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.
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.
The results on election day once again showed voters’ commitment to progressive priorities like health care and better wages that strengthen families.
In Virginia, one of the key differences between Ken Cuccinelli and Terry McAuliffe was their disagreement over health care. Cuccinelli, who flaunted his pro-life credentials and “family values,” nonetheless took an anti-family position by opposing Obamacare’s expansion of Medicaid even though it would provide 400,000 currently uninsured Virginians access to affordable coverage. Voters backed McAuliffe, who supports Medicaid expansion, while rejecting Cuccinelli’s immoral agenda – meaning that struggling families, seniors and children in Virginia will get the care they need.
In New Jersey, voters overwhelmingly passed a constitutional amendment raising the minimum wage from $7.25 to $8.25 per hour and indexing it to inflation. This not only helps hardworking, low-income families make ends meet, but also shows that Governor Chris Christie’s re-election doesn’t signal a turn toward economic conservatism among Garden State voters. And while Christie is no moderate, he accepted Obamacare’s expansion of Medicaid. In Election Day’s two statewide races, Tea Party extremists have nothing to celebrate – but the working poor do.
Campaigns to raise the minimum wage are gaining steam at the local, state and federal levels, and increasing the minimum wage is overwhelmingly popular with people of faith, from traditionally progressive traditions to more right-leaning groups such as white evangelicals. This will be a major issue between now and the 2014 elections, and faith leaders are part of coalitions in numerous states. Given that a single parent of two children working fulltime at minimum wage falls $4,000 beneath the poverty line, this is very much a family values issue, as well as a matter of justice.
In two days, an indiscriminate cut to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program will take up to 21 meals per month away from American families who count on this crucial protection to put food on the table. It’s clear that hunger will rise and poverty will deepen in all 50 states.
These cuts — which will reduce benefits to a mere $1.40 per meal — aren’t just taking food away from seniors, children, families and veterans, they’re placing an unbearable burden on congregations that serve low-income communities. Faith–based charities, food banks and service providers that already strain to feed their struggling neighbors are bracing for a surge in need as people scramble to make ends meet.
The tireless advocacy of groups like the Faithful Budget Campaign have gone a long way toward preventing cuts like this, but this time Congress has turned a deaf ear.
Looking forward, these unconscionable cuts show the need for the faith community to maintain an ironclad commitment to protect low-income families and seniors. During upcoming budget negotiations between Republican and Democratic Members of Congress, there is renewed concern of cuts to Social Security and Medicare. While this agenda is carefully cloaked in rhetoric about debt reduction, what it really does is take money out of vulnerable seniors’ pockets at a time when millions are already on the edge of poverty. That’s not right, and we can’t go along with it.
As the shutdown entered its third week and we approached the brink of economic catastrophe, I couldn’t sit and watch families, seniors, veterans and our economy suffer. Yesterday morning I joined more than 70 faith leaders, as well as dozens of families harmed by the shutdown, to march and pray at Congressional offices on Capitol Hill. We visited the offices of 13 GOP Representatives – including the Leadership — and called on them to have the courage and wisdom to end the shutdown and the threat of a debt default. At the same time, Faithful America members delivered 32,000 petitions to Congressional offices in five states calling on Congress to end the shutdown.
As we sang Amazing Grace while marching through the halls of the Cannon House Office Building, I was overcome with the realization of just how much guidance and grace Congress needs right now. Reckless Tea Party Representatives aren’t playing political hardball, they’re rejecting their basic governing responsibilities and making innocent people suffer for no good reason. Even though it appears that we’ve avoided a catastrophic default on our nation’s debt, this reckless episode of political hostage-taking diminishes our nation’s moral credibility and global leadership.