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A Second Look at the Industrial Areas Foundation: Lessons for Catholic Social Thought and Ministry

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  18 March 2013

James B. Ball
Saint Mary's University


This article revives consideration of the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF), a network of Alinsky-style community organizing institutions supported by the Catholic Church, as an object of theological and ethical reflection. After describing the IAF and its organizing practices, it advances two claims. First, the IAF offers Catholic social teaching a concept of power that can sharpen its understanding of social change. Second, the IAF offers a promising model of parish social ministry. Specifically, it offers a pedagogy and praxis of political agency that enhances the parish's ability to live out its calling to be the church, and to be a mediating institution of public life. Such a model integrates evangelical impulses into the “public church” framework for conceiving Christianity's relationship to civil society.

Copyright © The College Theology Society 2008

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1 I am grateful to Rev. Bernard Lee, SM, John Sniegocki, Michael Cowan, and the journal's referees for their valuable comments on a draft of this article. I am also fortunate to have learned a considerable amount about the IAF from friends with whom I have worked in IAF organizing at my parish, Saint Francis of Assisi in San Antonio, Texas, and from Karen Ball, who attended the 2008 IAF national training in Mundelein, Illinois. Doug Greco, an IAF organizer for San Antonio's COPS/Metro Alliance from 2004 to 2006, was generous in giving me a window on IAF training and organizing. I also thank Sr. Consuelo Tovar, DC of Austin Interfaith for speaking with me about her experience as a woman religious in this work.

2 Chambers, Edward T. with Cowan, Michael A., Roots for Radicals: Organizing for Power, Action and Justice (New York: Continuum, 2003), 63.Google Scholar The IAF has spawned other entities usually considered part of the trend of faith-based organizing in the U.S., such as PICO, DART, and Gamaliel.

3 Curran, Charles E., “Saul D. Alinsky, Catholic Social Practice, and Catholic Theory,” in Directions in Catholic Social Ethics (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1985), 171.Google Scholar

4 Ibid., 171–72.

5 Alinsky, Saul, Reveille for Radicals (rev. ed., 1969; reprint, New York: Vintage, 1989), 132.Google Scholar

6 Ibid., 200.

7 Alinsky, Saul, Rules for Radicals (New York: Vintage, 1971), xxi.Google Scholar

8 Engel, Lawrence J., “The Influence of Saul Alinsky on the Catholic Campaign for Human Development,” Theological Studies 59 (December 1998): 661.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

9 Osterman, Paul, Gathering Power: The Future of Progressive Politics in America (Boston: Beacon, 2002), 107.Google Scholar

10 One of the only references to the IAF in Catholic social ethics belongs to Lisa Sowle Cahill, who sees the IAF and its emphasis on the family as a grassroots response to the ideal of the domestic church; see her work Family: A Christian Social Perspective (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2000), 95–98. Kathleen Weigert and Alexia Kelley's valuable case studies of Catholics working at grassroots social change include some Alinsky-style organizing and one IAF metropolitan organization, but without much theological reflection on the IAF itself; see Weigert, Kathleen Mass and Kelley, Alexia K., eds., Catholic Social Tradition: Cases and Commentary (Lanham, Md.: Rowman and Littlefield, 2005).Google Scholar

11 On the differences between the two, see Warren, Mark R., Dry Bones Rattling: Community Building to Revitalize American Democracy (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001)CrossRefGoogle Scholar, especially chapters 2 and 3, and Chambers, Roots for Radicals, 103. Curran's study from 1985—an examination of Alinsky's writings—took up what is now sometimes called the “early IAF.” In the present article, “IAF” will mean the modern IAF unless otherwise indicated.

