Bishop Jaime Soto on the Catholic Campaign for Human Development

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Bishop Jaime Soto, Chairman of the USCCB Subcommittee on CCHD

Bishop Jaime Soto, Chairman of the USCCB Subcommittee on CCHD

The Catholic Campaign for Human Development is the anti-poverty program of the Catholic bishops of the United States. Thinking about CCHD, my thoughts turn to the latest flashpoint of anger and civil unrest in our country—Ferguson, Missouri.

When the bishops created CCHD forty years ago, core to its mission was overcoming poverty by bringing together people of diverse backgrounds and different income brackets to identify solutions to poverty. Forty years later, the turmoil of Ferguson seems to pose a unique threat to our country. Yet there are eerie echoes of the past.

Just after the police shooting of the young black man, Michael Brown, there was much speculation and punditry about the reasons for the explosion of outrage. It’s right to ask whether adequate resources are available to stem a rising tide of frustration in our communities. And there are real concerns about racism, profiling and the militarization of local police enforcement. But I want to draw attention to one aspect that caught my attention in a radio report I heard in those initial days.

An African-American woman, active in the community of Ferguson, spoke about low voter turnout in the area. This may be just one underlying factor among many, but not an insignificant one.

Low voter participation means that structures intended to promote the common good may be far from representative. Confidence in decisions made and trust in those who make them become fragile. In Ferguson, authority was disconnected from accountability, fomenting a volatile social imbalance that only needed a spark. What little social fabric existed quickly unraveled.

As a bishop, I’m troubled to see violence erode a community. I’m also concerned about the underlying problems of diminishing public participation and representation. In my home state of California during the recent elections, a comparatively small percentage of citizens turned out to vote. We need to be sober about the problems of stale voter turnout.

Even a nation of laws cannot survive without the participation of ordinary people. Liberty loses its meaning without a common purpose fashioned from the crucible of thoughtful, respectful social dialogue. Groups supported by CCHD are working to reverse the process of community implosion by engaging citizens in critical conversations and activating the community’s native talent, resources and creativity. CCHD groups are reinforcing and creating social bonds based on faith, sharing and solidarity. In Ferguson, they are addressing racism and lack of opportunity for so many young people who feel excluded. Groups like Sacramento Area Congregations Together, in my diocese, are organizing parishes to reintegrate ex-offenders into the community in safe, productive and meaningful ways. Efforts like these help keep people from returning to prison and a life of crime.

Growing political polarity and economic disparity, as well as dwindling social civility seem to be pushing more people to the margins, either by coercion or self-exclusion. The relation between this growing exclusion and questions of democratic participation is not casual.

Pope Benedict XVI gave these questions, and the challenges they pose for Christians, much thought in his encyclical on charity, Deus Caritas Est. He proposed that even if a society could perfectly administer justice, Christians would still have the duty of charity. Charity is no substitute for justice. Charity implies justice. It enables a free society to build social bonds that justice alone cannot forge. We should listen carefully to the wise instruction of the Book of Proverbs: “He who shuts his ear to the cry of the poor will himself also call and not be heard.”

Through the Catholic Campaign for Human Development, the bishops of the United States offer a unique contribution towards overcoming the hostility and indifference plaguing our country. The empowerment of local groups committed to breaking down the walls of race and income inequality, in the name of a greater solidarity, reverses the trend of disintegration that we’re witnessing in places like Ferguson. The credibility that CCHD supported groups bring to the table of democracy is a love for neighbor that satisfies the demands of justice and exceeds them.

Jaime Soto is the bishop of Sacramento and the chairman of the USCCB’s Catholic Campaign for Human Development.

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