The Catholic Voices Blog
At Catholic Voices we've frequently talked about moving past the tired paradigm that falsely divides Catholics into conservative and liberal camps, as if concern for the unborn somehow crowds out concern for the poor or vice versa. Working for the common good as Catholics means helping the voiceless and marginalized wherever we find them. Reflecting on Dorothy Day, Cardinal Dolan recently reminded us that the Catholic faith is "‘both-and’ not ‘either-or'", something to bear in mind as a challenge and an aspiration when we bring our faith to bear on public issues.
One place we can stand together: vigorous promotion of faith-based social service providers and the important work they do providing direct assistance to the marginalized. Through the hard work of families and churches and community leaders these groups help build civil society in places left behind by our culture and economy.
Republicans in particular would do well to revisit a 2006 speech in which William Schambra described "one of conservatism’s central convictions":
...the notion that political authority should flow away from large, centralized, remote government bureaucracies, back to local community institutions like the family, neighborhood, house of worship, the school around the corner and the small ethnic and voluntary association. Within these small, local “mediating structures,” as the sociologists describe them, Americans had traditionally reared and educated their young according to their own moral standards, provided love and care for the vulnerable, and satisfied their yearning for belonging, rootedness, and community.
Conservatism so understood -- rooted and local; oriented toward family and home and neighborhood; supporting and protecting the least among us -- resonates in a Catholic key. And while the kinds of groups Schambra highlights can't replace government, they can provide something that government can't -- hope rooted in faith and the transforming power of God's love:
Those institutions are largely unheralded and massively underfunded, certainly by government but even by the private charitable sector.... more often than not they are moved by a deep and compelling religious faith. They are convinced that human problems can’t be solved by social and psychological rehabilitation alone, but call instead for fundamental, spiritual transformation. Indeed, many faith-based institutions are run by inner-city volunteers who were themselves once trapped in the problems they are now helping others to overcome, in gratitude for God’s mercy, and in answer to God’s call. For them, crucifixion and resurrection are not just inspiring religious metaphors. They are lived, daily experiences — all-too-accurate descriptions of the depths of brokenness and despair they have faced, followed by the faint, hopeful glimmer of redemption.
Just yesterday, in a letter on charitable activities, Pope Benedict similarly asked us "to keep in mind that “practical activity will always be insufficient, unless it visibly expresses a love for man, a love nourished by an encounter with Christ” ... The Church’s charitable activity at all levels must avoid the risk of becoming just another form of organized social assistance."
As Schambra points out, the Bush administration's faith-based initiative fared better in theory than in fact, more the subject of speeches than the object of significant funding. But robust public support for civil society institutions is an idea worth revisiting, not least because it's one place to unify those seeking solutions to the economic problems we face. Here's Schambra again:
I want Bishop Sedgwick Daniels [community leader and pastor of Milwaukee's Holy Redeemer Institutional Church of God in Christ] at my side within the conservative movement. Not just because it will improve our electoral fortunes — though it will — but rather, because it will improve the movement itself. The danger of seeking after God’s blessing is that we occasionally persuade ourselves that we have earned it, or worse, deserved it....The faith of leaders like Bishop Daniels and Bob Woodson [head of the Center for Neighborhood Enterprise], however, seldom ventures far from a firmly rooted understanding of the brokenness of the world, of the reality of crucifixion and the desperate need for resurrection. It is a faith that is earthy, modest, and realistic. It would never permit us to forget our obligation to care for the least of these.
Local faith-based institutions help people out of poverty by strengthening families and communities through God's love made visible and tangible and real. These groups may not necessarily be Catholic, but the social solidarity they foster and exemplify is reflected in our faith's social teaching, which is of course itself rooted in the Gospel. While small local groups cannot take the place of the public safety net on which so many unfortunately rely, these ground-level programs help strengthen the culture of family and work and neighborhood so essential to helping our fellow Americans climb out of poverty.
Dorothy Day liked to say that "a saint is a person whose life would not make sense if God did not exist." That certainly describes Day: a bohemian journalist who traveled in literary circles in 1920's New York, she underwent a radical conversion to Catholicism after the birth of her daughter, a conversion that led her to join with Peter Maurin in founding the Catholic Worker movement.
At their annual meeting in Baltimore this week, the U.S. bishops unanimously approved the advancement of Dorothy Day's cause for sainthood, placing her one step forward on the road to canonization. Promotion of the cause of this profoundly modern American Catholic woman could not come at a more propitious moment. No mere "patron saint of the soup-kitchen", Day lived out the Gospel not just through individual acts of service, but through true communion with the poor. She sanctified her poverty, recognizing (along with Dostoevsky, one of her favorite writers), that "love in action is a harsh and dreadful thing compared to love in dreams."