12 There are approximately sixty five IAF organizations in the U.S. involving almost three thousand member institutions. Gecan, Michael, Going Public (Boston: Beacon, 2002), 4Google Scholar; Warren, , Dry Bones, 255.Google Scholar

13 Chambers, , Roots for Radicals, 100–04.Google Scholar

14 Gecan, , Going Public, 9.Google Scholar

15 Warren, , Dry Bones, 31.Google Scholar

16 Chambers, , Roots for Radicals, 48.Google Scholar

17 Osterman, , Gathering Power, 4, 124.Google Scholar

18 Warren, , Dry Bones, 230, 35.Google ScholarOsterman, , Gathering Power, 71.Google Scholar The IAF organizer is not part of the IAF metropolitan organization's decision-making hierarchy and is not “in charge” of the organization, but the organizer's experience and expertise is such that she can be quite influential.

19 Warren, , Dry Bones, 33.Google Scholar

20 Cortés, Ernesto, The Politics of Philio: Political Friendship” (paper presented at a meeting of the Southwest IAF, Los Angeles, CA, October 7, 2002), 5.Google Scholar

21 Osterman, , Gathering Power, 161–65.Google Scholar

22 Warren, , Dry Bones, 239.Google Scholar

23 Ibid., 111.

24 Curran, , “Saul D. Alinsky,” 166–67.Google Scholar

25 The IAF would not claim to have a unique theory of power or social theory. Instead, it freely borrows from a collection of philosophers, social theorists, economists, theologians and CST texts. The principles it does have are said to be “organizational principles” arrived at inductively through trial and error, not deductions from a preconceived framework.

26 Cortés, , “Philio,” 4.Google Scholar

27 Chambers, , Roots for Radicals, 22.Google Scholar

28 Cortés, , “Philio,” 4Google Scholar (emphasis added). Loomer's, Bernard M. lecture entitled “Two Kinds of Power” first appeared in Criterion (Winter 1976).Google Scholar References to this work in the present article are to its republished form in Lee's, Bernard J.The Future Church of 140 BCE: A Hidden Revolution (New York: Crossroad, 1995).Google Scholar

29 Warren, , Dry Bones, 5761.Google Scholar “IAF trainers stress that the Latin root of the word interest is interesse, which means ‘to be among or between’. The IAF suggests participants should take a relational, not individual, understanding of self-interest, since a person's interests develop in the context of their relationships with others” (ibid., 224). According to Paul Osterman, while “doing good” is no more an organizing technique than it was in the Alinsky-days, self-interest “has a significant other-regarding component,” and Judeo-Christians values serve to motivate IAF members and justify positions taken (Gathering Power, 51, 175–77). If Charles Curran was correct in 1985 that the writings of Alinsky through 1971 reveal that the IAF's appeal to self-interest as a motivator is morally licit, this would be all the more so today, given this interpersonal anthropology and appeal to Christian values. On the other hand, CST would seem to call for even more than the “enlightened self-interest” in public life that Chambers seeks (Roots for Radicals, 73).

30 Hinze, Christine Firer, Comprehending Power in Christian Social Ethics (Atlanta: Scholars, 1995), 45Google Scholar (Hinze's emphasis).

31 Ibid., 5–6 (Hinze's emphasis).

32 Chambers, , Roots for Radicals, 28.Google Scholar

34 Ibid., 29.

35 Loomer, , “Two Kinds of Power,” 197.Google Scholar

36 Rogers, Mary Beth, Cold Anger: A Story of Faith and Power Politics (Denton, TX: University of North Texas Press, 1990), 84.Google Scholar

37 Chambers, , Roots for Radicals, 124.Google Scholar

38 Osterman, , Gathering Power, 191.Google Scholar

39 Ibid., 167, 176.

40 Hinze, , Comprehending Power, 284.Google Scholar

41 Loomer, , “Two Kinds of Power,” 183.Google Scholar

42 Chambers, , Roots for Radicals, 2731.Google Scholar In IAF literature, love has a lower profile than power, but still functions in public life at the intersection of “the two worlds.” Not unlike Catholic ethics, and, in its own way, love is at once other-regarding and selfregarding: “Love means sustaining relationships in which the interdependence of one's own and others' interests is recognized and respected” (ibid., 30). By design, it omits the agapic sense of self-sacrificial, unrequited love of the neighbor present in Catholic and Christian ethics.

