In a lengthy, freewheeling interview released today, Pope Francis again shows that he wants to chart a bold new course for the massive ocean liner that is the global Catholic Church. The headline moments come when Francis declares he’s never been “a right-winger” and dives straight into the hot-button issues. “We have to find a new balance,” Francis says, noting the church’s disproportionate focus on opposing abortion and same-sex marriage. “It is not necessary to talk about these issues all of the time.”
Conservative Catholic pundits like George Weigel and Bill Donohue (not to mention a few U.S. Catholic bishops) must be wondering who took the keys away. The spin will begin soon enough from the Catholic right, which will highlight the fact that the pope has made no changes to church teaching. This misses the point entirely. Something far bigger is happening. Pope Francis is rescuing the Catholic Church from those grim-faced watchdogs of orthodoxy who in windowless rooms reduce Catholicism to a laundry list of no’s.
The Francis Doctrine, if you will, is about building a more joyful, merciful, collegial church that opens doors instead of building up walls. I’m reminded of Jesus taking on the Pharisees in all their righteous moralizing and obsession with legalism. This is a pope who recognizes that a church primarily known for what it opposes rather than what it loves is doomed to irrelevance. “The church sometimes has locked itself up in small things, in small-minded rules,” Francis says. “Ministers of the church must be ministers of mercy above all.”
Pope Benedict XVI, a brilliant theologian, nonetheless perpetuated a message that a “smaller, purer” church was the future of Catholicism. With Francis, a “big-tent” Catholicism that emphasizes not simply the hierarchy of bishops and cardinals but the “people of God” is back in style in a way not seen since the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965).
This church with which we should be thinking is the home of all, not a small chapel that can hold only a small group of selected people. We must not reduce the bosom of the universal church to a nest protecting our mediocrity.
There is particular resonance in the pope’s more inclusive style for Catholic progressives. Nuns, theologians, Catholic Democrats and social justice activists have been strongly criticized by church leaders in recent years. Conservatives have largely been given a free pass for ignoring or distorting church teaching on war and economic justice. Simply opposing abortion became the de-facto definition of what it means to be a ‘good Catholic.’ The church’s broad social justice agenda took a back seat. The climate became thick with fear and guilt-by-association. The air is starting to clear. A new space is opening up.
Even Catholics who have drifted away from the church – nearly 1 in 10 Americans – are being courted by the pope.
Instead of being just a church that welcomes and receives by keeping the doors open, let us try also to be a church that finds new roads, that is able to step outside itself and go to those who do not attend Mass, to those who have quit or are indifferent. The ones who quit sometimes do it for reasons that, if properly understood and assessed, can lead to a return. But that takes audacity and courage.
The big question? Will U.S. Catholic bishops get on the Francis train? More thoughts on that later.
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Earlier this week, newly released new census data showed that more than 4 million families were lifted out of poverty by the Supplemental Food Assistance Program (SNAP), also known as food stamps. Despite the success of this program, House Republicans plan today vote on draconian legislation to cut almost $40 billion from SNAP. For the average family receiving benefits, this would mean 21 fewer meals per month. As many as 6 million Americans could lose basic food support as state governments will be given incentives to cut the program even more.
Hardworking families can’t afford these cuts, and faith leaders around the country are speaking out. Using our religion data model, Faith in Public Life partnered with Rev. George Glazier of St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Columbus, Ohio, yesterday to reach out to 10,000 religiously engaged voters and ask them to tell Rep. Steve Stivers (R-OH) to vote against these immoral cuts to SNAP. Rep. Stivers’ district, which includes portions of both Columbus and rural Appalachia, has over 31,000 households receiving SNAP benefits. Seventy-six percent of those recipients are either elderly or have children in the household.
Rev. Glazier knows firsthand of the impact these cuts would have. He and his church run Neighborhood Services, Inc., which provides food and other emergency supplies to 7,500 needy families. NSI operates as a consumer food pantry – allowing families the dignity of shopping for food instead of giving them baskets. Like other food pantries around the country, NSI may not be able to provide for the influx in meals that families in the community will need if SNAP is cut.
By voting against these cuts to SNAP, Rep. Stivers and other members of Congress can show their constituents that they refuse to force more Americans to go hungry in the name of misguided budget cuts.
You can hear the call from Rev. Glazier here.
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On the five-year anniversary of the Wall Street crisis that triggered the worst economic collapse since the Great Depression, millions of Americans remain trapped in poverty and not a single Wall Street leader has been prosecuted for their irresponsible behavior.
This week the Census Bureau released data showing that more than 46 million Americans were living in poverty in 2012 – the same as 2011. While our economy has shown some signs of improvement, it’s primarily the very wealthy who are reaping the rewards, and wage-earning Americans have been steadily losing ground over the past few decades.