Day's deep identification with the least among us mirrors that of Mother Teresa, another twentieth-century radical Catholic woman, who, as Meghan Clark has pointed out, knew that Jesus isn't like the poor, he is the poor:
Jesus is the Hungry – to be fed.
Jesus is the Thirsty – to be satiated.
Jesus is the Homeless – to be taken in.
Jesus is the Sick – to be healed.
Jesus is the lonely – to be loved.
Jesus is the Unwanted – to be wanted
Day's autobiography, The Long Loneliness, is a classic of twentieth-century Catholicism; for those new to her story, Paul Elie's The Life You Save May be Your Own is a wonderful introduction to Day the writer, and neatly intertwines Day's life with that of three other twentieth-century American Catholic literary giants, Thomas Merton, Flannery O'Connor, and Walker Percy.
Of course, while Day was an influential writer and constant reader of great literature and knew -- again, with Dostoevsky -- that "the world will be saved by beauty", hers was a life of action. The Duty of Delight: The Diaries of Dorothy Day, edited by Robert Ellsberg, provides a window into the day-to-day life of this non-plaster saint; for background on the roots of the Catholic Worker, Mark and Louise Zwick of the Houston Catholic Worker offer The Catholic Worker Movement: Intellectual and Spiritual Origins.
Day once said the following about her close friend Peter Maurin, but it could just as easily apply to her:
He made one feel the magnificence of our work, our daily lives, the material of God's universe....He reached the poorest and the most destitute by living always among them, sharing their poverty and sharing what he had with them....I do know this, that when people come into contact with Peter...they change, they awaken,...They admit the truth he possesses and lives by, and though they themselves fail to go the whole way, their faces are turned at least toward the light.
Above all, Dorothy Day was a Catholic, a radical follower of Jesus Christ. Because of that, she lived a life in tension with the modern world, but never let those tensions stop her from living out her faith as best she knew.
Angelo Stagnaro at Catholic New Service highlights the work being done by Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of New York, as well as local Catholic agencies, religious communities, and parishes, to provide immediate help to those hit hardest by Sandy:
The damage from the wind, rain and flooding brought by Hurricane Sandy "is almost overwhelming," said Msgr. Kevin Sullivan, executive director of Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of New York. "We're reaching out to parishes and getting them to directly assist those in critical need -- they know their own people and their neighborhoods," he told Catholic News Service Oct. 31.
Groups like Catholic Charities are essential at a time like this to make sure no one falls through the cracks, especially those the group already serves:
...the homeless, children, the poor, the elderly, infirmed and disabled. "Those who needed it were evacuated to shelters to better care for them. Sometimes there were public facilities and sometimes our own in areas unaffected by Sandy," the priest said. "Those who are most vulnerable need the most care especially those with physical and emotional challenges..."We are coordinating by parishes, but the Holy Spirit is doing most of the coordinating," Msgr. Sullivan said with a chuckle.
Msgr. Sullivan says lay Catholics are also doing their part:
"We are grateful for all our parishioners who are reaching out to those in need, driving neighbors to shelters and just checking up on people. If they're capable, they should volunteer at shelters. They can make contributions and, above all, they can pray... Msgr. Sullivan said Catholics "are concerned and those who are capable of lending a hand are doing so." He told of a parishioner at St. Augustine in Ossining in Westchester County, north of New York City, "who is organizing other parishioners in going door-to-door to check up on their neighbors and the elderly in the town making sure they have everything they need."
It's times of crisis like this that demonstrate the importance of civil society, in particular social service agencies and health care providers that so clearly serve the common good. What's happening in New York also demonstrates that civil society is more than just the intermediary institutions so vital to its health; at its heart it's a fabric of relationships built up over time and rooted in neighborhoods and parishes. And at its best it's people working together for the common good, family to family, neighbor to neighbor, friend to friend.
As someone with long ties to a close-knit town on the New Jersey shore, the destruction wrought by Hurricane Sandy hits particularly hard. The prayers of all of us here at Catholic Voices go out to all affected by this devastating storm, from those initially hit in the Caribbean to those just beginning the recovery process on the Eastern seaboard.
Events like Sandy put things in perspective, underscoring the importance of community and of standing shoulder to shoulder with our neighbors. Fittingly, in his audience today Pope Benedict reminded us that our faith is lived not in isolation, but in community:
The widespread contemporary tendency to relegate faith to the private sphere contradicts its very nature. We need the Church to confirm our faith and to experience together the gifts of God: His Word , the Sacraments, the sustenance of grace and witness of love. So our "I" in the "we" of the Church will be able to perceive that it is, simultaneously recipient and protagonist of an event that surpasses it: the experience of communion with God who establishes communion between people.
