CCHD: Living the Message of Christ on the Margins

Bruenig

Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig

Isaiah 42 tells us how we will know the Messiah:

He will not cry out, nor shout, nor make his voice heard in the street. A bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench. He will faithfully bring forth justice. He will not grow dim or be bruised until he establishes justice on the earth; the coastlands will wait for his teaching.

In fulfilling this prophecy, Jesus Christ confronts us with the boldness of his example: what does it mean to support the bruised and smoldering, and to work tirelessly for justice?

It means, in part, directing our help to the most vulnerable members of society. In 2013, roughly 45 million Americans lived in poverty, close to 15 million of them children. For newcomers to the United States, poverty rates are often higher than those among the native-born population. People who are struggling live all around us, in every city and state, with a broad range of needs corresponding to income, age, health, and immigration status – and Christ’s example directs us to reach out to them all.

But because the needs of our suffering neighbors are diverse, so too must be our methods of outreach. There is the policy approach: for example, in 2013, SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, also known as food stamps) kept nearly 5 million people out of poverty. Despite its success in keeping struggling families food secure, SNAP has repeatedly come under fire by politicians hoping to make gainful cuts to social spending. So the CCHD’s commitment to providing clear and accurate information about the function of SNAP and other programs aimed at supporting poor families is an incredibly valuable tool for inviting Catholics into public advocacy for the good of our suffering neighbors.

It is somewhat more challenging to measure the impact of local and grassroots organizations helping people in need, in part because the forms aid can take are very diverse. But community-built support systems are absolutely indispensible to the health of society, and can oftentimes respond to needs that large-scale government programs would have more difficulty addressing. The CCHD’s mission to locate and fund ground-level aid groups is the subsidiarity-based counterpart to its solidarity-based advocacy for SNAP, and its goals are just as necessary.

Consider, for example, Parent Voices Oakland, an Oakland-based advocacy group seeking effective childcare solutions for working parents. A CCHD grantee this year, Parent Voices Oakland aims to respond to a problem recently profiled in the Pacific Standard – that is, the rise of round-the-clock daycare due to the increasing work loads of parents in the labor market. But childcare, especially for parents who work very long hours, is not necessarily affordable, reliable, or obviously safe, and for working families all three of those qualities are absolutely necessary. Parent Voices Oakland hopes to establish community-based childcare choices as well as eventually make childcare available to all parents regardless of income or current access. Like the CCHD’s model, Parent Voices considers all options, from state programs to community organizations, and in doing so makes the most of the rich tapestry of support working parents are due.

This model of help – which utilizes the talents and knowledge of low-income families and their communities as well as their organizing potential – recognizes the full value of the people who have asserted their need, and gives us some insight into what a Church on the Margins might look like. It will be prophetic in its mission, and like the Messiah, it will place first the well-being of those who are weak, suffering, and vulnerable. But it will not just support top-down distributions of resources. It will walk with the suffering as they make their own way forward, bringing forth outside help when needed, and supporting already-present community resources for change when they are available.

The CCHD, in other words, is an avenue through which we can live the message of Christ on the margins, where so many reeds are bruised and wicks are close to burning out. Like the Messiah’s mission on earth, the goal is justice – and where justice is needed, tireless work is required. For those of us watching trends in inequality and economic pressure on families with despair, this is the work that must be done.

Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig is from Fort Worth, Texas. She writes about Christian ethics, poverty and political theology for Salon, The Atlantic and The Week. She is a graduate of Brandeis University and obtained her MPhil in Christian theology from the University of Cambridge. She is currently a doctoral student at Brown University.

#Synod14 also talked family economics

Now that was something!

Dylan Corbett

Dylan Corbett

For the last couple weeks, the Church has been digesting the Synod on the Family, a meeting in Rome of bishops and families from around the world with the Holy Father.

Never has more ink—digital or actual—been spilled on such a meeting. Every word, press release and sound bite has been scrutinized, dissected and interpreted.

And yet, if you weren’t paying close attention, you may have missed some of the substance that didn’t generate as much media attention.

