The 1971 Rome Synod of Bishops framed "Justice in the World", the statement which set the justice and peace agenda for the decade. Father Bill Ryan, SJ, founder and first executive director of the Center of Concern, and Phil Land, S.J. attended that synod.
Bill Ryan was co-director of the Social Action Department of the Canadian Catholic Conference when, in October of 1970, Father Pedro Arrupe, SJ, Superior General of the Society of Jesus (the Jesuits), asked him to go to Washington, DC to assist in the establishment of an international center to study issues relating to development, justice, and peace from a Christian perspective. The proposed center, a joint initiative of the United States Conference Catholic Bishops (USCCB) and the Society of Jesus, was to be established as an independent organization.
On May 4, 1971, the establishment of the Center of Concern was formally announced by Father Arrupe and Bishop Joseph Bernardin, then General Secretary of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (later Cardinal Archbishop of Chicago), at a meeting with United Nations Secretary General U Thant in his New York Office. The UN setting was strategic: from its inception, the Center of Concern would have a global perspective.
Founding Vision and Early Work
From the outset, the Center of Concern has defined itself as international in perspective, ecumenical and interfaith in outlook, and autonomous in structure. The Center''s overriding goal is to enable all people to realize the truth that humanity is united in a common destiny, and to assist the world''s people to exercise their common responsibility to shape that destiny. Today, as then, the biblical mandate "to read the signs of the times" serves as the Center''s foundational methodology.
In its early years, the Center provided strong, ground-breaking leadership in helping thousands discover the link between faith and justice and in raising new awareness of issues affecting developing countries and women. The Center also participated in the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops'' (USCCB) bicentennial process, which culminated in the historic "Call to Action" meeting in Detroit. This gathering called the People of God to address justice in our society and world, as well as in the Church. The Center''s work focused heavily on the United Nations agenda, which included the call for a new international economic order and a series of world conferences which addressed global issues such as population, hunger, environment, poverty, habitat, science and technology, and women.
The Middle Years
During the 1980''s, the Center moved from a primary focus on global institutions to participation in social movements - the peace movement, the women''s movement, the labor movement. Education efforts evolved from education for justice to social analysis. The Center''s focus began to link global and local issues in an analysis of the impact of the development process on people in the United States and in the so-called Third World, particularly women and the poor.
The 1980''s also saw the National Conference of Catholic Bishops publish pastoral letters on racism, peace, and the U.S. economy. The Center participated fully in this new moment of social creativity in the U.S. Church by engaging in the processes of developing the letters and by using the Center''s resources to help inform the wider Church about their content and implications after they were completed. During this decade the Center was recognized as the single most effective Catholic organization outside the Bishops'' conference shaping the Church''s important pastoral letters.
In the 1990s, the Center returned to its emphasis on UN conferences and pressed for greater cooperation among non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in working for global justice. The Center recognizes that the model of development that has governed the programs of such institutions as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund for years is part of the problem, not the solution. The promise of the future is not, for now, with these major multilateral institutions, but with community-centered, local, and grassroots efforts linked together in global networks.
Today, the Center envisions a future where people working for justice in their home communities will be linked with their sisters and brothers around the world, learning from each other''s discoveries, supporting each other''s efforts, standing with each other in solidarity, strong and wise enough finally to make a difference. The Center supports and participates in many organizational networks devoted to such efforts.
1996 included a number of important anniversaries. It was the 25th birthday of the statement that shaped the Center''s originating vision, "Justice in the World" from the 1971 Synod of Bishops. In that document, the world''s Catholic Bishops declared that work for justice is essential to full gospel living and that the Church itself must be just if it is to be credible. 1996 was also the 20th anniversary of Pope Paul VI''s strong, progressive encyclical "Evangelization in the World" and the 10th anniversary of the U.S. Catholic bishops'' Pastoral Letter on the U.S. economy.
