Yesterday Pope Francis issued a devastating moral critique of our economic system, saying in part:
Just as the commandment “Thou shalt not kill” sets a clear limit in order to safeguard the value of human life, today we also have to say “thou shalt not” to an economy of exclusion and inequality. Such an economy kills. How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points? This is a case of exclusion. Can we continue to stand by when food is thrown away while people are starving? This is a case of inequality. Today everything comes under the laws of competition and the survival of the fittest, where the powerful feed upon the powerless. As a consequence, masses of people find themselves excluded and marginalized: without work, without possibilities, without any means of escape.
This inequality is alive and well in our own backyard. For example, Walmart — the nation’s largest employer — pays their American workers an average wage low enough to qualify for SNAP benefits for a family of three. Employees at a Walmart in Ohio even collected holiday food donations for the store’s own poverty-wage employees this month. Meanwhile their shelves are stocked with products manufactured in life-threatening conditions by workers trapped in abject poverty, and the company founder’s family is the richest in the world.
Walmart is by no means alone. Squeezing the vast multitude of workers while racking up huge profits and doling out staggering salaries to a tiny corporate elite is a feature, not a bug, of the entire economic order. Human beings are treated as if they exist to serve the system, rather than vice versa. It’s a crisis of values.
There are hopeful signs that alleviating the suffering is becoming a higher priority in Washington. For example, the Senate will vote next month on raising the minimum wage from $7.25 to $10.10. Don’t get me wrong – this is just one step towards a pro-familiy economy that truly values the dignity of work.
And in a sorely needed break from the bipartisan obsession with fiscal austerity that has gripped Washington in recent years, Sen. Elizabeth Warren recently took to the Senate floor to call for expanding Social Security benefits instead of cutting them like leaders of both parties proposed earlier this year. At a time when one-third of Americans near retirement age have no retirement savings to fall back on, Warren is 100% right about the need to change the debate instead of succumbing to false choices. As Francis argued yesterday, it’s a matter of life and death that demands our concern and action.
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Ever since his election just eight months ago, Pope Francis has brought a season of renewal and hope to the Catholic Church with his emphasis on personal humility, engagement with the broader culture and focus on economic justice. His warnings that an isolated Church grows “sick” when it fails to be “in the streets” and headline-grabbing comments that Catholicism must not be known exclusively for obsession with a few hot-button issues is breathing new life into the Church’s efforts to evangelize in a culture often indifferent and frequently hostile to institutional religion.
Today, Pope Francis released a major document, Evangelii Gaudium (Joy of the Gospel), that expands on core themes articulated in his previous sermons, interviews and reflections. Building on his frequently articulated desire for a more inclusive Church defined by mercy and compassion, Pope Francis writes that the Church must be “the house of the Father, where there is a place for everyone.” In an earlier interview Pope Francis described the court mentality not uncommon at the Vatican as “the leprosy of the papacy.” He now calls for a “conversion of the papacy” that includes a less top-down approach to Church governance – a “sound decentralization” in his words.
Most relevant to timely political debates, Pope Francis offers a bold message about economic justice that especially needs to heard by Catholics in positions of power. While House Speaker John Boehner and Rep. Paul Ryan slash billions from nutrition programs and are daily communicants in the church of free-market fundamentalism, Pope Francis rejects trickle-down economics as a moral and practical failure. He writes:
Some people continue to defend trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world. This opinion, which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and naïve trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system. Meanwhile, the excluded are still waiting.
As long as the problems of the poor are not radically resolved by rejecting the absolute autonomy of markets and financial speculation and by attacking the structural causes of inequality, no solution will be found for the world’s problems or, for that matter, to any problems.
In many ways, this is traditional Catholic teaching about economic justice that builds on the foundations laid in the first social encyclical about capital and labor released in 1891 by Pope Leo XIII. But to contemporary American ears accustomed to hearing full-throated Catholic arguments only when it comes to abortion and same sex marriage, this unequivocal economic critique of unfettered markets packs a punch.
“I beg the Lord to grant us more politicians who are genuinely disturbed by the state of society, the people, the lives of the poor,” Francis writes in tones both mournful and hopeful.
It looks like elected officials who take great pride in claiming to represent family values and traditional religious principles while undercutting lifelines to the poor have some sober reading to do over the Thanksgiving recess.
