In a nation that keeps 2.2 million people behind bars — the majority for nonviolent drug offenses — the moral urgency of criminal justice reform is crystal clear.
And even though the scale of the problem is daunting, faith leaders are powering a movement that can overturn this deep institutional injustice.
Consider Louisiana, the state with America’s highest incarceration rate.
On Monday, diverse clergy leaders peacefully rallied at the state capitol to call legislation that ends unnecessary employment discrimination against ex-offenders, as well as sentencing reforms for nonviolent drug crimes.
This agenda is no pipe dream. Next door in deeply conservative Mississippi, Governor Phil Bryant just signed a new law that eases mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent offenses and gives judges more sentencing options besides prison, earning praise from across the ideological spectrum. This is an issue that transcends left and right.
Mass incarceration not only wastes billions of tax dollars, but also divides families and needlessly undermines the God-given potential of millions of human beings. And it’s disproportionately devastating in African-American and Latino communities.
It is all too often a “justice system” in name only. As people of faith, we must right this wrong. Together, this is one mountain we can move.
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Rep. Paul Ryan’s budget proposals have been challenged in recent years by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, prominent Catholic theologians, a “Nuns on the Bus” tour and respected anti-poverty experts. When your guiding ideology seems to be making life harder for the working poor and coddling the super rich with more tax breaks, you better expect some moral scrutiny along the way.
This consistent Catholic pressure on Ryan doesn’t seem to bother Marquette University’s Les Aspin Center, which is hosting a luncheon tomorrow in Washington to honor the congressman with a distinguished public service award. Named in honor of Les Aspin, a Milwaukee native who served in the House of Representatives and as Secretary of Defense in the Clinton administration, the award honors a person who “serves as a role model for our nation’s future leaders.” Marquette has sold tickets and sponsorships for the luncheon, including a $25,000 “Gold Tier” buy in that gets you “priority seating.”
Marquette University has every right to give Rep. Ryan or anyone else an award. Universities should be settings that stimulate civil debate across the political and ideological spectrum. But you might expect officials at a Catholic university would think carefully about honoring and raising money off someone who perpetuates racial stereotypes about urban poverty, demonizes government and mocks those concerned about growing income inequality.
At a time when Pope Francis challenges “trickle-down” economic theories and warns about “an economy of exclusion and inequality,” Ryan released a budget this week that slashes federal funding for low-income students, food assistance to hungry families and makes deep cuts to health care coverage. This is not a pro-life budget. It’s an ideological gimmick that reflects Ryan’s favorite intellectual hero, the libertarian icon, Ayn Rand. While Ryan has recently backed away from his encomiums to Rand, the congressman once praised Rand for doing “a fantastic job of explaining the morality of capitalism, the morality of individualism.” He once cited her as “the reason why I got involved in public service.”
Ryan will be handed his public service award just two days after releasing a 2015 budget proposal that fails a basic moral test.
“This budget proposal doubles down on policies that hurt our nation and is even worse than Ryan’s earlier ones,” said Sr. Simone Campbell, Executive Director of NETWORK, in a statement today. “Forcing the working poor to pay the price of addressing federal deficits while expecting nothing from those with the most wealth is wrong.”
Robert Greenstein of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities said in a statement that Ryan’s budget is “an exercise in hypocrisy — claiming to boost opportunity and reduce poverty while flagrantly doing the reverse.” Here are just a few highlights (or lowlights) from the Ryan proposal, according to Greenstein:
- Eliminates Pell Grants entirely for low-income students who have families to support, must work, and are attending school less than half time on top of their jobs.
- Resurrects the draconian benefit cuts in SNAP (food stamps) that the House passed last fall and adds $125 billion of SNAP cuts on top of them.
- Repeals the Affordable Care Act (ACA), taking coverage away from the millions of people who have just attained it, and cuts Medicaid by $732 billion (by 26 percent by 2024) on top of the cuts
from repealing the ACA’s Medicaid expansion.
- At least 40 million low- and moderate-income people — that’s 1 in 8 Americans — would become uninsured by 2024. They include the 25 million otherwise-uninsured people that the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) projects will gain coverage through the ACA by 2024.
I’m not holding my breath that any of these inconvenient facts will be raised among the polite chatter and clinking silverware at the Hyatt Regency on Capitol Hill tomorrow. I suppose it would ruin the mood.
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On Monday, March 24, the “Fast for Families Across America” bus rolled into South Bend, Indiana as part of an 14,000 mile cross-country journey for citizenship and immigration reform.
Two Notre Dame students, Jessica Pedroza and Christian Myers, have been leading efforts on campus through ND’s Student Coalition for Immigration Advocacy. From fasting for 24 hours in solidarity with “Fast for Families,” to organizing ‘Immigration Week’ on Notre Dame’s campus, to traveling to Chicago to join the Student Summit for Immigration Reform, they have a great record mobilizing their fellow Catholic students to stand up for humane immigration reform. Both Jessica and Christian joined local leaders at a “Fast for Families” community meeting at Little Flower Church in South Bend. The duo spoke movingly to the crowd assembled about the urgent need for immigration reform and ways this issue has touched their own lives. Here’s what they said:
“The nation has joined the fasting efforts in support of comprehensive immigration reform, including students from Notre Dame, and we all have our reasons for fasting. I chose to fast because living in fear of deportation is not the way to live. Years ago, when my family drove to Mexico to visit extended family, I saw white crosses all over the border representing those who have died on their way to a better life. People leave their lives in their home country and sacrifice everything to come here. Some bring their children out of love—for them to receive an education, for them to have opportunities…Those of us who are not DREAMers and who do not happen to live in limbo like 11 million others, have the responsibility to fight for them, to fast for them, to pray for them. These are our relatives, our friends, our neighbors, our co-workers, our classmates, our business leaders. When we fast, we are hungry for food, but what we are far hungrier for is immigration reform.”
