"The New York Times, for example, reported that "the [Roman] Catholic Church has led religious groups trying to shore up Mr. Clinton's opposition to the Republican welfare bill."

From .......... SALT OF THE EARTH [RC publication]

Nov. - Dec. 1996

pages 24-27


Richard Koubek

The prophet Jeremiah was never at rest with his people or his political leaders, nor were they with him. As the welfare "reform" debate dragged into the summer of 1996, America's Catholic bishops sounded more and more like the prophet Jeremiah.

Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan (DNY), himself somewhat of a prophetic voice in the welfare wars, credited the bishops for their courageous and unrelenting attacks on what has been called the "repeal of welfare as we know it"— an astonishing $55 billion reduction in welfare funding and the termination of the 60-year-old federal welfare entitlement.

The bishops have taken moral aim at cutbacks in welfare and other federal social programs, which have been framed by their supporters as a kind of moral renaissance.

Public opinion polls reveal some skepticism about some of these initiatives — particularly when they involve cuts in cherished middle-class programs such as Medicare or Social Security. However, a majority of Americans seem to view the recent welfare overhaul positively. And there is scant evidence that the public, including Catholic voters, has framed this debate to any degree in moral terms. The bishops have their work cut out for them.

Some Catholics think that the bishops ought to focus on prayer and stay out of political battles like the welfare debate. Bill Reel is a columnist who writes occasionally on Catholic themes for Newsday, the major suburban newspaper on New York's Long island. Reel has strongly supported the program and funding cutbacks. Late in 1995, reacting to the bishops' attacks on proposed cuts in social spending, Reel chided them for the fact that "their faith in the welfare state is undiminished despite its wretched record."

Drawing a forced distinction between their "religious wisdom" which he "greatly" respected and their economic advice which he urged them to "reconsider," Reel implied that the bishops should stick to their sacred guns and avoid secular political pronouncements where they often "lose" him.

Long Island, with a median household income of $63,000, is a bastion of middle class values; voters here have not shown much sympathy for government social spending — especially welfare programs. About 1.3 million of the approximately 2.7 million people on Long Island are Roman Catholic.

While several Long Islanders wrote Newsday to challenge Reel, one Catholic letter writer may have been closer to the suburban moral pulse when he applauded Reel and criticized the bishops for not seeing "government-sponsored alms for the poor" as "little more than an ongoing excuse for continuously picking the taxpayers' pockets to fund wasteful social programs."

It is this kind of thinking that prompted Pat Robertson's Christian Coalition to mail over a million invitations for Catholics to join his conservative Catholic Alliance, ironically coinciding with Pope John Paul II's October 1995 visit to the United States, during which the pope called upon Americans to reject public policies that would hurt the poor and the weak.

Meanwhile, Bill Reel and many other Catholics around the nation scolded the bishops for not recognizing that the almost $5 trillion national "debt causes poverty" and that the Catholic Church's decades-long campaign for more government funds to uplift the poor has been "an obvious failure."

These critics were particularly exercised by the bishops' conference's November 1995 meeting, at which the bishops dropped much of their prepared agenda in order to attack congressional proposals to balance the federal budget in ways that the bishops said will be "devastating to poor and working families."

Catholics who depict the bishops as high-minded dreamers who are out of touch with economic reality reveal some reality problems of their own. Their faith in deficit reduction as the solution to the problems of the poor and their suggestion that federal programs for the poor have done little to help them while contributing to the national debt belie reality.

In fact, in 1960, prior to the War on Poverty, the nation's poverty rate was 20 percent. By the mid 1970s the poverty rate had fallen to 11 percent thanks to government social programs, then rose to 13 percent during the Reagan-Bush cutbacks.

In fact, prior to Medicaid, a federal study found that the lowest-income group made 20 percent fewer doctor visits a year than the highest-income group, despite the more serious health problems of the poor. Since Medicaid brought federal health care to the poor, income no longer had a detectable effect on whether a poor person who was sick would seek a doctor's care.