1996 also marked the 25th anniversary of the founding of the Center of Concern as an independent international center for justice and peace studies and advocacy in the Catholic tradition.
To celebrate these anniversaries, the Center co-sponsored an invitational working conference with Archbishop Rembert G.Weakland of Milwaukee and with Marquette University in the Spring of 1997. The conference explored the potential contributions of Catholic Social Thought to shaping the new emerging global economy. The issues raised by rapid globalization have been revolutionizing the context of human life and church ministry. The changes affect our pattern of living and relating and will continue to do so for decades to come. The Milwaukee conference attempted to explore the struggles and decisions faced by all segments of society, including corporate leaders, in that process and bring the light and challenge of the scriptures and Catholic Social Thought to bear on them and on the policies and structures needed to bring greater justice to the global economy.
In August 1998, the Center moved from its location on 3700 13th Street to a larger brick building right around the corner. A former Jesuit house of study, the new, more spacious office location at 1225 Otis Street comfortably accommodates the burst in growth of Center staff.
The New Millennium
In December 1999, three years of preparatory work of the Gender, Trade and Development project culminated in a strategic planning seminar and signaled the Center''s continued commitment to developing and promoting equitable trade policies for women, children, families and communities throughout the world. Hailed a great success, the conference garnered support from major foundations and drew participation from partners from many regions of the world. It was here that discussions for an International Gender and Trade Network (IGTN) gained strength, and the Center was designated as the Secretariat for this re-structured partnership. Additionally, a steering committee with global regional representation was created, and research and trade literacy coordinators were named.
The Center entered the new Millennium under the Jubilee theme, based on the biblical concept of Jubilee according to which God ordered the Israelites to forgive debts, free slaves and return property every 50 years. The Rethinking Bretton Woods Project assumed a leadership role in Jubilee 2000, a global coalition of environmental, religious and social justice groups seeking to advance the campaign for debt relief for the world''s poorest. Through vigorous lobbying and advocacy, the campaign saw some successes when the U.S. Congress and administration committed to canceling the bilateral debt of over thirty Heavily Indebted Poor Countries (HIPC), and appropriated monies to carry this out. The coalition organized a series of national and international events, and received support from prominent religious leaders, including Pope John Paul II and South Africa''s Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and also celebrities, most notably Irish pop star Bono.
Continuing under the Jubilee theme, the Center''s Celebrate Jubilee and Justice! workbook was published and became an effective outreach tool helping faith groups and high school students understand the call to justice and peace in the new millennium. Realizing the value of tapping into this audience, the Center''s Education for Justice Project has evolved and invested energies in developing justice resources based on Catholic Social Teaching for a national network of religious institutions, educators and communities. These resources are being disseminated through a user-friendly fee-based section of the Education for Justice web site.
In addition to the Education for Justice project, the Center has also experienced shifts in its programs and developed new focus areas. The Center''s Rethinking Bretton Woods Project (RBW) has re-aligned its priorities to focus on the power dynamics within the International Financial Institutions (IFIs), IFIs'' loans and grants, and the WTO agenda. This set of power relationships has a profound impact on people in poverty in poor nations. RBW seeks ways to integrate human rights standards into trade, financial and investment policies at the IFIs and the UN.
The Private Sector in Development Project was created to analyze the role of the private sector in shaping global policies through lobbying and investment, and to evaluate the impact of those activities on the access of people in poverty to the basic goods and services they need to live and grow with dignity. This project''s Agribusiness Accountability Initiative (AAI) is currently its key focus area.
The Center continues to play a role in major UN conferences and global meetings. It has participated in every major UN, WTO, and International Financial Institution (IFI) meeting for many years. The Center takes delegations as well to the major social movement meetings such as World Social Forum.
During this phase of its history, the Center has grown in staff and sought to keep up with emerging trends in technology. Major investments went into a new donor database. The Center''s web site was constructed and launched, redesigned and re-launched more than once. And we are now developing a Center presence on social networking sites on the Internet.