Two-tier morality? Catholic Bishops' anti-poverty advocacy lags

Original Reporting | By Kevin C. Brown |

May 16, 2012 — In a statement earlier this month, Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan, the Archbishop of New York and the current president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), joined other bishops in the state in calling on the legislature to increase New York’s minimum wage. They argued that many workers who earn the state minimum wage (currently $7.25 per hour) are “on the brink of homelessness” and that raising that wage “is a matter of justice and fairness.”

Dolan and the New York bishops’ sentiments echo some of those found in the USCCB’s “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship: A Call for Political Responsibility,” its quadrennial statement to the Catholic electorate on political participation in the U.S. In the introduction to the most recent edition, released in October 2011, the USCCB pointed out that the 2008 economic crisis and slow recovery have each exacerbated issues of “unemployment, poverty, and hunger,” and noted that Catholics had a duty to consider policies – and politicians – that “protect those who are poor and vulnerable.”

Inquiry by Remapping Debate into the activities of the USCCB, however, has found that, in recent years, the strength of the USCCB’s anti-poverty advocacy does not, in general, match the rhetoric. Does the fight against poverty have second-class status within the USCCB?


A powerful force

Where it chooses to exert itself, the USCCB can be quite powerful. Last month, TIME Magazine even named Cardinal Dolan one of the “100 most influential people in the world.” And it is easy to see why. Last fall, under his direction, the USCCB kicked off its “religious liberty” campaign, arguing that forces in American culture were in “a drive to neuter religion.” Since the start of that campaign, Dolan and the USCCB succeeded in pressuring President Obama to exempt religiously-affiliated institutions, such as hospitals and universities, from the Affordable Care Act requirement that employers cover the cost of oral contraceptives as part of health insurance plans offered to their employees (religious institutions themselves had already been exempt).

“Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship” frames the forming of political judgments as a tension between two kinds of issues: those, like poverty, that require “affirmative efforts to seek the common good,” and those, like abortion and euthanasia, that represent “intrinsic evils that can never be supported.”

It is true that the Bishops’ Conference does “write letters to the Hill,” and “issue press releases” condemning cuts to programs for the poor, as they did in March to oppose the House Budget Committee’s proposed cuts in food stamps, Medicaid, and other low income assistance programs. But, according to Father Thomas Reese, a fellow at the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University and a scholar of the Catholic Church, “there is not the real muscle that’s put behind these.” Over the last two years at the USCCB semi-annual meetings, Reese pointed out incredulously, “The issue of unemployment, the issue of poverty, the fact that we are in a recession, for God’s sake, did not come up.” A review of press releases from the USCCB from this period confirms Reese’s charge: economic justice issues were not a material part of the agenda of the meetings.

Faithful Citizenship, meanwhile, frames the forming of political judgments as a tension between two kinds of issues: those, like poverty, that require “affirmative efforts to seek the common good,” and those, like abortion and euthanasia, that represent “intrinsic evils that can never be supported.” This conceptual division appeared in Faithful Citizenship for the first time in 2007.

Since poverty, though an explicit concern, is not treated as an “intrinsic evil,” and since Faithful Citizenship cautions Catholics against treating “all issues as equal,” the two-tier system of assessing moral challenges has had, as a practical matter, a pernicious effect, according to David Hollenbach, a Jesuit theologian at Boston College. “The status of abortion and homosexuality and stem cell research issues and so forth [have been elevated] to a level of discussion,” says Hollenbach, “in a way that I think is inappropriately stressing those issues above the broad range of issues that really need to be dealt with,” including poverty.


Providing charity versus making change

This year, said Kathy Saile, director of USCCB’s Office of Domestic Social Development, “as legislative opportunities arrive they [the Bishops] will insert themselves and engage themselves in that process,” especially in response to potential cuts to food stamps and the child tax credit.”

One way to deal with poverty is to help make the lives of people in poverty less harsh through charitable works.  Another is to advocate for structural changes in public policy that would reduce the prevalence of poverty.  It is the first strategy on which the Catholic Church in the U.S. focuses extensive time, money, and effort, and those efforts are often cited in response to criticism that the USCCB could be doing more on poverty. When, for example, Remapping Debate asked Father Robert Grecco, the pastor at Sacred Heart Roman Catholic Church in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania if he thought the USCCB could do more on poverty, he replied: “I’d have to disagree with those things, because we also have the Catholic charities…The church is at the forefront, because we have the means and the facilities. So I would say we’re taking care of the poor.” He explained that his parish participates in running a food bank, provides assistance with utilities and furnishing homes, among other charitable outlets. Remapping Debate followed up and asked about whether the USCCB could be more effective in advocating public policy, Father Grecco replied: “Particular priests who don’t think the bishops have done enough [on poverty] tend to have … a more liberal political view, and would spend less time being concerned about abortion than they are about other things, and for us, abortion is a key issue of life.”

Nationally, charitable social service activities, which are run through parishes like Sacred Heart, add up. In 2010, the most recent year for which data are available, Catholic Charities USA estimates that it provided assistance to over 10.2 million unique individuals around the country, with services including soup kitchens, food pantries, and mental health counseling. The Catholic Campaign for Human Development, which is directly controlled by the USCCB, meanwhile continues to award grants (nearly $8 million during its 2010-2011 grant cycle) for community self-help projects and educates people about poverty in America as it has since its founding in 1969.

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