Two-tier morality? Catholic Bishops' anti-poverty advocacy lags
Other potential steps
In a conversation with Remapping Debate, Bishop Stephen Blaire, who chairs the Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development at the USCCB, admitted both that the USCCB could be doing more on poverty advocacy, and that “we don’t promote it, to make it known as well as we should about all that is [already] being done.” Alongside Blaire, Catholic social justice advocates and theologians explained specific ways that the Bishops’ Conference could do more to advocate for the poor and pointed to USCCB’s own history to suggest its capacity to reach out on poverty issues.
Asked how USCCB could do more on poverty, John Gehring, senior writer and Catholic outreach coordinator at Faith in Public Life, an inter-faith organization that seeks to mobilize religious communities and shape public debate around “common good” issues, told Remapping Debate that he would like to see “more than letters sent to the Hill, I would like to see the Bishops call for a national campaign … to address income inequality.” Other Catholic social justice advocates identified particular strategies for advocating for the poor that could fit under such a campaign, including some avenues already being deployed by the USCCB in its existing “religious liberty” campaign.
First, critics argue that the USCCB could use the media much more effectively in talking about poverty. Vincent Miller, a professor of theology at the University of Dayton, put it simply: “The Bishops can make a story if they want to.” According to both Miller and John Gehring, the leadership of the Bishops’ Conference should be out in the media talking about economic justice, while vocally and directly challenging Catholic Republicans, like Rep. Paul Ryan, who they say distort Church teaching on economic matters.
Miller acknowledges that getting poverty to be taken seriously in the media might be more difficult for the USCCB than getting a hearing for its religious liberty drive, in part because “when you are raising fundamental questions of economic justice, the [corporate media] system might be much more inclined to ignore that.” The USCCB would have to “take that problem seriously and push very hard against it.”
Still, the success of Father Thomas Reese’s recent campaign at Georgetown University shows the potential of such a media strategy. In the run-up to a scheduled speech by Paul Ryan at the school last month, Reese was able to assemble a letter signed by 88 faculty condemning Ryan’s budget proposal for diverging from Catholic social teaching. Reese’s campaign received significant play in newspapers and on television.
Reaching out directly to the pews
Second, the USCCB has another large audience, one to be found in the pews across the United States. Fred Rotondaro suggests that “the biggest thing they could do is educate the catholic laity and educate the public about the extent of poverty in this country…They can do this in Sunday mass.” Indeed, this past January, many Bishops, as part of the religious liberty campaign, followed the lead provided by Cardinal Dolan’s video statement on the USCCB website, and issued letters to be read at mass in parishes across the country denouncing the requirement that health insurance plans cover oral contraceptives.
Reaching out directly to the pews through a national campaign may be especially important because, according to Kammer, staffers and pastors at the diocesan and parish level can, in the face of an array of duties and ongoing communications, lose focus on anti-poverty advocacy.
Connecting with people in the pews also has the potential to turn Catholics into a visible presence at anti-poverty protests in Washington. Patrick Carolan, the executive director of the Franciscan Action Network, a group that represents Franciscans in the U.S. and advocates especially on social justice and peace issues, pointed to how Catholic parishes across the country have contributed greatly to the attendance at the annual anti-abortion “March for Life” rally in Washington, and said that he would “like to see the Bishops use their prophetic voice to get every parish to get buses to come up to Washington, D.C. and really stand in front of the capitol…protesting these cuts that are happening to the poor.”
At the next Bishops’ Conference meeting, this June in Atlanta, Georgia, Bishop Blaire’s committee is bringing the issue of poverty before the Conference, looking for approval from the body to create something that is “not just another statement” but a “document that creates interactive engagement.” Bishop Blaire stressed to Remapping Debate that he is not proposing to recreate the length and breadth of Economic Justice for All due to the intense amount of research, input, and time involved in creating that document. Instead, he hopes the Conference can create a document that “puts more emphasis on interaction, creating questions for local groups, [explaining] how to engage your local officials, and raising up some of the key principles in our Catholic social teaching,” all elements that made the 1986 document so important.
Economic Justice for All turned 25 years old last November, and according to Steve Krueger, “there is no question” that the USCCB “spoke out much more vigorously, much more unambiguously…25 and 15 years ago than they are today” on poverty issues. Thomas Reese, who has written extensively on the history of the Bishops’ Conference, argues that the shift in the Bishops’ focus is rooted in the fact that today, basically, “it’s a whole new different group of bishops.”