As the American Catholic bishops gather for their semi-annual meeting this week, the poor are again knocking at their door.
Despite all their divisions, American Catholics, indeed all American Christians, agree on at least one thing: God wants them to take care of poor people. If you can’t check that out in recent polls, visit almost any church in rich suburbs or poverty neighborhoods and you will find a box asking donations for people in need. Catholics take pride in Catholic Charities, the nation’s largest private social service network, the Catholic Campaign for Human Development, the church’s almost fifty year old program to back self-help projects among America’s poor, to say nothing of parish-based and independent soup kitchens, clothing centers, homes for the homeless and women with troubles, and quiet neighbor to neighbor care-taking. With all this behind them, the bishops have often spoken up for the nation’s poor. When they did so, they had the authority of daily pastoral experience and the backing of all but the most hard-hearted of their people.
And the poor are back. The census bureau reports that the nation’s poverty rate in 2010 was 15.1 percent, up from 14.3 percent in 2009, the third consecutive annual increase. 46.2 million people were in poverty in 2010, the largest number in the 52 years for which poverty estimates have been published. We will blame this on the economic downturn that exploded in 2008, but between 2000 and 2008, while we worried about terrorism and wars, the number of poor Americans grew by more than nine million. People living in extreme poverty, that is, those with incomes below half the poverty line, rose while we were not looking to over 17 million people, the highest level on record since data first became available.
So we hope to hear the bishops speak out on poverty this week.
Exactly twenty five years ago, in 1986, the American bishops, after six years of nation-wide discussion about Reagan-era economic problems, published a remarkable pastoral letter, “Economic Justice for All,” They offered constructive commentary on our political economy, including a remarkable call for a “New American Experiment” in public-private partnerships to promote local economic development. Drawing on age-old principles of Catholic social teaching, the Bishops offered important challenges to their people and the American public. Here are a few:
“Every perspective on economic life that is human, moral and Christian must be shaped by three questions: What does the economy do for people? What does it do to people? And how do people participate in it?”
“The poor have the single most urgent economic claim on the conscience of the nation”
“All citizens have a duty to assist the poor through acts of charity and personal commitment. But private charity and voluntary action are not sufficient. We also carry out our moral responsibility to assist and empower the poor by working collectively through government to establish just and effective public policies”
The bishops then explored “urgent problems”. While clearly backing provision of an adequate social welfare safety net - as a matter of human rights for the poor, they also emphasized full employment. Work, they argued, was necessary for human dignity and social justice. Pope John Paul II in 1981 called work “the key to the social question”. He argued that human beings are the subjects of work, not “hands” or commodities or instruments of production. Thus the bishops examined the scope and effects of unemployment, its human costs, and still relevant structural factors like technology and international competition. They argued that it was wrong for a person or group to be excluded unfairly, left unable to contribute to the economy and deprived of participation that is so vital to human development.
The bishops thus placed government policy in the larger context of shared responsibility, hoping for a Catholic “constituency of conscience” whose members would assess every policy, public or private, “by how it touches the least, the lost and the left out among us”. So, in their meeting this week, listening to the worries of their people back home, the bishops have great resources of experience and ideas to draw upon to remind the nation of the human realities behind the depressing numbers we hear about unemployment and poverty. And they have the capacity to call forth the compassion and sense of solidarity that is deeply rooted in the lives of most Americans. With their help, perhaps we can move the national debate to better advance the unambiguous economic principles of Catholic social justice, affirm life and fulfill our shared responsibility for the common good.
David J. O’Brien, Ph.D. is the University Professor of Faith and Culture at the University of Dayton and professor emeritus of history, and formerly the Loyola Professor of Roman Catholic Studies, at the College of the Holy Cross in Massachusetts.