Last week many noted the 50th anniversary of a notable speech given by President Lyndon Johnson in which he declared a “war on poverty” in the United States. Now, a half-century later, we face the unacceptable reality that poverty remains prevalent in this nation of plenty. However, there is no doubt that the programs put into place in Johnson’s administration and in the years since have helped countless Americans survive.
There is an important conversation happening right now in this country regarding poverty and our nation’s response to it. Some believe that somehow we’ve done too much to help the vulnerable among us—arguing that some sort of dependency stems from public assistance. These are the voices in Washington that are advocating for cuts to SNAP benefits and that are blocking the extension of emergency unemployment for 1.3 million Americans.
Yet there are other voices in this conversation. Some are surprised that one such voice is the leader of the Roman Catholic Church, Pope Francis. The New York Times recently noted, “from 4,500 miles away at the Vatican, Pope Francis, who has captivated the world with a message of economic justice and tolerance, has become a presence in Washington’s policy debate.”
Such surprise isn’t warranted. In the NYT article, author Sheryl Gay Stolberg reports that “in many respects, Francis’ economic views are consistent with church doctrine” (Emphasis mine). Actually, in all respects the Pope’s views are not only consistent with church doctrine, they are church doctrine. While I join many in being grateful for the call to economic justice found in the Pope’s recent apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium, in it he covers no new ground. He is simply reiterating the teaching of the Church in these matters, a rich tradition that has included papal, conciliar and episcopal documents that span centuries, not decades.
However, many Americans—including many American Catholics—believe that the Pope and those of us advocating for a return to our roots of being a Church that is concerned with a preferential option for the poor and other tenets of Catholic social teaching are somehow offering something brand new. There are many reasons for this, but one reason is most pressing. It is an issue of credibility.
The U.S. bishops have long been strong public advocates for the poor and vulnerable. Economic Justice for All, the pastoral letter on Catholic social teaching and the U.S. economy released in 1986 took strong positions on matters such as employment, poverty, food and agriculture and the economic relationship between the United States and other global nations. In the document the bishops wrote, “the obligation to provide justice for all means that the poor have the single most urgent economic claim on the conscience of the nation.” They continued, “the needs of the poor take priority over the desires of the rich; the rights of workers over the maximization of profits; the preservation of the environment over uncontrolled industrial expansion; the production to meet social needs over production for military purposes.”
In the United States, the bishop’s conference and many clergy and lay people have been on the front lines of these issues for years. And that remains the case today. From calling for comprehensive immigration reform to the need for a moral budget, the bishops have been some of the strongest advocates for the common good.
However, for more than a decade now, that advocacy has often fallen on deaf ears—the result of a lack of credibility in public discourse due to the bishop’s poor handling of the ongoing clergy sex abuse crisis in this country. In the years since the scandal broke far and wide in 2002, the credibility problem hasn’t improved. Indeed, in many dioceses and on the national level it can be argued that the problem has gotten worse.
Further, instead of fully addressing the crisis at their feet, the bishops have instead chosen to wage an unsuccessful culture war in their dioceses and at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) in Washington. At the same time, less emphasis has been placed on reminding Catholics in the pews of our faith tradition’s rich heritage of caring for the poor and vulnerable, calling for a consistent ethic of life (not just opposing abortion) and being good stewards of God’s creation.
Now more than ever, we need to have credible voices on many domestic issues that should concern all people of faith. We need to fix America’s broken immigration system and we need to do it now. We need to bring about a just and equitable economy that lifts people out of poverty and reduces the evil found in unfettered greed. We need to place a greater value on the life of all Americans from cradle to grave. These are all discussions that would benefit from the perspective offered by the U.S. bishops and clergy.
Until we fully address the ongoing clergy sex abuse crisis together, these voices will continue to lack the credibility needed to have an impact. And while the bishops must be willing to lead the way in such a move, we as the laity must continue to push for the necessary reforms and work with the bishops to bring them about. We are all responsible—prelates, clergy, religious and laity—in the urgent need to move our Church from scandal and division to a place of hope and love.