpose of this project is to unleash the capacity of parishes to be apostolic organizations with a new vision, mission, and capability for developing the greatness and well-being of mankind.”[3]

For a Catholic to separate “the greatness and well-being of mankind” from “salvation and grace” is quite extraordinary but Newsome proposed to accomplish it in three phases. The first targeted parish staff and created five teams of laity for re-education and training.

Once properly prepared, they would function like a virus inside the parish community, moving with “a clear, shared vision and mission” but anticipating “rejection.” (page 5) Small faith communities with the unappealing title of “Corporate Reflection Centers” were to be formed throughout each parish during this next phase and each would model the new vision: “This vision of corporate man is one in which unity in diversity rather than uniformity is values.”

Catholics for Truth in Education concludes by letter #4 that, for one thing, they are to be drawn into Alinskyian community organizations and their activism.By phase three, the parish was ready to move out into the community at large, seeking “partnership” “with all men of good will for the sake of the transformation of the urban community and the world.” (page 6) Unsophisticated by today’s standards, where we no longer alert people that they are to be transformed but simply launch into the process, Newsome’s project was remarkably forthright.

Then, there was Msgr. John (Jack) Egan – who not only served on Saul Alinsky’s Industrial Areas Foundation board but co-chaired the 1976 Call to Action conference’s plenary sessions –and who also served on the Board of Advisers for the Parish Corporate Renewal Network. Incarnate in Father Egan, the elements of organized Church dissent, organized secular political activism, and a reorganized parish were intrinsically related to one another. Easy enough to see in hindsight.

Msgr. Egan writes:

Working with parishes through my diocesan post in Chicago’s Office of Urban Affairs, I saw the parish as a neighborhood institution with great potential for influence. Neighborhood issues of housing, police protection, education, availability of health services and sanitation affected the daily life of parishioners. The parish priests and people could not afford not to be involved. Citizen-parishioners along with their clergy became key actors in community organizations which not only improved the quality of life in their own neighborhoods, but had a great effect on the life of the city of Chicago.

Today there are more cities in the nation boasting of strong citizen groups than ever before. Generally speaking, the growth of community organization in our urban areas has been supported both financially and morally in large measure by parishes which recognize the critical relationship between critical human problems and the dignity of persons in their neighborhoods. I would venture to say that without Church support most of the community organizations would either have been neither developed nor sustained.[4]

By the second “open letter,” five months later, the US bishops had responded to the 1976 Call to Action recommendations, many of which were too radical for implementation. However, a “Project for Parish Renewal” was approved as a “major priority” for every US diocese[5] and Catholics for Truth in Education watched the process, as it unfolded in Chicago, closely.

From the advantage of 35 years in the future, one can see that, for some, “renewal” was an honest endeavor. To them, it meant simply a reinvigoration of parish life that might include building new schools, improving resources, or developing ministries. For the reformers, however, “renewal” was consciously and deliberately ordered toward ideological “transformation.” A transformed parish would have little resemblance to a Catholic community. The third “open letter” documents the push of various Network clergy for women and married priests, acceptance of divorce, homosexuality, and birth control, as well as belief in a non-hierarchical Church structure that was to be separated from Rome. The Network “theological adviser,” a philosophy professor[6] hired to conduct talks in Chicago-area parishes about Network’s vision for restructuring, is quoted spouting pure liberation theology. “Someday this world will be The Kingdom,” he assures listeners. “The Kingdom is the state of affairs – the here and now.”

Maybe somebody’s Kingdom, but not Christ’s.[7]

One gets lost in among the interconnected names and groups who are pushing this transformative, un-Catholic form of “renewal.” Equally numbing are the grey, bureaucratic details that comprise this or that version of the new structure. The interesting bit, however, is where the action leads. Once parishes are restructured and “properly” retrained, what are they primed to do?

Catholics for Truth in Education concludes by letter #4 that, for one thing, they are to be drawn into Alinskyian community organizations and their activism. Letter # 9, five years later, describes an archdiocesan program structured exactly along the lines those lines, including parish listening sessions to make people “feel important” (yes, that’s what the archdiocesan materials say), analysis of these sessions for purposes of developing strategic plans, provision of “theological reflection and leadership training,” all aimed at ecumenical political activism. “A major part of this renewal is getting the Catholic laity involved in performing the social ministry of the Church,” Dr. Newsome opines, “including the building of better neighborhoods and communities.”[8] Community organizing is a means to this end.

But there are others. Letter #5 takes the reader on a romping survey of the most exciting liberationist activity at the time – which is where, oddly enough, it intersects with contemporary Common Core national standards (and why, I suspect, I was encouraged to read the “open letters”). In the middle of discussion about theological movements in Latin America and their challenges to Church teaching, the reader is introduced to a process for controlling groups of people called “Management by Objectives.” (MBO)

MBO had initially been introduced into the business world as an accounting system. Like education reform pedagogy called “mastery learning” – later called “outcome based education” and still later reintroduced through the Common Core national standards – or psychology’s value clarification techniques, MBO was a systematic attempt to reprogram the individual’s values and actions. Simply stated, the process begins with predetermined goals (or standards) to which the individual is held accountable. Of concern to Catholics for Truth in Education, several dioceses around the country were using MBO strategies as part of their pastoral planning for renewal.