In fact, in 1965, before the federal food stamps program, the National Food Consumption Survey found that poor families ate substantially less than others. In 1977, after food stamps, this same survey found that the effects of family income on food consumption had been cut in half. Hunger and malnutrition had also been cut.

These and other facts revealed by Susan Mayer and Christopher Jencks in research they are conducting for a forthcoming book on the War on Poverty demonstrate that millions of Americans have indeed benefited from federal programs for the poor.

The call to communal responsibility

That poverty persists is not because federal programs have failed but because systemic injustices in American society continue to impoverish 13 percent of the population. In a statement marking the 10th anniversary of their 1986 pastoral letter, Economic Justice for All, the bishops write that the Catholic tradition "emphasizes both works of increased charity and insists on greater justice, advocates greater personal responsibility and broader social responsibility." In the tradition of Catholic social teaching, helping the poor requires both individual and communal efforts. It is the second demand for communal efforts that is skirted by many Catholics.

The bishops surfaced these themes in the summer of 1996 as both Congress and the president approached agreement on the largest reduction in welfare spending and services since the New Deal. The New York Times, for example, reported that "the Catholic Church has led religious groups trying to shore up Mr. Clinton's opposition to the Republican welfare bill."

Archbishop Rembert Weakland reminded President Clinton that "the short-term political outlook of the candidate must not cloud the moral vision of the leader." Similarly, Bishop William Skylstad, speaking for the bishops' conference, denounced the "deeply flawed" welfare legislation, which "may meet the needs of politicians but fails too many poor children."

Perhaps most troubling to the bishops is the fact that federal debt-reduction plans coupled with cuts in social spending will reduce communal responsibility for the poor while worsening the problems of the poor, adding to their numbers, and undermining their ability to escape poverty. The welfare "reform" bill, a centerpiece of the congressional war on the debt, will by some estimates drive 1.5 million more children into poverty.

Throughout the debt-reduction and welfare debates, the bishops have warned in graphic terms that these cuts in social spending will, as their anniversary statement puts it, move America further toward becoming "three nations living side by side" — a nation of the prosperous, a nation of those "squeezed" and perpetually insecure in the middle, and a nation of the desperately poor. "We seem a very long way from 'economic justice for all,'" they write.

These do not sound like the pronouncements of fuzzy-headed idealists so much as the concerns of seasoned realists. The bishops feel conscience-bound to speak the truth about what they have called "the false choices and ideological polarization" being forced on an already divided America by the "unprecedented dismantling by Congress of essential health care, educational, and social service programs."

Far from being impractical idealists, the bishops know firsthand of what they speak. The Catholic Church, through Catholic Charities, provides direct services to over 11 million needy people each year. Catholic hospitals constitute the largest private health-care delivery system in the nation. Its inner-city schools provide quality education to many thousands of desperately poor children of all faiths. Parish outreach programs across the country serve countless more of "the least among us" each year. It is this kind of pragmatic experience, inspired by the Catholic social teaching to give a preferential option for the poor, that drives the bishops' opposition to ill-conceived debt reduction schemes.

And what of the federal debt? Did the bishops and their well-meaning but big-spending allies in government cause the $5 trillion splurge? In fact, much of the current debt problem can be traced to the Reagan Revolution, when massive tax cuts combined with trillions of dollars in increased defense spending added more to the national debt in eight years than did all the previous administrations — from George Washington through Jimmy Carter — combined.

All means-tested programs for the poor account for only 13 percent of the federal budget. They are hardly budget busters. Yet mean-spirited cuts proposed by Congress would reduce these programs by 25 percent while Congress floats significant tax cuts for the wealthy in the murky belief that such savings will trickle down to the poor. These are the injustices which the bishops denounced using powerful arguments drawn from both their moral and their practical wisdom.

What the bishops recall, and what many Catholics seem to have forgotten, is that Christ's call for us to give food to the hungry, drink to the thirsty, welcome to the stranger, and clothing to the naked and to do to the least among us as we would do to him was not preceded by a call to balance the budget. And, as the bishops have correctly reminded us, when we balance the budget by taking from the poor to give to the rich, we challenge not only the fundamental social-justice teachings of the Catholic Church but perhaps the very fabric of American democratic society.

