Times are tough. Six months after September 11th, we are a nation in a difficult struggle to combat terrorism with few clear enemies and no end in sight. We are a society dealing with the results of recession and the impact of Enron. We are a people dealing with budget deficits from war, recession and tax cuts. And, we are a Church facing serious questions of trust and credibility in the face of sexual abuse and scandal.
In the midst of all this, it was good to come together to pray and reflect, improve our knowledge and our skills, to articulate our values and advocate our priorities. In the Annual Social Ministry Gathering, we support one another and express our solidarity in standing with the poor and vulnerable. If you weren't with us this year, come next year. We need you and you need the rest of us.
As I said when we were together, September 11th changed a lot of things, but it didn't change our common mission and message. The way to overcome this hate and hurt is with our traditional values of respect for all human life, the defense of every person's human dignity, a priority for the poor and vulnerable and new sense of solidarity in a more dangerous world. The way to build a nation of greater unity is by caring for those left behind, not only in the aftermath of September 11th, but also by recession and welfare reform, by renewed hostility to immigrants and new budget priorities in the wake of war.
Even in these difficult days, there is a hunger for these values in our schools and parishes and our nation and world. As I travel and listen, I get a sense that our work matters now more than ever. This is a new moment where we can turn this sense of vulnerability to a new sense of solidarity. This is a time to make clear we must address terror not only in airports, but also in the hearts of hopeless people who see no future for themselves and their families in Afghanistan and Palestine, Iraq and Africa. As our bishops insist, we need a serious and sustained commitment to deal with the roots of terrorism. No cause justifies the attacks of September 11th, but, a more just world will likely be a more peaceful world.
This is why our Church is working for an end to violence, occupation and terror in Israel and Palestine; why we are working to build a world of more development and less debt. This is why we oppose continuing reliance on land-mines and nuclear weapons to defend our nation; why we work for ways to stop the development of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, without starving or attacking the Iraqi people. This is why we seek greater understanding and dialogue with Islam and more respect for religious liberty in Sudan, the Middle East, China and elsewhere. Paul VI's wise counsel "If you want peace, work for justice," is still good advice and we are trying to follow it.
We can make a difference. We've done it in the past by working with others to persuade our nation to forgive its bi-lateral debt and to invest hundreds of millions of dollars in multi-lateral debt relief for the poorest nations. But much more is needed; we're half way home. So your voices are needed now to advocate for greater debt relief and more development assistance, for new efforts to confront the global health crises of HIV-AIDS and other diseases in Africa and elsewhere. The President's commitment to increase foreign aid by $5 billion is a step.
We can make a difference. We worked with others to build a global citizen's movement to ban anti-personnel landmines. A treaty has been signed by many countries and our nation has committed to stop the production, sale and use of landmines (except for those now in place in Korea). But more is needed right now to persuade the U.S. Government not to abandon past commitments and to more forward to sign the treaty and ban landmines once and for all.
More is needed to insist that the US cannot stand by and watch as so many Palestinians and Israelis lose their lives and so many more lose their hopes for justice, security and dignity. We must urge our government to do everything it can to insist that violence, occupation and terror give way to new negotiations to bring about a secure state for Israelis, a viable state for Palestinians and a peace based on equality and dignity for all the people of the Middle East.
As our bishops have said, Israeli aggressive military acts and occupation cannot be sustained morally or militarily. Palestinian attacks on innocent civilians are morally indefensible. Attacks on civilians by suicide bombers or military units must be condemned and brought to an end. Our voices must be heard for a just peace in the Middle East in communications with our leaders, and in dialogue with Jewish and Islamic communities.
Here at home, our bishops have said we need to share the burdens of these difficult times fairly, ensuring that the poor and vulnerable do not bear a disproportionate burdens in the face of war, recession and deficits.
We can make a difference. A year ago, when tax cuts proposals excluded most working and poor families, we worked with others to insist that the Children's Tax Credit be extended to the families with the greatest needs. You called and wrote, Cardinals called, parishioners wrote, bishops contacted their legislators. In the end, 80 billion dollars over ten years will be available to the hardest working families in America the largest anti-poverty initiative in decades. This will help buy food, pay for rent, and help secure housing and education for millions.
But more is needed. Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) must be reauthorized with provisions which:
- make poverty reduction, not just caseload reduction, an explicit goal of TANF.
- count real education and training as steps toward decent work which can support a family.
- reject family caps which tell some young women we will pay for abortion but not help raise a child.
- remove the penalties for immigrant families.
- remove discrimination against two-parent families in states' TANF rules.
We're working for a faith-based initiative that is not about politics, but poverty. We support new bi-partisan legislation which offers more resources, removes barriers and encourages the charitiable contributions of working families, not just the well-off. The Lieberman/Santorum Legislation (the CARE Act) does just this . It's time to tell our friends on the right and the left to focus more on poor families, than their political and ideological agendas. In the toughest communities, on the toughest problems, often all that's left are a few religious and community groups. Let's help them, instead of using them to fight old battles on church and state. These efforts cannot and should not diminish government responsibility, but they can make a difference in people's lives.
We also need to help restart a debate on health care access and affordability and to secure an increase the minimum wage. And this is still a nation which relies on abortion and the death penalty to try to address its most difficult social problems. If our nation won't yet turn away from the violence of abortion, we must at least ban partial birth abortion. If our nation won't yet abandon the death penalty, we should pass the Innocence Protection Act which reduces the chances that our society will execute innocent people.
We can make a difference using our ideas and institutions, our expertise and experience, our influence and access, our ties to people in power and on the margins of life. In all this, we come back to our mission. In tough times, we must remember it is Jesus who calls us to this work. Our mission was best described by the young man who stood in his hometown synagogue in Nazareth and read these familiar words from Isaiah:
"The Spirit of the Lord is upon me.
He has sent me to bring good news to the poor,
liberty to captives, new sight to the blind,
and to set the oppressed free."
(Luke 4) In tough times, we must be clear about this mission and then we can make a difference.