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Faith leaders are deeply involved with the Medicaid expansion fight in Ohio, where key GOP legislators who support extending health coverage to 300,000 low-income Ohio families, children and seniors are facing political intimidation from right-wing groups. Americans For Prosperity, a Tea Party group financed by the Koch brothers, has launched attack ads against Rep. Barbara Sears and other Republican lawmakers across the state who are putting the health of struggling Ohioans before the political agenda of the Tea Party.
Our friends at Nuns on the Bus Ohio have mobilized Catholic Sisters statewide to confront these attacks. As a result of their diligence and conviction, more than 140 Sisters have released a hard-hitting statement calling on the Koch Brothers to search their souls about their opposition to Medicaid Expansion, saying in part
We know from our ministry to those living on the margins that a lack of health care is a constant burden that unnecessarily weighs on families. Medicaid expansion will provide immediate relief.
Sadly, wealthy activists are organizing in Ohio and across the country to deny health care coverage to pregnant women, the disabled and elderly in nursing homes by undermining Medicaid expansion. Americans for Prosperity, the advocacy group backed by the billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch, has made this a top priority. This is unconscionable. It is shameful that billionaires who can access the best medical care in the world oppose basic health care for the poor. We urge these corporate leaders to search their souls, consider the pain of so many families and stop this reckless campaign.
The economic and moral arguments for Medicaid expansion are strong enough to unite groups that normally find themselves on opposite sides of debates. For example, the Ohio Hospital Association and the labor union SEIU, as well as Ohio Right to Life Organization and NARAL Pro-Choice Ohio, have joined forces in support of Republican Governor Kasich’s decision to expand Medicaid. Kasich himself cited his faith as an inspiration for his position.
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This post originally appeared in the Fast for Families blog.
It’s been an incredible first week at the Fast for Families tent on the National Mall in DC. Just steps from the U.S. Capitol, faith, labor and immigrant rights leaders have been fasting around the clock to urge Congress to pass immigration reform. They have inspired Members of Congress, Cabinet officials, and activists from around the country to visit them and join the effort.
The fasters have been encouraged by conversations with Senator Chuck Schumer, Rep. Judy Chu, Rep. Luis Gutierrez, Rep. Jan Schakowsky and Rep. Joe Kennedy III who came to the tent to offer their support. Secretary of Agriculture and former Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack also visited the tent to thank the fasters for their sacrifice.
We were particularly excited to be visited on Friday afternoon by House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, who came to hear the stories of the fasters and why they are willing to risk their health for this cause. She reiterated that a majority of House members support immigration reform, and that if a vote were held today it would pass.
We’ve also been deeply grateful to receive hundreds of other supporters who have come by to offer their support for the fast and immigration reform.
What have been most moving though are the nightly meetings and prayer vigils. Each night, the community gathers to hear updates on the fasters and pray for their continued strength and for an end to this moral crisis. Rev. William Barber II of the North Carolina NAACP and the Moral Monday movement came to deliver a moving sermon, as did Rev. Derrick Harkins and Rev. Jennifer Butler. Each night we also hear from some of the many activists who have traveled from all over the country to be with us in this effort.
As the fasters finish their 4th day without food, our movement is growing stronger. In the coming days, we will continue to make sure Congress hears our message loud and clear: pass commonsense immigration reform now.
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While House Republican leaders continue dragging their feet and making excuses for blocking a vote for immigration reform, more than 1,000 people are deported every day and millions live in fear that they’ll be next. The time has come for dramatic action to awaken consciences on Capitol Hill.
This week faith and immigrant leaders began the Fast For Families, A Call for Immigration Reform & Citizenship just yards away from the U.S. Capitol on the national Mall. Clergy and activists will abstain from food and pray continually to move the hearts of lawmakers. This is an incredible display of commitment. Some participants will fast for several days, and others are pledging to fast until their bodies can no longer go on.
At the kick off event yesterday, I heard participants invoke not only Scripture, but also Mohandas Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Cesar Chavez – all of whom fasted as part of their historic struggles against oppression. Those who casually dismiss immigration reform’s chances fail to recognize the profound moral stakes we face at this moment. We refuse to let opportunistic politicians stand idly by while immigrant families are shattered.
Tonight I’ll be joining Rev. William Barber II, the leader of the Moral Mondays movement, for a prayer service with the fasters and 60 young immigrant families.
If you’re in DC, please join us at 5:00 PM at the corner of 3rd St and Jefferson Ave, SW. Even if you can’t make it, you can still support this movement by signing up for a one-day solidarity fast, visiting the tents in DC, or simply spreading the word in your community. Visit www.fast4families.org to learn more.
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