Pope Benedict also offered prayers for the victims of Sandy, expressing "solidarity with all those engaged in the work of rebuilding.” Those rebuilding efforts have now begun in earnest. We'll be praying for those affected by the storm, and please visit Catholic Charities USA to find other ways you can help.
This morning Cardinal Dolan spoke movingly of the effects of Sandy as well, saying that "our hearts are broken", but that through it all we can
begin to see a glimmer of light and hope -- people coming together. There's two things that can happen in a tragedy -- either we can become selfish, we can become violent, we can be every person for himself, or we can pitch in, in solidarity and community, to help one another, to rescue one another. Thanks be to God, that's what's happening ... once again, the best, the most noble sentiments of people are coming out as people are heroic and generous in serving those in need. So even in the midst of our tears, there's a smile on our face as we thank God that that beautiful, good, noble side of people seems to be dominating.
Cardinal Dolan reports that he's spoken with Catholic Charities of New York and New York's Catholic health care networks, and the good news is "that all facilities are open, running, and welcoming people in need." It's this spirit of solidarity, which the Cardinal describes as "people coming together in love and support", that we all should work to achieve in the days and weeks ahead, and always.
Catholics of all political stripes should welcome the fact that Paul Ryan proudly affirms that his Catholic faith affects his positions on public issues -- and not just social issues, but economic issues as well. Agree or disagree with the particulars, Ryan is moving past the tired paradigm that pits conservative and liberal Catholics against each other. He's making an effort to bring the Catholic faith to bear across a range of public issues, and that enrichs public life.
Yesterday Ryan gave an significant speech on the importance of civil society in the fight against poverty. Many have noted that while the middle class has figured prominently in the presidential campaign, the poor have often been left out. As Melinda Hennebarger asks, "When was the last time you heard any presidential candidate speak seriously, in any kind of sustained way, about the one in five American kids growing up in circumstances that ought to make us all ashamed? ... No one thinks talking about poverty is a smart political move; thus the bipartisan silence."
Ryan broke that silence yesterday in Cleveland:
Too many children, especially African-American and Hispanic children, are sent into mediocre schools and expected to perform with excellence. African-American and Hispanic children make up only 38 percent of the nation’s overall students, but they are 69 percent of the students in schools identified as lowest performing.
Think about that for a second: at the height of a contentious, tight national race, a candidate spoke about the least among us -- and not with a sound bite or photo op, but with sustained attention in a thoughtful speech that drew on much from Catholic tradition. Ryan recognized that "in this war on poverty, poverty is winning" -- and then laid out steps towards changing that.
What is that approach? While admitting that Republicans don't always do a good job speaking to these issues, Ryan rejected as a straw man the idea that the GOP ticket believes "everybody should just fend for themselves." Instead he laid out a vision rooted in Catholic ideas about the importance of community, civil society, and the need to strike a balance between government and private action,
allowing government to act for the common good, while leaving private groups free to do the work that only they can do. There’s a vast middle ground between the government and the individual. Our families and our neighborhoods, the groups we join and our places of worship – this is where we live our lives. They shape our character, give our lives direction, and help make us a self-governing people.
Ryan spoke explicitly of the "witness" of those who work directly with the poor, and of "the spirit of the Lord" at work through them. And he spoke of government’s duties to civil society institutions -- "to secure their rights, respect their purposes, and preserve their freedom" -- and how abuses of government power like the HHS mandate threaten those institutions:
Take what happened this past January, when the Department of Health and Human Services issued new rules requiring Catholic hospitals, charities and universities to violate their deepest principles. Never mind your own conscience, they were basically told – from now on you’re going to do things the government’s way. This mandate isn’t just a threat to religious charities. It’s a threat to all those who turn to them in times of need. In the name of strengthening our safety net, this mandate and others will weaken it. The good news? When Mitt Romney is president, this mandate will be gone, and these groups will be able to continue the good work they do.
While government excesses can "crowd out" civil society, Ryan affirmed that government is "entrusted" with keeping the safety net strong, and laid out some ideas for strengthening it -- among them giving states more power to tailor anti-poverty programs to their own situations, and reforming public schools. Other ideas worth addressing include concrete steps toward rebuilding civil society in communities where it's been almost fully decimated; where next to nothing remains standing between individuals and the state.
Yesterday Ryan explicitly recognized that "we are one nation, rising or falling together." He touched on Catholic themes with a Catholic vocabulary. Once again, Catholicism is driving the debate -- and driving it in a healthy direction.