Cleveland’s retired social action director honored, calls for civility rather than divisiveness in church

For 25 years, Tom Allio led the social action office in the Cleveland Diocese and worked on issues as diverse the bankruptcy of  LTV Steel, the danger of nuclear weapons, payday lending and northeast Ohio’s alarming poverty.

Allio retired in 2010, leaving a legacy that few in the church-based social justice movement can match. Not satisfied to sit on the sidelines though, Allio continues to be a voice for justice in Ohio even if his role is not quite as public as it was before.

The veteran advocate for justice was honored Saturday for his leadership with the Servant of Justice Award from the Roundtable Association of Diocesan Social Action Directors, which met in Washington over the weekend in conjunction with the annual Catholic Social Ministry Gathering, which concludes Wednesday.

But Allio had to wait until Sunday to give his acceptance speech. In it he credited retired Cleveland Bishop Anthony M. Pilla for his vision of justice that allowed the Cleveland social justice program to become the largest in the country — with five separate offices — during the 1980s and 1990s.

“He taught us that anyone who aspired to be a ‘Servant of Justice’ must always strive to manifest Christ’s love for the poor and most vulnerable,” Allio said of Bishop Pilla. “He insisted that we effectively give voice to the least in the halls and offices of the powerful. He also taught us that respect for the leaders we oppose is a requirement of Catholic social action.”

Allio said the collaboration that Bishop Pilla fostered could serve as an example these days for the American Catholic community, which in recent years has experienced widespread incivility among people holding opposing views on justice concerns. Allio particularly singled out Catholics who “unfairly demonize” lay social justice leaders as “social progressives, liberals, activists and radicals.”

“We cannot allow the secular media and their friends in the blogosphere to define us,” Allio told the social action directors. “Despite what some pundits say, social justice is not a dirty word. In fact, Catholicism without social justice is a contradiction in terms.”

Allio noted that despite smearing and name-calling Catholics share far more common ground because of their beliefs than there are differences.

He called upon the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops to undertake an effort to unite Catholics and work to end divisiveness within the church on social issues. He cited Cardinal Donald W. Wuerl of Washington, who recently addressed the topic of Christian discourse when he wrote: “Christians must not only speak the truth but must also do so in love.”

“My sincere hope is that new leadership of the USCCB might consider taking on this challenge of ending the civil war within the church,” Allio said.

The round table also honored the Education for Justice project at the Center of Concern in Washington with its Harry A. Fagan Award for an outstanding contribution to spreading the Catholic social teaching. Accepting the honor were Sister Katherine Feely, a Sister of Notre Dame who is project coordinator, senior adviser Jane Deren, and Jesuit Father Jim Hug, the center’s executive director.

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