Days after they gathered for their annual spring meeting, the U.S. Catholic bishops' conference has laid off an unspecified number of employees as part of the reorganization of a key department tasked with promoting awareness of and advocacy for Catholic social teaching at home and abroad.

On June 24, "staff were notified of changes to the structure of the Department of Justice, Peace, and Human Development," said Chieko Noguchi, executive director of public affairs for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, in a June 26 statement provided to OSV News.

According to the USCCB website, the department consists of nearly 30 staff employees, two committees of bishops and one bishops' subcommittee, and "promotes awareness of Catholic social teaching and opportunities to live the Baptismal call to love God and neighbor."

The department's activities span poverty relief, advocacy, education, social development, anti-racism efforts and environmental justice.

In a statement, Noguchi said the reorganization will enable the USCCB "to align resources more closely with recent funding trends.

"Sadly, this includes a loss of jobs for several staff members," she added, without elaborating on the exact number of cuts.

Religion News Service reported that the department's staffing could be cut by half based on information held by multiple sources with ties to the conference.

The bishops' strategic vision for the conference has also been changing. At the U.S. bishops' Fall general assembly, the bishops voted to replace the USCCB's current strategic planning cycle with a mission planning process intended to streamline, reduce spending and remove silos at the USCCB, although concerns were raised at the time about where new resources would come from.

However, the U.S. bishops also voted overwhelmingly to pass the USCCB's budget with no increase in its assessment on dioceses for the fourth year in a row.

In January 2020, the bishops only narrowly approved a 3% increase in the amount their dioceses were asked to contribute, even as some bishops warned it would not keep up with inflation. Those diocesan assessments, which help fund the USCCB's general operating expenses, totaled $12.35 million each in 2022 and 2021, according to the most recent available financial records posted at the USCCB's website.

But as OSV News reported previously, the real-dollar value of diocesan contributions to the USCCB is drastically reduced due to high inflation since the last assessment increase. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics CPI Inflation calculator, people need $1.22 in May 2024 (the latest available data) to have the same buying power as they did with $1 exactly four years prior.

Among those impacted by the staff cuts are employees working for the Catholic Campaign for Human Development, the USCCB's official anti-poverty initiative, which was founded in 1969 as the National Catholic Crusade Against Poverty.

To date, CCHD -- which is funded through an yearly diocesan collection typically taken up in November -- has awarded $440 million to almost 12,000 community organizations working to end the root causes of poverty in the U.S., according to the USCCB.

While CCHD staff "have been affected (by the layoffs), the national collection itself and the decision to award grants are separate and distinct from Monday’s announcement," said Noguchi in her statement. "In the interest of good stewardship, the administration of the collection is being reorganized to allow for more efficient management. The CCHD Subcommittee (of bishops) will continue its work."

News of the staff cuts left some Catholic social teaching experts stunned -- including one who had formerly headed up the Department of Justice, Peace and Human Development.

"My questions are: who decided this, who was consulted, why were bishops unaware of this massive disinvestment in its social mission?" John Carr, founder of the Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life at Georgetown University, told OSV News.

Carr, who for 20 years served as the department's director, said that the layoffs come amid a crucial time for Catholic social outreach carrying out the demands of the Gospel.

"Why in a world at war, a nation with pervasive poverty are the leaders of the conference minimizing the conference's commitments to overcome poverty, work for justice and pursue peace?" Carr asked.

The move also has implications for the focus of the bishops' broader pastoral objectives, he said.

"It's about mission, not money," he said. "It's whether the bishops' conference continues to prioritize issues of poverty, justice and peace, or retreats to focus on internal matters."

Yet funding for those initiatives has been increasingly a matter of debate.

With declining donations and a post-pandemic charitable giving landscape bringing CCHD to an inflection point, the USCCB held closed-door executive discussions June 13 about the initiative's future during the conference's spring general assembly in Louisville, Kentucky.

Archbishop Timothy P. Broglio of the U.S. Archdiocese for the Military Services, the president of the USCCB, noted at a press event afterward that "the bishops had a good discussion, including time to share in small groups. The CCHD subcommittee will take this feedback and discern the best way to incorporate it into the future work of the CCHD."

But one Catholic social outreach expert told OSV News he wondered if the cuts to the Department of Justice, Peace and Human Development, while addressing genuine financial concerns, also bespoke ideological worries about CCHD and the department as a whole.

"These are pretty strongly funded positions that are being cut," said Jeffrey Odell Korgen, president of the New Jersey-based social ministry consulting firm Korgen Associates, pointing out that CCHD is dependent upon the annual diocesan collection.

Korgen, who wrote the 2015 book "Beyond Empowerment" about CCHD, told OSV News that "there may be some downsizing of the (USCCB staff) that needs to be done, but the weight (of these layoffs) is in social development: justice, peace and human development."

Over the years, CCHD has been dogged by controversy, as critics have objected to some of its decisions on both doctrinal and political grounds, accusing it of funding initiatives or organizations with stances at odds with Catholic moral teaching.

The USCCB has vigorously refuted such claims, providing an extensive explanation of its CCHD application, award and grant-monitoring protocols on its website, and even consulting moral theologians to weigh in on some cases of eligibility and compliance.

In his remarks to the press June 13, Archbishop Broglio said that throughout the closed-door discussions about CCHD, "the bishops' ongoing commitment to the vital work of fighting poverty was clear."

Noguchi reiterated Archbishop Broglio's remark in her statement about the layoffs, saying as well that the USCCB was "grateful for the time and dedication of conference staff and recognize that transitions are difficult."

She added that "as this is a personnel matter, further detail will not be discussed at this time" and asked people to join in praying for their affected colleagues.