The Synod had some pretty incisive things to say about the relationship between the family and the economy. In fact, it offered a powerful critique of the world economy.

It wasn’t all good. The Synod Fathers had some pretty harsh words for the “economic systems”, “unemployment”, “culture of prosperity” and “disinterest” on the part of government that today “weakens the dignity of people”. This is what they said in their final report:

There is also a general feeling of powerlessness in the face of socio-cultural realities which oftentimes end in crushing families. Such is the case in increasing instances of poverty and unemployment in the workplace, which at times is a real nightmare… Families often feel abandoned by the disinterest and lack of attention by institutions. The State has the responsibility to pass laws and create work to ensure the future of young people and help them realize their plan of forming a family.

That’s tough stuff. But that’s where the Church has to dwell, because that place of family pain is where God dwells. Evangelization must take people where they’re at. As the Synod Fathers said:

… evangelization needs to clearly denounce cultural, social, political and economic factors, such as the excessive importance given to market logic which prevents authentic family life and leads to discrimination, poverty, exclusion, and violence.

In a complex world where relationships and institutions are increasingly fragile, pain and hope are felt and lived by those at the bottom. For many, the family is the last buffer in a world dominated by “the logic of the market”, where communities are fast evaporating, job security and pensions seem anachronistic, and loneliness and insecurity are more pervasive. Make no mistake, families are being put through the sieve. If that’s the case, perhaps the Church and the State need to think seriously about exercising a preferential option for the family.

As Cardinal Erdő of Hungary said during the days of the Synod, “the family is almost the last welcoming human reality in a world determined near exclusively by finance and technology. A new culture of the family can be the starting point for a renewed human civilization”.

Dylan Corbett is manager for mission & identity outreach at the USCCB’s Department of Justice, Peace & Human Development.

Social justice. Are we listening?

A word cloud from the social encyclical of Benedict XVI, Caritas in Veritate.

A word cloud from the social encyclical of Benedict XVI, Caritas in Veritate.

It seemed not long ago that Pope Francis set off a firestorm of controversy around the question of social justice. That seems to have died down now. Of course, he keeps speaking, but are we really listening?

If you weren’t paying attention, you may have missed a classic Pope Francis moment last week. Speaking on the anniversary of Pope Benedict XVI’s social encyclical, Caritas in Veritate, Francis called for “deep reforms” in our economic and public life.

One would have thought that after a speech in which he once again called for “redistribution of wealth” and “redistribution of sovereignty”, there would have been controversy to follow. Instead there was uncanny silence.

He also had harsh words for poverty and inequality, saying that inequality threatens to erode our democracies. He ended his speech with a heartfelt plea to “keep alive the concern for the poor and social justice”.

No doubt about it, Pope Francis keeps talking about social justice. But, are we receiving his teaching? Do we believe that social justice is a meaningful term, that it has something to offer in terms of shaping American society, the economy and public life?

Pope Francis clearly does. In the same speech, he defines social justice as the difference between a society based on exclusion and one founded on inclusion.

Groups supported by the Catholic Campaign for Human Development struggle on the border between inclusion and exclusion. They work to stretch the border of fairness and dignity to more and more communities. They certainly know what a society built on exclusion looks like. Unemployment. Anxiety. Job insecurity. Drugs. Stolen wages. Excluded immigrants. Environmental damage. Catch up with the bills. Not making rent. A criminal record that comes back to haunt. Expensive education. No time to think about family. No time to think about community.

These are the hard truths of social injustice. You only come to know them by living its harsh reality or by exercising solidarity with those who do.

But CCHD groups also appreciate the hard won truths of social justice. Community. Economic empowerment. Jobs. Participation in public life. Education. Health. Culture. Fairness. Justice. Raising a family with confidence. The power to change one’s life for the better.

For Pope Francis, social justice isn’t a detached, abstract discourse. As he says, it’s about “overcoming the structural causes of inequality and poverty.” It’s about putting the pieces of a broken society back together. It’s about building “an economy and a market that does not exclude people, and which are equitable.” The question of social justice is not a grandiloquent discourse on the theological conditions of the perfect society. It is about how to live and love in a broken world.

