Thursday, September 22, 2011

From the President's Desk: A Full Loaf

Leaving Germany for a minute, in advance of mid-November's USCCB Fall Meeting in Baltimore, last week brought the traditional September meeting of the bench's Administrative Committee -- the US bishops' highest collective authority outside a plenary assembly.

From the looks of what's transpired since, two major items were sufficient to garner concerted public interventions from the body's president, Archbishop Tim Dolan of New York, which've been released over recent days.

First, at the meeting's close, Dolan addressed a letter to the bishops urging them and their priests to an enhanced sense of "pastoral leadership" in addressing the state of the economy and the challenges it's borne:
During our recent meeting, it was reported that 46 million people (15%) now live in poverty in the United States. This report follows dismal unemployment figures in recent months. For us as bishops, these numbers are not statistics, but people suffering and wounded in their human dignity. They are parents who cannot feed their children, families that have lost their homes and jobless workers who have lost not only income, but also a sense of their place in society. For us, each of these persons is a child of God with innate human dignity and rights that deserve respect.

These numbers bring home to us the human costs and moral consequences of a broken economy that cannot fully utilize the talents, energy and work of all our people. We know the terrible toll the current economic turmoil is taking on families and communities. In our own Catholic dioceses we are struggling to match scarce resources with growing needs and have had to make very difficult financial, personnel and organizational choices....

The Administrative Committee wanted something more than a public statement. Instead, they asked me to write to all the bishops and ask you to continue do all you can to lift up the human, moral and spiritual dimensions of the ongoing economic crisis. Widespread unemployment, underemployment and pervasive poverty are diminishing human lives, undermining human dignity, and hurting children and families. I hope we can use our opportunities as pastors, teachers, and leaders to focus public attention and priority on the scandal of so much poverty and so many without work in our society. In order to assist you in these ongoing efforts, the Administrative Committee has asked the bishops' conference to provide you, diocesan staffs and other leaders with resources and materials for preaching, educating the faithful and advocating on behalf of the poor and jobless. You can already find some materials that can be helpful in these tasks on the "Unemployment and Poverty" page of the USCCB website. This page will be updated periodically and additional resources will be available shortly. Please share with the bishops' conference your own statements, resources or actions that you have taken to address these issues (please email or fax to 202-541-3339). The best way out of poverty is to work at a living wage. In the words of Pope Benedict XVI, 'Being out of work or dependent on public or private assistance for a prolonged period undermines the freedom and creativity of the person and his family and social relationships, causing great psychological and spiritual suffering' (Caritas in Veritate, no. 25). The common good will not advance; economic security will not be achieved; and individual initiative will be weakened when so many live without the dignity of work and bear the crushing burden of poverty. These economic failures have fundamental institutional and systemic elements that have either been ignored or made worse by political and economic behaviors, which have undermined trust and confidence. However, this is not time to make excuses or place blame. It is a time for everyone to accept their own personal and institutional responsibility to help create jobs and to overcome poverty, each in accord with their own abilities and opportunities. Individuals and families, faith-based and community groups, businesses and labor, government at every level, all must work together and find effective ways to promote the common good in national and economic life.

Sixteen million of our children (almost one out of four) are growing up poor. It is especially disheartening that African-Americans and Hispanics live with unemployment and poverty at far higher rates than others. Immigrant workers are especially vulnerable to exploitation and unfair treatment. These realities contradict our national pledge of "liberty and justice for all." They also contradict the consistent teaching of our Church. Our Catholic tradition begins with respect for the life and dignity of all, requires a priority concern for poor and vulnerable people, reflects the ties and bonds of solidarity, respects the mutual relationships of subsidiarity, and promotes the dignity of work and protection for workers.

As bishops, we lead communities that include many of those who lack sufficient work or resources to live a decent life. Every day, we serve 'the least of these' in our midst. In our Catholic parishes, schools, charities, hospitals and other ministries, the poor, the underemployed and the unemployed are not issues, but people with names and faces. It is an essential part of our work as Catholics to build a more just society and economy. We feed the hungry, shelter the homeless, educate the young, welcome refugees and care for the sick and vulnerable. Our Church serves and stands in solidarity with those who are poor and jobless, helping them break the cycle of poverty and act on behalf of their own families and communities. Our Conference will continue to urge our leaders to assist and protect the poor and jobless as they seek to promote economic growth and fiscal responsibility. The Catholic community will strengthen our work with others to address the economic, family, social and other factors which contribute to widespread poverty.

In these tough economic times, we turn to the God who loves us. We pray for those who need work. We lift up the poor and suffering. We ask God's guidance for our nation. This is not a time to give into discouragement. It is a time for faith, hope and love. Faith offers us moral principles to guide us in the days ahead. Christian hope gives us strength. Christ's love calls us to care for those left behind in this broken economy.

