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

Original Reporting | By Kevin C. Brown |

Though Dolan’s office did not return repeated requests for comment on this article (see bottom box called “Missing Voices”), Kathy Saile defended Dolan by saying that a letter he sent to bishops last September urging “the Bishops and the Clergy to be leaders in their own communities to overcome poverty” was a marker of Dolan’s commitment and leadership on poverty advocacy. To Krueger, however, “Cardinal Dolan has given us a mixed message.”  Instead of reasserting that the Ryan budget was inconsistent with Catholic social teaching, Kruger says, Dolan  “left the interpretation as to whether the Ryan budget was in conformance with Catholic social teaching open to question.” That is one reason that Kruger characterizes the force of the Bishops’ collective voice on anti-poverty advocacy as “uninspired and tentative at best.”

The road not taken (any more)

The USCCB’s own history provides insight into how it could advocate more strongly on poverty in ways that combined both the concerted media attention and engagement with Catholics in the pews identified as fruitful avenues to pursue by contemporary critics of the USCCB. In November 1986, after over two years of hearings and three drafts, the Bishops’ Conference released “Economic Justice for All,” a more than 100 page pastoral letter on the U.S. economy, which confronted squarely the challenges to social justice during the Reagan era. When the Bishops released the first draft of the letter, a New York Times article noted that unlike Josef Stalin — who famously disparaged the influence of the Catholic Church with the quip, “The Pope! How many divisions has he got?” — “Today nobody is likely to make the mistake of dismissing the [Bishops’ Conference’s] potential influence on United States economic policy.”

“Cardinal Dolan has given us a mixed message,” said Steve Krueger, national director of the Catholic Democrats, adding that the Bishops’ collective voice on anti-poverty advocacy has been “tenative and uninspired at best.” 

Economic Justice for All argued that “the market system contributes to the success of the U.S. economy; but so do many efforts to forge economic institutions and public policies that enable all to share in the riches of the nation.” It called, among other things, for increases in the minimum wage, a more progressive tax structure, and further support for Social Security and Medicaid.

Father Fred Kammer is the director of the Jesuit Social Research Institute at Loyola University in New Orleans. From 1990 to 1992, he worked on health and welfare issues for the USCCB and, from 1992 to 2001, he served as president and chief executive officer of Catholic Charities USA. Kammer says that a significant part of the influence of Economic Justice for All came not simply from its release, but through the extended focus on poverty issues achieved by the bishops in the course of conducting lengthy hearings held with experts around the country while developing the document. The protracted process of producing the document, according to Kammer, engaged Catholics and other Americans in a conversation about economic justice: “a lot of education took place by virtue of having the drafts out” and circulating in the press, he says.

More concretely, Kammer recalled, “After they did the letter, they set up an implementation office for three years, and that office put out bulletin paragraphs, to try and get the thing into a form where a pastor could just drop the thing into his bulletin, … they put out slideshows, they put out materials for parishes, materials for schools.” Within weeks of the release of the final draft, state-level bishops’ organizations also began making specific recommendations to their legislatures, and by December 1986 the Maryland bishops had already called for parish priests in the state to devote the third Sunday of advent to preaching about Economic Justice for All.

Missing voices: USCCB officials who declined to speak

Our article includes reporting based on conversations with Bishop Stephen Blaire, chairman of the USCCB’s Domestic Justice and Human DevelopmentCommittee, and Kathy Saile, the director of USCCB’s Domestic Social Development office. Many other officials, not just Cardinal Dolan, declined to engage in a dialog about the role and status of anti-poverty efforts within the USCCB.

Among those to whom Remapping Debate reached out via telephone and email were Archbishop Joseph Kurtz and Bishops Michael Bransfield and George V. Murray, each an official of the USCCB; several members of the Domestic Justice and Human Development Committee, some of whom deferred to Bishop Blaire to comment as chairman of the committee; and several members of the USCCB’s Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Liberty, including Cardinal Donal Wuerl and Archbishops Charles Chaput, Wilton D. Gregory, and Thomas Rodi. When these officials were unresponsive or said to be unavailable, we followed up with specific questions (see below). Unfortunately, we received no substantive replies.

  • Currently, the USCCB is pursuing its religious liberty campaign by utilizing the media and directly connecting with parishioners through the “Fortnight of Freedom.” Could similar strategies be pursued in advocating for the poor?
  • Do you agree that the important work of providing charity to and for the poor (I have statistics on the impressive array of programs that exist) is not a sufficient response to fighting poverty, but that advocacy to undo structures that perpetuate or fail to eliminate poverty must also be tackled?
  • What else could the USCCB do on the anti-poverty advocacy front?
  • Do the substance of the 1986 “Economic Justice for All” pastoral letter and the campaigns in support of that letter provide useful guidance for anti-poverty advocacy today?
  • Isn’t it fair to say that that there is not as much energy of the sort devoted to “Economic Justice for All” being devoted to anti-poverty advocacy today? If not, what is the evidence of equal or greater effort?
  • “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship” describes certain policies and practices as “intrinsic evils”. Why are actions by officials and governments that foster or perpetuate poverty not considered to be intrinsic evils?
  • As a practical matter, do both clergy and laity assign a lower priority to issues not in the “intrinsic evil’ category than those that are?
  • Hasn’t the USCCB spent more time, energy, and money on intrinsic evil issues [including abortion and stem cell research] than on anti-poverty advocacy in the last few years?
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