At a time of staggering poverty, rampant unemployment and growing income inequality, Catholic bishops will gather for a national meeting in Baltimore today and remain largely silent about these profound moral issues. A recent Catholic News Service headline about the meeting — "Bishops' agenda more devoted to internal matters than societal ills" — is a disappointing snapshot for a church that has long been a powerful voice for economic justice.
The U.S. bishops' relative silence contrasts with a recent Vatican document that urges stronger regulation of the financial sector and a more just distribution of wealth. Urging reforms to the left of even the most liberal Democrat in Congress, the Vatican spoke in stark terms about a global financial system that is unhinged from moral values. It's a thoughtful critique of free-market fundamentalism, in keeping with centuries of Catholic teaching as articulated by several popes. A Vatican cardinal even acknowledged that the "basic sentiment" behind the Occupy Wall Street movement aligns with Catholic values on the need for ethical corporate practices and humane financial systems.
Twenty-five years ago this month, Catholic bishops were anything but quiet. They helped drive attention to poor and working families with a landmark pastoral letter, "Economic Justice for All," that offered a subtle but sober critique of the Reagan administration's embrace of tax cuts for the rich and draconian cuts to government protections for the poor. The bishops spoke not as policymakers but as moral leaders in touch with the needs of the unemployed and concerned about conservative political leaders' efforts to strip workers of basic union rights. As a longtime staff member at the U.S. bishops' conference, I was so proud of the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago and his colleagues, who insisted that a Catholic vision for human dignity did not stop with concern for the unborn but must include a commitment to economic fairness, peace, care for the environment and opposition to the death penalty.
Where are the bishops' priorities today? In recent years, church leaders have opposed historic health care reform, lashed out at the University of Notre Dame for inviting President Barack Obama to give a commencement address, and publicly chastised pro-choice Catholic politicians even as they give a pass to Catholic lawmakers who push economic policies antithetical to Catholic teaching about the common good. The bishops' decades of advocacy for comprehensive health care took a detour last year when they opposed the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act because of concerns it would provide taxpayer funding of abortion — a flawed policy analysis, according to independent experts, some pro-life lawmakers and even the Catholic Health Association.
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In recent weeks, the bishops have augmented their campaign against same-sex marriage, appointing a "defense of marriage specialist" to a top position at the U.S. bishops' conference, and challenged the Obama administration to create a stronger exemption for Catholic organizations that oppose insurance coverage of contraception.
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These are important issues, properly addressed by the bishops. However, at a time of economic crisis and growing anti-government ideology embodied by the tea party, Catholic bishops would do well to once again offer a compelling moral response to radical individualism and unbridled capitalism.
Most Americans probably don't know that Catholic bishops helped lay the groundwork for the New Deal as far back as 1919, when they advocated for a minimum wage and insurance for the elderly, disabled and unemployed. Much of this proud legacy is under threat today from lawmakers, including prominent Catholics like House Speaker John Boehner and Rep. Paul Ryan, who think tax breaks for the wealthiest 1 percent of Americans are more important than funding nutrition programs for low-income women and children.
The U.S. bishops deserve credit for their participation in an interfaith coalition defending government safety-net programs that save lives and provide a measure of dignity to the most vulnerable. Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York, president of the bishops' conference, was right to recently urge pastors to address poverty from the pulpit. And the bishops' national anti-poverty initiative, the Catholic Campaign for Human Development, is a vital resource that helps community-based organizations empower those living on the margins of society. But I fear the church's revered social justice witness is being crowded out by divisive culture-war battles at a time when Americans need a stronger moral message about the dignity of work and economic justice for all.
A new generation of bishops must find their voice.