Almost prescient for a time that predated a global Internet and cell phones, Catholics for Truth in Education worried about computerized data collection schemes that supported MBO aims. What must have seemed paranoid to most readers then has an air of prophesy to a generation that lives with the reality of government monitoring of citizens. The people who recoiled from Huxley’s Brave New World couldn’t have fathomed the level of invasiveness that would become possible and tolerated.

The “letters” written throughout the 1980s[9] drown the reader with descriptions of specific programs, practitioners, and tactics. So many Catholics were dancing behind the Pied Piper of “change” with little curiosity about where he was leading. Catholics for Truth in Education examined dozens of re-education programs in the Chicago Archdiocese – among them the once ubiquitous RENEW[10] – and explained the relationship of each to Call to Action dissent and a socialistic world view.

The end product, however, was never about the Church, not really, but about society. The Church had to be transformed so that it wouldn’t be an obstacle to transforming society. Catholics for Truth in Education harangues about Marxist infiltration and apostasy are easy to dismiss as alarmist but, after decades of chaos, the Church in the U.S. faces serious persecution for holding on to the last shreds of Catholic integrity. The old, bureaucratic liberals, who still push their un-Catholic agendas – JustFaith and Nuns on the Bus, Alinskyian organizers and New Agers, I’m looking at you – are comfortable with that.

Historical facts are hard to dispute – and they have led to the results that are very much what Catholics for Truth in Education feared: too many Catholics who reject Church teaching. After her death, the son of Catholics for Truth in Education’s founding president, Mary Catherine Davis, wrote, “The more that time passes the more things big and small I see my mother was right about.”

Yes, she was.

glory to soviet teacher alinsky


1. For a detailed history of the relationship between Alinsky-trained clerics and the Call to Action dissenting movement in the US Catholic Church, see “Underground Call to Action:” www.catholicculture.org/culture/library/view.cfm?id=1318&CFID=66214206&CFTOKEN=51725830
2. Robert R. Newsome also wrote a book, The ministering parish: methods and procedures for pastoral organization, Paulist Press, 1982.
3. “Request for Foundation Assistance from Parish Corporate Renewal Network (Internal Corporate Renewal Network),” August 1, 1977, page 1. Six foundations were approached using this document: DeRance, Inc., George Halas Foundation, Lewis Foundation, Lilly Endowment, Inc., Raskob Foundation, and the Dr. Scholl Foundation. The last of these foundations publically distanced itself from the whole business, according to “open letter #4.”
4. Msgr. John J. Egan, “Do we need parishes?” Parish Ministry, Nov-Dec 1980, pp 2-3, as quoted in Catholics for Truth in Education “open letter” #9, part 2 (June 1983).
5. “A Call to Action: Five-Year plan of Action” Origins 8, 5-28-78.
6. The November 1984 “open letter” quotes this Network theological adviser telling his students, “ We affirmed the Church is dead and found it a liberating revelation,” and “Isn’t being a Catholic one of the biggest blocks to being a Christian?”
7. See John 18:36…and Romans 14: 17.
8. Jack Houston, “’Parish renewal’ project sparks a Catholic battle,” Chicago Tribune, 5-31-79.
9. “Open letters” #6-9 sport the by-line of Peter S. Newman, editor. The other issues carry no attribution.
10. For several analyses of RENEW, see Mary Jo Anderson, “Buried in the Fine Print: An Inside Look at RENEW 2000,” Crisis, March 1999; Frank Morriss’ “Restructuring the Church into Their Own Image: The Link Between RENEW and the New Biblical Scholarship,” Wanderer Forum Foundation Quarterly, June 1992 (click here to read it on our website); Beth Drennan, Esq., “Background Check of RENEW 2000 Contributors Reveals RENEW 2000 Texts Laced with Call to Action Names,” Women Faith and Family, 1998. Drennan has also published another discussion of the Call to Action elements found in RENEW 2000 in “Paulists’ RENEW 2000 Is Just a Front for Call to Action,” The Wanderer, 9-10-98.

This article, A Little Catholic “Education” History: Getting Alinsky into the Catholic Parish is a post from The Bellarmine Forum.
Do not repost the entire article without written permission. Reasonable excerpts may be reposted so long as it is linked to this page.

Stephanie Block

  • Richard Davis says:

    Hello Stephanie, I am the son of Mary Catherine Davis, who, along with a dedicated group, including Anne Sardella, whom I just saw today after many years, was far ahead in her prognostications, about the Church and about society.

    Today I have copies of all those “open ” letters and have thought more than once to scan them and upload them. Thank you for bringing back the work that my mother believed in passionately. As a child I was reading Saul Alinsky when most were reading the Hardy Boys. When President Obama and his crew burst upon the national scene I knew we had reached the tipping point my mother worried about. The only salvation I see is that many younger priests seem to be taking a stand against the Devil in the Sanctuary , so to speak. Please feel free to contact further, if you wish.

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  • Joel says:

    Excellent work here. You are a light in the darkness of contemporary parish battles

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