The faith many Catholics have that a balanced federal budget and benefits for the rich will somehow trickle down and uplift the poor smacks of faith in a secular loaves-and-fishes miracle. The bishops, in their religious wisdom, know better.

Indifference in the pews?

All of this raises some troubling questions about just how much of the bishops' social teachings is reaching the laity. On the 10th anniversary of Economic Justice for All and amidst the most serious assault on federal social programs in 60 years, one has to ask where the Catholic population will fall out if and when they apply the moral principles of their faith to the political arena.

Professor Daniel Cowdin of Catholic University of America captured the challenge facing the bishops when he observed that "the Catholic social encyclical tradition has no constituency. It is not a living tradition in terms of grassroots organizations. Unlike the Christian Coalition, it has not focused on the nuts and bolts of social effectiveness. There's a vacuum there."

Cowdin is right. Many of the principles of Catholic social teaching indeed have not reached typical Catholics in the pews at Sunday Mass. Hot-button teachings on homosexuality or condom distribution are familiar to many Catholics more from media coverage than church instruction. Abortion is the one teaching that has wide recognition inside and outside the church.

Church teachings on social justice, on the other hand, such as the preferential option for the poor, the precedence of human over property rights, or the emphasis on individual rights in the context of community rights go largely unnoticed or untaught at the parish level.

At the center of Catholic social teaching is a consistent ethic that calls people to seek justice by defending the dignity of the human person from womb to tomb. The church pursues and inspires others to pursue what academics call "distributive justice," a justice that, in the words of the bishops' 1986 pastoral, "requires that the allocation of income, wealth, and power in society be evaluated in light of its effects on persons whose basic material needs are unmet." This is truly a radical vision.

America's bishops have been very clear in asserting that the federal government has a responsibility to correct the systemic economic injustices that cause poverty. They have not minced words or fudged on their teachings. In their view, the social programs now under attack are not practical necessities so much as moral imperatives; social responsibility for the least among us is a core concept of Catholic justice.

The bishops are thus on a collision course, not only with the members of Congress who want to cut social spending and their Christian Coalition supporters, not only with President Clinton for signing the draconian 1996 welfare bill, but perhaps also with millions of Catholics who either fail to apply, refuse to apply, or never learned how to apply Catholic social teaching to public-policy debates.

How all this plays out in congressional and presidential politics in the coming election might prove an unsettling reminder of the fact that not only "without a vision the people perish" (Prov. 29: 18), but also without people a vision could perish. That the catholic social vision does not perish can be credited to the bishops' sometimes unwelcome but needed forays into the politics of the federal budget and other policy debates.

Despite the bishops' jeremiads, however, president Bill Clinton heeded his political pundits and signed the 1996 welfare bill, spurred on in no small part by polls that showed that catholic voters like the majority of Americans, supported welfare cuts.

And that battle is far from over. As the 1997 budget debate unfolds In congress, additional cuts are anticipated in welfare programs, Earned Income Tax Credits for the working poor, and services for legal immigrants.

When these proposed cuts emerge, the bishops will again play the prophet Jeremiah, raising their moral voice to defend the poor. Their success may again be frustrated by the indifference or outright hostility of many American Catholics to their message — articulated in the anniversary pastoral statement — that "the fundamental moral measure of these policy choices is how they touch the poor in our midst."

Let's unveil "our best kept secret"

It is probably safe to say that the majority of Catholics have not yet understood what the bishops proclaim: that "the pursuit of economic justice is not an option or add-on for Catholics; it is part of who we are and what we believe."

Clearly, American Catholics need to learn more of what the bishops and their Catholic social tradition are saying about welfare and other policy debates. My home diocese here on Long Island, the Diocese of Rockville Centre, New York, has recently begun a Public Policy Education Network that is designed to establish an education and legislative-action network in each parish.