And if not for key safety-net programs, millions more Americans struggling to find work in a weak economy would have fallen below the poverty line. The Census figures definitively show that Social Security, unemployment insurance, and SNAP lifted more than 40 million Americans out of poverty last year. (For a deep dive into the numbers, check out Robert Greenstein and Melissa Boteach’s analyses.)
SNAP is a critical lifeline for millions of seniors, children, disabled Americans, and the working poor, but it’s under immediate threat from conservatives in the House of Representatives. Today, the House will vote on a bill that not only cuts SNAP by almost $40 billion, but would also leave almost 4 million desperately poor Americans looking for both work and food.
This is very much a values debate. On the one hand, faith groups like the Circle of Protection have lined up in strong opposition to these immoral cuts. On the other, proponents of cutting SNAP have taken Scripture badly out of context to argue that taking nutrition supports away from poor people is consistent with Christian values. Just yesterday, when challenged by faith leaders, Congressman Stephen Fincher (R-TN) refused to retract the claim he made in May, when he cited two Bible verses to justify letting the poor go without food. Read more about that here.
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While the U.S. House of Representatives prepares to vote on the draconian “Nutrition Reform and Work Opportunity Act” that would take SNAP benefits away from as many as 5 million people and gut $40 billion from the life-saving program, Christian activists confronted Rep. Stephen Fincher (R-TN) today to ask if he stands by his comments from last May in which he misrepresented Scripture to justify draconian cuts to effective anti-poverty programs.
Instead of taking into account USDA data which illustrates that over 50,000 households - including 20,000 with children and 12,000 with seniors - in Fincher’s district rely on these critical nutrition programs, or that 10.2% of his constituents remain unemployed, he reaffirmed his support for cuts that will put them at even greater risk.
James Salt, Executive Director of Catholics United and one of the activists who confronted Mr. Fincher, said “As a Catholic, it pains me to see Members of Congress use the Bible to justify policies that harm poor families. As the House prepares to vote on devastating cuts to SNAP, I hoped Representative Fincher would retract his previous use of Scripture to defend this immoral policy. When I asked him to do so, he ardently declined. It remains to be seen whether he’ll rediscover the Bible’s call to protect poor and hungry people before this crucial vote.”
Fincher’s ability to take millions of dollars in farm subsidies while denying his constituents vital nutrition assistance is stunning. Christian leaders and people in the pews will continue to educate both him and likeminded lawmakers on the reality of hunger and poverty in their communities and our Christian obligation to support struggling families.
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Yesterday, Faith in Public Life helped to organize an immigration reform roundtable discussion in Houston which featured local clergy leaders and members of the business and political community at the University of St. Thomas. The diverse, bipartisan panel urged Rep. Ted Poe and other members of Texas’s delegation in the U.S. House of Representatives to help pass long-overdue, common sense immigration reform.
“Every day, Houston pastors encounter children and young adults whose families have been torn apart by America’s failed immigration system,” said Senior Pastor Tim Moore of Walk Worthy Baptist Church. “We will not be silent while these anti-family policies wreak havoc in our communities. We urge Rep. Poe and fellow members of Texas’ Congressional delegation to examine the tenets of their faith and give us a vote on comprehensive immigration reform with an earned pathway to citizenship.”
Pastor Diane McGehee, Director of the Center for Missional Excellence at Texas Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church, sees firsthand the impact of the United States’ broken immigration system on Houston families and parishioners. Even as a licensed attorney she can’t navigate our immigration laws without help and great expense.
“We need Congress to pass immigration reform right now that protects immigrant families and workers, and includes a path to citizenship. The system we have right now is broken, hopelessly complex, and devastates hard working immigrants who come here to build a better life for themselves and their families. How we treat our fellow human beings as made in the image of God is central to our faith as Christians,” she explained.
Prominent local business and political figures echoed the call for immigration reform that strengthens Texas’ economy and protects immigrants from exploitation.
“A sensible immigration bill is vital for our city, state, and nation,” said Stan Marek, a leading figure in Houston’s business community and President and CEO of the Marek Family of Companies. “An estimated 2.1 million undocumented reside within our Texas borders and it’s time they were brought out of the shadows. Too many are working in low paying jobs and in a sense being held hostage because of their status. We need to demand now that our members in the House take seriously their obligation to pass a bill into the Conference Committee.”
As the immigration reform movement continues to gain steam in Houston and across the United States, Members of Congress need to act now to reform our broken system. Across the country, similar events are taking place as faith, business, labor and law enforcement communities team up to demand legislation that will bring our neighbors, parishioners, customers, students, and friends out of the shadows and give them opportunity to fully engage in America’s economy and democracy.
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