Changes needed


“In some African countries, as much as half of basic education and health services are provided by the (Catholic) church. Catholic hospitals and clinics around the world distribute about a third of all the antiretroviral drugs received by people living with H.I.V. and AIDS; and in India, where Catholics are no more than 2 percent of the population, the church is the second-largest care provider in this area after the government.
“As a result of its work in basic health and education . . . in the last 50 years the church has probably lifted more people out of poverty than any other civic institution in history.”
The paragraphs above did not come from the Vatican or some other Church office. They were part of a Dec. 29 report in the New York Times. By noting the vast reach of Catholic charities and public service, the story implies that our experience gives us some authority to speak on questions of human need. We do, and people are listening.
President Obama refers to the words of Pope Francis about an “economy of exclusion” when he wants to move policies assisting the unemployed or shifting tax policy so more responsibility is on those who can afford it.
At the same time, Catholics in political office feel heat when they take positions that seem opposed to what Francis is saying about the failure of “trickle down” economics. They have to justify votes cutting food assistance, for example, without implying that the pope is an economic ignoramus. Some may think that, but quietly, behind closed doors.
The Times story noted that “Francis’ denunciation of an ‘economy of exclusion’ goes to the heart of the debate between the two parties over the role of government.” Indeed it does, to the discomfort of those who simply aim at “shrinking” the federal government. There is no ideal size of government in modern Catholic teaching, just an insistent focus on a life of dignity for every member of society and equitable sharing of responsibility for achieving such a common good.
Quite clearly to Church leaders, the current trend in this country, sending practically all gains to the already well-off while most people stagnate and worry or fall back, is wrong. Something is wrong. Other developed nations aren’t trending toward the inequality building up here.
Pope Francis wonders why we quickly take care of a big banker’s pain while allowing the pain of jobless people in poverty to linger and fester.
The American bishops are in the game, too, pressing for action on jobs and wages. Here is an excerpt from a letter sent to the Senate last week by representatives of the bishops: “Human work has inherent dignity, and just wages honor that dignity. (The current federal minimum wage fails) to provide sufficient resources for individuals to form and support families…. Workers deserve a just wage that allows them to live in dignity, form and support families, and contribute to the common good.”
That letter from Archbishop Thomas Wenski of Miami, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development, and Father Larry Snyder, president of Catholic Charities USA, also said, “We write … as pastors and teachers who every day … see the pain and struggles caused by an economy that simply does not produce enough jobs with just wages…. We must return the human person to the center of economic life. One way Congress can do that is by ensuring that workers receive just wages.”
It’s not economic theory. We don’t pretend to say precisely how such a regime is to be reached; how much Wal-Mart should pay workers. We only say that this focus on truly needy persons and the common good, not on greater comfort for the already well-off, must be evident in our society. At present, it isn’t. Change is needed.
Frank Wessling

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