43 Curran, Charles E., Catholic Social Teaching 1891-Present: A Historical, Theological, and Ethical Analysis (Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press, 2002), 188.Google Scholar

44 Pontifical Council For Justice And Peace, Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church (Washington, DC: USCCB, 2005), no. 396.Google Scholar

45 Whitmore, Todd David, “Catholic Social Teaching: Starting with the Common Good,” in Catholic Social Tradition, 5985Google Scholar; Krier Mich, Marvin L., Catholic Social Teaching and Movements (Mystic, CT: Twenty-Third Publications, 1998), 163–65.Google Scholar

46 Curran, , Catholic Social Teaching, 140.Google Scholar

47 Hinze, , Comprehending Power, 276Google Scholar (emphasis added).

48 Encyclical, Centesimus annus (May 1, 1991)Google Scholar, no. 44. English translations of CST documents are taken from O'Brien, David J. and Shannon, Thomas A., eds., Catholic Social Thought: The Documentary Heritage (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1992).Google Scholar

49 Centesimus annus, no. 46; Encyclical, Sollicitudo rei socialis (December 30, 1987), no. 37.Google Scholar

50 Centesimus annus, no. 32; Encyclical, Evangelium vitae (March 25, 1995), no. 27.Google Scholar Affirmations of social movements by Vatican II and Paul VI appear in the Pastoral Constitution Gaudium et spes (December 7, 1965), no. 42 and the Apostolic Letter Octogesima adveniens (May 14, 1971), no. 32, respectively.

51 The exception to this is John Paul's characterizing of labor unions as rightfully exercising their “social power: the power to build a community” (Encyclical, Laborem exercens [September 14, 1981], no. 20Google Scholar) and noting “the positive role of conflict when it takes the form of a ‘struggle for social justice’” (Centesimus annus, no. 14).

52 See, e.g., Ackerman, Peter and Duvall, Jack, A Force More Powerful: A Century of Non-Violent Conflict (New York: Palgrave, 2000).Google Scholar Gandhi and Martin Luther King are two examples of this. Interestingly, Jacques Maritain wrote to Alinsky that there was an “essential complementarity between your … methods and Martin Luther King's (Gandhi's) methods.” See Doering, Bernard, ed., The Philosopher and the Provocateur (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1994), xxxvii.Google Scholar

53 Cortés, Ernesto, “Justice at the Gates of the City: A Model for Shared Prosperity,” in The Growing Inequality of Wealth and Income in America, ed. Marshall, Ray (Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe, 1999), 366.Google Scholar

54 “IAF training sessions regularly draw from [the communitarian view of the person in Gaudium et spes], emphasizing that ‘this conception imagines human beings as “persons,” not as “individuals” … not isolated, self-directed singularities’” (Warren, , Dry Bones, 194Google Scholar). The decision to make institutions themselves the members of the IAF organization rather than persons—one cannot “join alone”—expresses and enacts this soli-daristic character.

55 Cortés, Ernesto Jr., “What About Organizing,” Boston Review, December/January 19961997Google Scholar; available online at (accessed October 3, 2008).

56 Engel, , “The Influence of Saul Alinsky,” 647.Google Scholar My article prescinds from the subtle differences between the older term “social mission” and “social ministry.”

57 As expressed by Dr. Joseph Incandela in his talk “Education for Justice: Stitching a Seamless Garment,” given at St. Mary's College (Indiana) in the fall of 1999.

58 D'Antonio, William V. and others, American Catholics Today: New Realities of Their Faith and Their Church (Lanham, MD: Roman Littlefield, 2007), 2324.Google Scholar

59 Gaudium et spes, nos. 75–76.

60 Mich, , Catholic Social Teaching, 197–98.Google Scholar Mich's four other categories of social ministry are direct service, parallel institutions, advocacy, and justice education.

