Former Vatican Ambassador Thomas P. Melady died yesterday at the age of 86. His passing is a significant loss for the Catholic community in Washington and anyone who cares about public service. Tom was a true gentleman who believed in civility, building bridges across ideological divides and finding common ground with Catholic progressives like myself. A moderate Republican from Connecticut, he served his country and the Catholic Church by carrying himself with a gentle dignity that is all too rare in a city of strutting partisan peacocks.
While almost 50 years separated us, Tom became a friend because of our love for the Catholic Church and the conviction that serving the common good means a lot more than whether you voted for Mitt Romney or Barack Obama. At times the politics of the Catholic Church can feel even more polarized and nasty than the battles waged on cable news and Capitol Hill, but Tom never let labels or blind partisanship stop him from reaching out to progressives. He even joked with me a few times that he was willing to take heat from his friends on the right for his eagerness to make common cause with more liberal Catholics.
Tom was a man of integrity and clear moral vision. He spoke up as a pro-life Catholic who opposed abortion but also called the scourge of gun violence a sanctity-of-life issue. While some conservatives and a vocal minority of bishops argue pro-choice Catholic elected officials should be denied Holy Communion, Tom rejected turning a sacrament into a political bludgeon. He joined other Christian leaders to denounce Uganda’s shameful efforts to dehumanize gays and lesbians. He spoke out for comprehensive immigration reform. He challenged the powerful and all of us not to forget the growing ranks of the poor and hungry. Tom knew that politics could be a noble calling, not simply a blood sport for the self-serving and ambitious.
I will miss his stories over lunch at The Army-Navy Club and his impromptu phone calls to talk about politics or the Church. Our country will miss his spirit of service.
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Many faith leaders of my generation were inspired to dedicate ourselves to seeking social justice because of Nelson Mandela. The struggle he led for equality in South Africa not only ended a brutally oppressive and racist regime, but also empowered people around the globe to spark movements for justice and reconciliation in their own nations. We owe Mandela a great debt.
Mandela wasn’t just a global icon, he was a community organizer. The anti-apartheid movement succeeded not only because of his personal leadership, but also because he was part of a mass movement for equality.
This lesson holds true today. A day after President Obama quoted Pope Francis in a landmark speech declaring our nation’s staggering economic inequality the central challenge of our time, fast-food workers in more than 100 U.S. cities mounted a strike for living wages.
I’m humbled by the courage of these workers – modern-day Davids — risking their jobs by standing up to wealthy corporations that dole out millions to CEOs but pay their employees so poorly that many must turn to public assistance to feed their families. This is a sinful system that not only forces millions of families into hardship, but also cost taxpayers $3.8 billion every year.
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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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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.
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