The following article is adapted from the book Liberation Theology: How Marxism Infiltrated the Catholic Church written by Julio Loredo de Izcue.
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The history of the Catholic left in the United States was influenced by the symbiosis between the radical movement fathered by late socialist organizer Saul Alinsky and the progressive Catholic current that eventually resulted in liberation theology.
A former Communist Party supporter and C.I.O. (Congress of Industrial Organizations) labor agitator, Saul David Alinsky (1909–1972) began to dedicate himself in the late 1930s to community organizing in his native Chicago. His blueprint was ambitious, entailing the creation of thousands of “people’s organizations” across the country.
Under the motto of “power to the people,” these grassroots outfits, composed of duly educated (i.e., politically aware) neighborhood residents, would gradually take the political power away from the prevailing structures of democratic representation. After effecting profound changes at neighborhood and city levels, the people’s organizations—according to the blueprint—would then unite in statewide coalitions and eventually coalesce into a broad national revolutionary movement. The final goal was to establish what Alinsky defined as a people’s democracy, whose inspiration would be self-managing socialism.
Alinsky the Gangster Mascot
Most liberals lionize Saul Alinsky as the community organizer that served as a model for figures like Barrack Obama and Cesar Chavez. Some might think that his education was based upon sociological studies and casework.
However, few realize that part of his “education” was provided free of charge by Al Capone, the famous Chicago gangster.
Saul Alinsky said he did his never-finished doctoral dissertation by hanging around Chicago’s Lexington Hotel, Al Capone’s headquarters, and learning about power structures in society. He was adopted by the mob and even ran errands for them. In an interview, he later told Playboy magazine that he “joined their social life of food, drink, and women. Boy, I sure participated in that side of things—it was heaven.”
“I learned a hell of a lot about the uses and abuses of power from the mob, lessons that stood me in good stead later on, when I was organizing,” he told the magazine.
It is hard to believe how today’s left could idolize a figure who socialized with gangsters.
Founding the Industrial Areas Foundation
After his “studies” with the mob, the communities advance to other areas of work.
To carry out his plans for revolution in the U.S., Alinsky founded the Industrial Areas Foundation (I.A.F.) in 1940 and the I.A.F. Training Institute (today the I.A.F. Alinsky Institute) in 1969. The latter was to serve, in his own words, as a “school for professional radicals.” Originally based in Chicago, they both operate now in New York. The I.A.F. oversees a web of people’s organizations that spans several states. It also coordinates a small battalion of organizers, many of whom are priests and nuns. The web is known as the I.A.F. Network.
The influence of the principles and strategies developed by Saul Alinsky extends far beyond the I.A.F. Network. In one way or another, they have been adopted by most of the so-called populist left in the U.S. Populist militant Heather Booth, director of the Chicago-based Midwest Academy, called Alinsky “the Sigmund Freud of modern community organizing.” Alinsky’s mark on the populist left can be seen well in the designation that Time magazine lavishly bestowed on him in 1970: “Prophet of Power to the People.” The magazine further commented that “American democracy is being altered by Alinsky’s ideas.”
The Need for Support From the Catholic Left
Alinsky’s influence is also strong inside the Democratic Party’s left. Suffice it to recall that former President Barack Obama is an I.A.F.–trained community organizer, and former presidential candidate Hillary Clinton made her doctoral thesis on the Chicago agitator, whom she met twice. Many also point out the coincidences between Bernie Sanders’s socialism and that of Saul Alinsky.
Since his earliest forays in social agitation, Alinsky perceived that without the support of the Catholic left, his plans would not get much beyond paper. “I recognized,” he says, “that if I could win the support of the Church, we’d be off and running. Conversely, without the Church, or at least some elements of it, it was unlikely that we’d be able to make much of a dent.”
Unfortunately, such disconcerting support never failed him, and it came mostly from Catholic Action milieus. Alinsky initially enlisted the sponsorship of Bishop Bernard Sheil and Cardinal Mundelein, both Catholic Action enthusiasts. This was the beginning of the intimate collaboration between the Chicago archdiocese and the self-styled professional radical, a type of collaboration that gradually spilled over to liberal Catholic sectors in the rest of the country. Later, Alinsky was hired by Cardinal Stritch to train the archdiocesan clergy in the principles and tactics of community organizing. Alinsky found an eager audience in priests and seminarians dedicated to social apostolate.
The Influence of Monsignor O’Grady
Over the years, this collaboration grew into a full-fledged symbiosis. It became so encompassing that the Catholic left eventually turned into the very backbone of Alinskyism, as liberal priest and I.A.F. organizer Fr. David Finks acknowledges. One of many examples is the long association between Alinsky and Fr. John O’Grady, a pivotal figure of social Catholicism in the United States.
He was executive secretary of the National Conference of Catholic Charities, a Church body set up in 1910 and co-opted since its inception by the social Catholics. He was also secretary of the Committee on Special War Activities, a Church body created in 1918 to draft and implement programs for social reconstruction in the aftermath of World War I. It was Father O’Grady who called upon Father Ryan to write the bishops’ Program for Social Reconstruction. Msgr. O’Grady became a domestic prelate in 1935 and secured Church sponsorship and financial support for many I.A.F. projects in the forties and fifties. His goal was, in the words of Father Finks, to “reorganize Catholic Charities and make it part of the network of people’s organizations across the country.”
Today, the I.A.F. Network is intertwined with the liberation theology–inspired Basic Christian Communities movement, particularly in the Southwest, where, in many cases, they are virtually indistinguishable. Moreover, Alinsky’s organizational tactics have become commonplace today among leftist Catholics dedicated to social activism, many of whom have been trained by the Alinsky Institute.
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