October 14, 2016

Rejoice in the Lord

Preferring the poor, true economic justice

Archbishop Joseph W. Tobin

The Gospels show us clearly that Jesus was a man who loved the poor. Although he was not uncomfortable with people from other economic and social classes (including the very wealthy), Jesus never shied away from people who were poor or marginalized. When Pope Francis tells us to move out of our comfort zones, to go to the “peripheries” and be with people who are social or economic outcasts, he is simply urging us to follow the example of our Lord.

As Catholics and as faithful citizens, during this election season we must choose candidates who demonstrate “a preferential option for the poor,” and whose policies reflect true economic justice. The challenge is to elect public officials whose actions while in office will truly protect the dignity of human persons and promote the common good. These are not necessarily the candidates who talk the most about poverty and injustice.

As we note in “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship,” the bishops of the United States stand firmly behind the goal “to create jobs for all who can work, and to create working conditions and just wages for all workers ” (#73). We affirm economic freedom, initiative and the right to private property. Catholic social teaching supports the right of workers “to choose whether to organize, join a union, and bargain collectively, and to exercise these rights without reprisal. … Workers, owners, employers, and unions have a corresponding responsibility to work together to create decent jobs, build a more just economy, and advance the common good” (#73).

A more just economy benefits everyone, but it is especially important for the poor and the middle class. That’s why we bishops support legislation and public policy that is designed to achieve true economic growth and to curb “excessive social and economic equalities” (#73).

Political apologists on both the right and the left argue that their proposed policies are the best way to grow the economy and, so, help the poor and the middle class. To which we reply, “By their fruits will you know them.” The last several decades have witnessed the failure of both major political parties to achieve real and lasting change in social and economic conditions. As a result, the poor get poorer and the middle class languishes. We bishops are pastors, not economists or politicians, but we abhor the growing gap between the very rich on the one hand, and the poor and middle class on the other hand. We see with our own eyes how people suffer when the economy stagnates or declines.

We don’t pretend to know all the practical solutions to these problems, but we do have insights into some of the most fundamental issues. Here are some examples from “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship”:

  • Welfare policy should reduce poverty and dependency, strengthen family life, and help families leave poverty through work, training, and assistance with child care, health care, housing, and transportation. (#75)
  • Faith-based groups deserve recognition and support, not as substitutes for government, but as responsive, effective partners, especially in the poorest communities and countries. … Government bodies should not require Catholic institutions to compromise their moral or religious convictions to participate in government health or human service programs. (#76)
  • Social Security should provide adequate, continuing, and reliable income in an equitable manner for low- and average-wage workers and their families when these workers retire or become disabled, and for the survivors when a wage-earner dies. (#77)
  • The lack of safe, affordable housing requires a renewed commitment to increase the supply of quality housing. We oppose unjust housing discrimination, and support effective and responsible measures to meet the credit needs of low-income and minority communities. (#78)
  • Agricultural policy should ensure food security for all. No one should face hunger in a land of plenty. … Farmers and farm workers who grow, process and harvest food deserve a just return for their labor, with safe and just working conditions and adequate housing. … Careful stewardship of the Earth and its natural resources demands policies that support sustainable agriculture. (#79)

What would Jesus do when confronted with these or similar issues? We know he would feed the hungry, clothe the naked and heal the sick. We also know he would advocate for strong families and communities, and admonish us to share our gifts with the poor and the marginalized.

The real challenge we face is to discern which candidates and policies come closest to this essential truth adapted from the teaching of St. John Paul II: The economy should serve people. People should not serve the economy.

In our nation today, is the economy serving the people or are the people serving the economy?

This is the question we must ask ourselves as we prepare to vote on Election Day. †

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