The Society of St Vincent de Paul (known in the US as the SVDP) is one of America’s most beloved Catholic charities. It has specialised in the corporal works of mercy for almost 200 years. But in the 21st century it has a new theme: “systemic change”.
In 2011, Sheila Gilbert, a former national secretary with degrees in sociology and in public and environmental affairs, ran successfully for the presidency of the US national council with the slogan “Ending poverty through systemic change”. Previously, the concept of systemic change was promoted by the Vincentian priests of the Congregation of the Mission (CM), which maintains a close relationship with the SVDP.
In 2006, according to US national board member Dr Raymond Sickinger, the CM superior general, “responded to the growing interest in systemic change” sparked by the work of Peter M Senge, a popular proponent of systems thinking, and formed a commission to promote systemic change led by Fr Robert Maloney CM.
Systemic change, according to a 2008 piece co-authored by Fr Maloney, “aims at changing a whole complex of structures that form a social system within which we live”. Practitioners of systemic change “consider poverty not as the inevitable result of circumstances, but as the product of unjust situations that can be changed”.
The idea was presented to the SVDP membership as a way to help people escape poverty permanently instead of accustoming them to rely on emergency assistance. Emphasis was placed on “ending” poverty rather than “enabling” it. Those concerned about how this new direction might affect the SVDP’s traditional activities were told that “Each organisation (national council, diocesan/ district council, conference) needs to determine” what could be sacrificed.
Under Gilbert’s leadership, a nation-wide mentoring programme, Bridges Out of Poverty, was launched, along with a community organisation programme, Neighbourhoods of Hope, and Voice of the Poor, a social justice advocacy arm.
According to FamVin.org, Voice of the Poor “aims at influencing public policy or resource allocation decisions at all levels of government” in order to reduce poverty. Voice of the Poor’s web page offers a list of position papers on issues including hunger, homelessness and human trafficking, as well as on hot-button topics such as immigration and the environment.
The environment paper supported the Paris Agreement on climate change and the UN Green Climate Fund, but was changed after Ralph Middlecamp became president in 2018. Middlecamp said the amendment emphasised the importance “of a consensus among our membership that is not tied to political agendas but focused on Church teaching and what we learn from serving the poor.”
Middlecamp, who spent 30 years managing thrift stores in Wisconsin, distanced himself from Gilbert’s emphasis on systemic change, saying it was “more a short term push that came out of Sheila Gilbert’s term… it was for her a new way to step back and look at what we do.” Her slogan, “Ending poverty through systemic change”, is still displayed prominently on the US website, but Middlecamp said it has not been officially adopted and probably will not be.
However, in April 2019 Middlecamp wrote to American SVDP members, assuring them that the SVDP is still focused on systemic change. He encouraged local councils to set up their own Voice of the Poor committees, and described new national programmes in the works: Immersion, a programme for the reintegration of ex-convicts, Back2Work, a job training programme, and affordable housing initiatives.
Although Dr Sickinger credited Peter Senge for inspiring the term “systemic change”, Middlecamp said the roots of the initiative “were not based on the work of Senge, but the desire of the members of the Vincentian Family to move beyond safety net programmes”.
The degree to which Senge influenced Fr Maloney and his fellow Vincentians may be debatable, but the MIT academic is indeed a leading expert in the field. Recently, he was appointed to the Chinese Thousand Talents Programme “to help China become a leader in systemic change, to benefit itself and the world”. Senge has in the past been critical of “rigid belief systems”, saying they cause war, and has maintained a longstanding interest in Buddhism. “Everything that we do,” Senge has said, “is about shifting the capability for collective action.”
Enshrining principles of radical social change in a Catholic charity can be a bit like welcoming a cuckoo’s egg into a nest. Once it hatches, the whole brood can be at risk. But when asked if the SVDP is concerned about potential secularisation of their mission, Middlecamp answers: “I am not concerned because I know our members and see the depth of their faith. They are deeply committed practicing Catholics who see the face of Christ in the poor they meet and have a vocation to serve them.”
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