...and yesterday, amid a White House policy-shift away from upholding the 1996 law that defined marriage at the Federal level as the union of a man and a woman, and bolstering the rights of states to not recognize same-sex unions performed elsewhere, the conference chief wrote President Obama to call for a "reset" of the administration's strategy on the Defense of Marriage Act:
The Catholic Bishops stand ready to affirm every positive measure taken by you and your Administration to strengthen marriage and the family. We cannot be silent, however, when federal steps harmful to marriage, the laws defending it, and religious freedom continue apace....

Mr. President, your Administration's actions against DOMA and the values it stands for contrast sharply with your excellent Mother's Day and Father's Day proclamations issued earlier this year, which are also referenced in the attached analysis. In these perceptive and heartening statements, you correctly emphasize the critical role played by both a mom and a dad in a child‟s life, and you rightly call upon society to do all it can to uphold both mothers and fathers.

I know that you treasure the importance that you and the First Lady, separately and as a couple, share in the lives of your children. The Mother's Day and Father's Day proclamations display a welcome conviction on your part that neither a mom nor a dad is expendable. I believe therefore that you would agree that every child has the right to be loved by both a mother and a father.

The institution of marriage is built on this truth, which goes to the core of what the Catholic Bishops of the United States, and the millions of citizens who stand with us on this issue, want for all children and for the common good of society. That is why it is particularly upsetting, Mr. President, when your Administration, through the various court documents, pronouncements and policies identified in the attached analysis, attributes to those who support DOMA a motivation rooted in prejudice and bias. It is especially wrong and unfair to equate opposition to redefining marriage with either intentional or willfully ignorant racial discrimination, as your Administration insists on doing.

We as Bishops of the Catholic Church recognize the immeasurable personal dignity and equal worth of all individuals, including those with same-sex attraction, and we reject all hatred and unjust treatment against any person. Our profound regard for marriage as the complementary and fruitful union of a man and a woman does not negate our concern for the well-being of all people but reinforces it. While all persons merit our full respect, no other relationships provide for the common good what marriage between husband and wife provides. The law should reflect this reality.

Mr. President, I respectfully urge you to push the reset button on your Administration‟s approach to DOMA. Our federal government should not be presuming ill intent or moral blindness on the part of the overwhelming majority of its citizens, millions of whom have gone to the polls to directly support DOMAs in their states and have thereby endorsed marriage as the union of man and woman. Nor should a policy disagreement over the meaning of marriage be treated by federal officials as a federal offense— but this will happen if the Justice Department's latest constitutional theory prevails in court. The Administration's failure to change course on this matter will, as the attached analysis indicates, precipitate a national conflict between Church and State of enormous proportions and to the detriment of both institutions.

Thus, on behalf of my brother Bishops, I urge yet again that your Administration end its campaign against DOMA, the institution of marriage it protects, and religious freedom. Please know that I am always ready to discuss with you the concerns raised here and to address any questions that you may have. I am convinced that the door to a dialogue that is strong enough to endure even serious and fundamental disagreements can and must remain open, and I believe that you desire the same.
The White House letter included a three-page policy analysis by USCCB staff on the recent Federal turn from defending DOMA.

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Speaking of DC-level measures, the bishops have engaged a national push urging parishioners to protest the administration's recent guideline change mandating that employee-benefit plans cover contraceptives, a shift that's left insufficient exemptions for religious employers who oppose artificial contraception on grounds of conscience. The public comment period on the move closes at the end of this month.

And lastly, earlier this week saw the official end of the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy that barred gays and lesbians from openly serving in the armed forces. The chief pastor of the nation's 1.5 million servicemen and women, Archbishop Timothy Broglio of the Military Services, addressed the shift in a Tuesday interview with the diocese of Brooklyn's NET television arm.

On the wider front of the public square, meanwhile, this November's plenary closes out the usual life-cycle of the bishops' quadrennial joint pastoral on the responsibilities of Faithful Citizenship, which is traditionally revised and reissued in the year before a presidential election.

While the text's 2007 edition -- the first FC letter submitted to a vote of the entire body of bishops -- was overwhelmingly approved, the version worked out subsequently came under notable criticism from several prelates, who voiced qualms with the document's 30-page length along with a sense that the foundational standing of protecting the rights of the unborn was not sufficiently reflected in it.

The text's level of awareness in the pews, however, is likewise of apparent concern; according to recent data released by Georgetown University's Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA), only 16 percent of adult American Catholics could definitively recall only hearing of the document, with a majority saying they hadn't, and the remaining third unable to recall if they did. Among the 16 percent who replied that they were aware of the letter, less than a quarter said that they had read it.

The reworking of Faithful Citizenship with an eye to the 2012 elections is likely to be the central agenda-item of this year's Fall Classic.