A word cloud from a speech of Pope Francis on the Church's social mission.

A word cloud from a speech of Pope Francis on the Church’s social mission.

Because we have put profit before people, competition before community, there are those who suffer exclusion from our markets and from our democracy.

The bishops of the United States define just what social justice looks like in their 1986 pastoral letter on the economy, Economic Justice for All. In their words:

“Basic justice demands the establishment of minimum levels of participation in the life of the human community for all persons.”

For the bishops, social justice requires society be molded so that all can participate in our economy and public life. Participation and inclusion are the yardsticks of social justice.

If that’s true, that might mean that we need to take Pope Francis’ call to redistribute wealth and sovereignty seriously. How do we make sure all can participate in an economy that guarantees dignified work and the ability to raise a family? How do we make sure that all voices are represented at the table of our democracy? Those aren’t abstract questions. As Pope Benedict XVI put it in Caritas in Veritate:

“Testimony to Christ’s charity, through works of justice, peace and development, is part and parcel of evangelization, because Jesus Christ, who loves us, is concerned with the whole person.”

Do we want a society based on inclusion or exclusion? Our commitment to love like Jesus demands we hear the question.

McCloud headshotRalph McCloud is the executive director of the USCCB’s Catholic Campaign for Human Development.

Go deeper:
Learn about poverty in the United States and what CCHD groups are doing to address it at PovertyUSA and PobrezaUSA.

Follow CCHD on Twitter.

Can one person make a difference? On labor issues, absolutely.

Discussing the state of labor and workers in America is a challenge. There is so much to say and little space in which to say it. Such is the case with solutions—the challenges that workers, their families and our economy face are significant, and often discouraging and overwhelming. They lead us to ask the question: Can one person make a difference?

I say absolutely. It begins at the core of our teaching—human beings are made in the image and likeness of God. We are called to protect and affirm that dignity always.

In Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis reflects on this in the context of “an economy of exclusion”:

Human beings are themselves considered consumer goods to be used and then discarded. We have created a “throw away” culture which is now spreading (no. 53).

We live in a society preoccupied with things, consumed with consuming, cajoled and prodded into buying this new product, getting that service done. But deeply embedded in those everyday consumer decisions are profound human consequences.

How often do we pause to consider the dignity of the human on the other side of those choices? Do we ever really stop and ponder the worker who made this thing we desire so strongly? It is easy to protect and affirm the human dignity of the people we can see, hear, and interact with; less so when it is a worker thousands of miles away, or hidden in a rural warehouse or laboring to clean as we rest.

We get discount clothes, but do we give a thought to whether workers in the factories and old textile towns who manufacture (or used to manufacture) them work in safe conditions and are paid just wages?

We get affordable, fresh produce, but do we give a thought to the migrant workers who toil in the fields, the exhausted Earth, or the small family farms that used to feed our country but can no longer compete?

Caregivers and domestic workers, the majority of whom are female and immigrant, work for poverty-level wages to care for the most vulnerable among us–our young and elderly. Do we give a thought to their circumstances, or whether and how the lack of quality care for the old and the young opens the door to the same attitudes that see no grave moral wrong in abortion and assisted suicide?

Pope Francis’ words should stir and challenge us. An economy of inclusion that alleviates poverty and creates decent work demands that we appreciate the human consequences of our decisions.

It is not easy to ask these questions, but our faith requires it. Now, everybody’s circumstances are different, and not all of us can act to the same degree. However, it is important to ask these questions, and make life- and dignity-affirming choices whenever we can. In the words of St. John Paul II:

It is therefore necessary to create life-styles in which the quest for truth, beauty, goodness and communion with others for the sake of common growth are the factors which determine consumer choices, savings and investments (Centesimus Annus, no. 36).

May God grant us all wisdom, charitable hearts and vision to see the needs of our sisters and brothers in the decisions we make each day.

Tom MulloyTom Mulloy is a policy advisor in the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Department of Justice, Peace & Human Development

 

Go deeper:
Check out organizations supported by the Catholic Campaign for Human Development working on labor issues.
Check out the bishops’ recent Labor Day Statement.