The central goal of this network is to fill the vacuum in Catholic social teaching that exists at the parish level so that gradually the gap between the political positions of the bishops and Catholic public opinion will narrow.

Parishioners in the network will analyze Catholic social teaching and engage in a continuous process of moral discernment and conscience formation, applying these teachings to current policy issues. The network will also encourage Catholics to take action through their parishes—writing letters, meeting with legislators, holding voter-registration drives, and just getting out to vote—to foster Catholic principles and policy positions among government officials at the local, state, and federal levels.

The Public Policy Education Network will stress all Catholic policy positions on the dignity of life — from abortion to Medicaid cuts for nursing-home patients and the death penalty — in the context of 100 years of Catholic social teaching. About 50 of the 134 parishes in the diocese have already signed on to this new initiative; more parishes will be recruited in 1997. Eventually such a network will be created in each of New York state's eight dioceses.

Within each participating parish, Catholics will gather in small and large groups to study, discuss, and apply Catholic social teaching and the Catholic quest for distributive justice to their personal, community, and political lives.

The obstacles to politically activating the Catholic masses are formidable. American Catholics historically have been sensitive to charges leveled by the Protestant majority that their hierarchical church could force them to substitute religious for civil authority. And Catholics, like most Americans, cherish the First Amendment's separation of church and state.

Not the least of the obstacles is the fact that millions of Catholics have successfully assimilated into American life, where they have adopted the individualistic, materialistic, and competitive ethos of the nation's capitalist creed.

But U.S. Catholics also know that the silence of the church in the early years of the Holocaust encouraged the Nazi terror. And they know that it was religious energy that motivated the U.S. abolitionist and civil-rights movements. In their hearts, American Catholics recognize that cautious and tolerant political action by religious people is not at variance with American pluralism and does not violate the separation of church and state.

Politically aware and active Catholics will have to learn how to respectfully disagree with one another, with other members of society, and with their shared government.

Jesuit scholar Father Peter Henriot noted in his book Catholic Social Teaching that the church's teachings on social justice are "our best kept secret" and that these teachings still remain "outside the mainstream of ordinary parish life." Such isolation of Catholic social teaching from liturgical practice may be the greatest obstacle to Catholic political action. Initiatives like the Public Policy Education Network are designed to work against this isolation by placing Catholic social teaching at the scriptural and eucharistic table in each parish.

In so doing they could move Catholic religious belief away from what theologian Michael Himes calls "a narrow concern with personal life" and closer to the "church's mission to the wider realm of social existence." It is in the political arena, Himes argues, that the application of Catholic social teaching and theology to public affairs will bring Catholics to the "fullness of faith." It could also transform American politics.

America's 60 million Roman Catholics are the nation's largest single religious denomination, representing 23 percent of the population. While there really is no single "Catholic vote," imagine if just a portion of this sleeping moral giant — perhaps 10 percent of the Catholics, that is millions of Catholic voters in parishes across the country — began to regularly reflect upon, accept, and apply the full range of their faith's social-justice teachings to public-policy issues. Imagine if they did so with an energy and discipline similar to the Christian Coalition.

It could mean that the bishops' 1986 pastoral "call to conversion and action" for American Catholics to build a society that provides "economic justice for all" just might be taken seriously. It just might be.

[sidebox] - Imagine if millions of Catholic voters across the country began to regularly reflect upon and apply the full range of their faith's social-justice teachings to public-policy issues. Imagine if they did so with an energy and discipline similar to the Christian Coalition. The call to provide "economic justice for all" just might be taken seriously. It just might be.

[sidebox] - The success of the bishops' raising their moral voice to defend the poor may be frustrated by the indifference or outright hostility of many U.S. Catholics to that message.

[sidebox] - Amidst the most serious assault on federal social programs in 60 years, one has to ask where the Catholic population will fall out if and when they apply the moral principles of their faith to the political arena.

Richard Koubek coordinates the parish educational programs of the Public Policy Education Network in the Diocese of Rockville centre, New York. He teaches U.S. government and history at John F. Kennedy High School in Plainview, New York.