61 The National Conference of Catholic Bishop's 1993 document on parish social ministry, Communities of Salt and Light ( [accessed 3 October 2008]), alludes to a growth of “organizing in parishes” and to “neighborhood organizing,” but does not expand on these realities or seek to justify them in terms of political agency or ecclesiology.

62 Octogesima adveniens, no. 46.

63 Cortés, , “Reweaving the Fabric,” 297–98.Google Scholar

64 Osterman, , Gathering Power, 191.Google Scholar

65 Hehir, J. Bryan, “Church-State and Church-World: The Ecclesiological Implications,” CTSA Proceedings 41 (1986): 5658.Google Scholar

66 Octogesima adveniens, no. 48.

67 On the general point concerning the expansion of ministry in our era, see O'Meara, Thomas Franklin, Theology of Ministry, rev. ed. (New York: Paulist, 1999), 521.Google Scholar

68 Holland, Joe and Henriot, Peter, Social Analysis: Liking Faith and Justice, rev. ed. (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1983), 714.Google Scholar

69 Chambers, , Roots for Radicals, 15.Google Scholar

70 Warren, , Dry Bones, 221.Google Scholar IAF organizing and the Pastoral Circle are both indebted to the thought of Paulo Freire (Osterman, , Gathering Power, 54Google Scholar).

71 Chambers, , Roots for Radicals, 84, 136.Google Scholar

72 Osterman, , Gathering Power, 114–16.Google Scholar

73 Ibid., 144.

74 Ibid., 61.

75 Ibid., 52.

76 Warren, , Dry Bones, 223.Google Scholar

77 “These principles include: nonpartisanship; action by consensus; broad-based organizing rather than racially based organizing; tactics combining confrontation with negotiation; and the teaching role of the organizer” (ibid., 235).

78 Alinsky's utilitarianism and pragmatism gave him a reductionistic view religion and Christianity.

79 Osterman, , Gathering Power, 95104.Google Scholar

80 Ibid., 94.

81 Wood, Richard L., Faith in Action: Religion, Race and Democratic Organizing in America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002), 254.Google Scholar The IAF's organizing strategy is directed in large part at churches and other religious bodies, but it does not consider itself a “faith-based” entity, for fear of compromising its inclusivity, autonomy, and heritage.

82 Encyclical, Populorum progressio (March 26, 1967), nos. 1421.Google Scholar

83 Rogers, , Cold Anger, 62.Google Scholar

84 Ibid., 57.

85 Warren, , Dry Bones, 254–55.Google Scholar

86 Cortés, , “Reweaving the Fabric,” 300.Google Scholar

87 Cortés, , “Philio,” 8Google Scholar (Cortés' emphasis).

88 See, e.g., Greider, William, Who Will Tell the People? The Betrayal of American Democracy (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1992)Google Scholar; Warren, Mark R. and Wood, Richard L., Faith Based Community Organizing: The State of the Field (Jericho, NY: Interfaith Funders, 2001).Google Scholar

89 Cortés, Ernesto, “Reflections on the Catholic Tradition of Family Rights,” in One Hundred Years of Catholic Social Thought, ed. Coleman, John A. (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1991), 155–73.Google Scholar

90 Ibid., 161, quoting Gaudium et spes, no. 40.

91 Ibid., 166.

92 Ibid., 163.

93 See 1 Corinthians 11 for an example of Paul's focus on behavior appropriate within a community constituted by new life in Christ.

94 Warren, , Dry Bones, 249.Google Scholar

95 Cortés, , “Family Rights,” 156.Google Scholar

96 Osterman, , Gathering Power, 178–80.Google Scholar

97 Warren, , Dry Bones, 163.Google Scholar

98 O'Brien, David J., “History of Christian Political Activism: A Catholic Experience,” in The Catholic Church, Morality and Politics, ed. Curran, Charles E. and Griffin, Leslie (New York: Paulist, 2001), 8586.Google Scholar

99 Heyer, Kristin E., “Bridging the Divide in Contemporary U.S. Catholic Social Ethics,” Theological Studies 66 (June 2005): 401–40.CrossRefGoogle Scholar