-Jessica Pedroza, Notre Dame freshman originally from Phoenix, Arizona
“In our solidarity fast, 26 members of the Notre Dame community elected to each engage in a water-only fast for 24 consecutive hours during the week of Dec. 2nd through 6th. It was truly powerful to come together in this experience and simultaneously be united with other fast groups around the country…It is my hope that our Congress will look at the “Fast for Families” effort and the numerous other examples of support for our immigrant brothers and sisters, documented and undocumented, “skilled” and “unskilled,” sick and healthy, old and young, regardless of their country of origin, and do everything in their power to enact much-needed reform. Whether you are guided by God, morality, civic duty, or some other ideal, you should be able to recognize that it is our system that is broken and therefore it’s up to us to fix it. And…the time to fix it is now.”
- Christian Myers, Notre Dame student and organizer of Notre Dame’s solidarity fast
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I recently wrote in the National Catholic Reporter about Catholic leaders who never got the memo from Pope Francis. Bishop Robert Morlino of Madison is the latest to make you wonder how long it’s going to take for those refreshing winds blowing in Rome to be felt in U.S. dioceses.
Pope Francis angered liturgical traditionalists by washing the feet of women and Muslims during last year’s Holy Thursday liturgy. It was the first time a pope had included women in the rite, which commemorates Jesus washing the feet of his disciples the night before his crucifixion. Bucking centuries of tradition, the pope also held the ceremony at Casal del Marmo, a prison on the outskirts of Rome, instead of the swankier digs at St. Peter’s or the Basilica of St. John Lateran.
From the Wisconsin State Journal this week:
Three years ago, Madison Catholic Bishop Robert Morlino issued guidelines that gave priests the option of either using only men or not celebrating the ritual at all. Given the heightened attention to foot-washing last year, some parishioners thought Morlino might re-evaluate his position. That has not happened. Brent King, the spokesman for the Diocese of Madison, said priests have the same two options this year — men only or no ritual.
Does Bishop Morlino fancy himself more Catholic than the pope?
This isn’t the first time the Wisconsin bishop has made news. When parishioners at St. Mary’s Catholic Church in his diocese raised strong concerns about a new group of traditionalist priests, Bishop Morlino took the unusual move of threatening those raising objections with formal church censure.
“This is a situation where push has come to shove and the bishop is asserting his authority and letting the people know, as it were, that he ‘owns the buildings and calls the shots,’” Dennis Doyle, a Catholic theologian at the University of Dayton, told the State Journal at the time.
Bishop Morlino, who sparked criticism from some theologians after his unusual interpretations of church teaching during heated debates over Rep. Paul Ryan’s budget proposals, has also warned that Catholics in the United States face “sophisticated persecution.”
Pope Francis wants a less defensive church that opens doors and is “bruised, hurting and dirty” after being “in the streets.” The leadership style of Bishop Morlino sends the message that Catholic identity and evangelization are best served by wielding authority like a club and drawing dividing lines in the sand.
I’m putting my collection-plate money on the fact that Pope Francis has a more effective, and more authentically Christian, strategy for renewing the church.
H/T The Deacon’s Bench
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Today at the Vatican, President Obama and Pope Francis met for the first time.
While detailed reports of the meeting aren’t out yet, there certainly wasn’t enough time to cover all the issues on which they share common concern. Climate change, staggering economic inequality, poverty, the plight of immigrants and refugees, and international conflict resolution all need focus from the world’s most powerful political leader and most recognizable faith leader. Given Pope Francis’s condemnation of “an economy of exclusion” and President Obama’s recent reference to those warnings, I think and hope that addressing the staggering gap between the wealthiest few and those left behind figured prominently.
Still fighting for affordable healthcare
Four years and several days ago, President Obama signed the Affordable Care Act. Now, after seemingly endless repeal attempts and obstruction, along with a very rocky rollout, the law is getting a chance to work for millions of American families.
While there are many challenges ahead, I’m proud to say that faith groups are playing a crucial role in making the law work.
But right now the biggest obstacle is the unconscionable decision by politicians in 25 states to reject the federally funded expansion of Medicaid. Fortunately this has become a rallying cry for the Moral Mondays movement in several key states. This movement will only grow stronger as conservative politicians’ immoral obstruction continues.
Faith groups such as NETWORK, Catholics United and PICO National Network were instrumental in the healthcare reform legislative debate in Washington. It’s only fitting that clergy and congregations are carrying on the fight in state capitals where politicians are making the lethal and immoral choice to deny their citizens the care they need.
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