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.
In response, Faith in Public Life released a hard-hitting statement from faith leaders calling for an end to the shutdown and rebuking Members of Congress who claim to be pro-life but have no compunction about taking food away from pregnant women and young children. One hundred Catholic, evangelical and Mainline Protestant leaders — ranging from nationally prominent voices to local clergy from coast to coast — have signed on, and more are doing so every day.
Almost 30,000 Faithful America members have also added their names, and next week they’ll deliver the statement as a petition to the offices of Members of Congress who support the shutdown.
If you’re a faith leader and would like to add your name, you can do so here. If you’re a lay person, you can sign the statement here. The handful of reckless legislators who are behind the current crisis need to hear from all of us.
The March for Citizenship forges on
In a stirring display of commitment and courage yesterday, more than 200 people — including faith leaders and eight Members of Congress — mounted a civil disobedience action on Capitol Hill to call attention to the moral urgency of reforming our unjust immigration system. With civil rights movement leader Rep. John Lewis among those arrested, the echoes of historic struggles for equality were clear.
Earlier in the day, influential clergy leaders held a press at the Capitol directly challenging House leadership on this issue, and in the afternoon tens of thousands of people gathered on the National Mall to tell Congress to get back to work on reform that protects families and builds a path to citizenship. This came on the heels of a National Day of Immigrant Dignity and Respect last Saturday that featured 180 events in 40 states, many of which had religious leaders playing key roles.
In a promising sign that our community’s hard work is paying off, Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-WA) – the 4th ranking House Republican – told Univision this weekend that the House will pass immigration reform this year.
Ending the government shutdown, averting the economic catastrophe that will occur if Congress defaults on our nation’s bills, and reforming our immigration system are grave political challenges that share a common solution. House Speaker John Boehner must defy the radicals in his caucus who have forgotten their responsibility to serve the common good and protect American families.