Social Ministry Gathering
February 23, 2004
We come to Washington at a time of considerable uncertainty and confusion. A year ago when we last gathered, most Democrats, who now are harshly critical of the war in Iraq, voted to authorize it. Almost all Republicans were strong advocates, predicting U.S. troops would be greeted joyfully as liberators and would find stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction to prove the Holy Father, our Bishops’ Conference and much of the world wrong. A lot has changed in a year.
When we last gathered it was assumed that George Bush would coast to re-election as a decisive leader after 9/11 and a successful wartime President. A year ago, in the race for the Democratic nomination, Senator Lieberman led in the polls and Governor Dean was beginning to build surprising strength. Senator Kerry was fading and Senator Edwards was virtually invisible. A lot has happened in a year.
Washington is full of conspiracy theories. What is the ‘October surprise” likely to be? One cynic suggested that if they can’t find Osama Bin Laden before the election, they’ll let Saddam go and catch him again. A pundit predicted that the Democrats will run a contrarian campaign – opposing the war, the education bill and the trade agreements they voted for. That’s not a conspiracy theory; that appears to be part of their strategy.
We come to Washington at a confused and a confusing time, but at a moment of important debate in the Congress and decisions for the nation. In the midst of so much polarization and positioning for the coming election, we need to remind our leaders that there is much more at stake than their own partisan power and egos. This campaign raises fundamental questions of life and death, war and peace, who moves ahead and who gets left behind. For us the central question is not which party gains, but what kind of nation and world is being shaped by their action or inaction.
This is why the call to “Faithful Citizenship” and our presence here this week is so timely and so important. As you know, our bishops call us to work for new kind of politics which is focused:
- more on moral principles than the latest polls
- more on the needs of the weak than the contributions of the strong
- more on the search for the common good than the demands of narrow interests.
Context: Good News and Bad News
We all know the mission and message which bring us together are not easy these days. The temptation is to focus on the obstacles and frustration and not the opportunities and openings. Let me offer some thoughts on a few signs of trouble and some signs of hope touching our Church, nation and world.
One piece of bad news is the continuing impact of the clerical sexual abuse scandal. The headlines and studies make all too evident its tragic scale and impact on so many lives. We know that our mission and message can be overwhelmed by these realities and consequences. It can be heartbreaking, infuriating and demoralizing. It has reduced trust and credibility and it has reduced resources in some places. But as one who works for bishops, I see how they are working and struggling to get this right. Our Church needs to get it right to protect children and rebuild trust, but also to help us get back to mission. As Cardinal McCarrick has said “We are more than our mistakes” …
There are signs of hope in this dark moment. As I move around the country, I sense a renewed hunger for mission, including social mission, among pastors, educators and other Catholic leaders. This is not a time to hunker down, to pull our punches, to lose our voice. We will have to be smarter and more strategic. We have to be clear that this is the work of a community of believers, not just a conference of bishops. We didn’t create the scandal and we can’t fix it. The best thing we can do is refocus on our mission and do our work as best we can. We won’t be in the headlines, but we are the Church in action.
Another apparent source of trouble is that we often don’t fit the partisan and ideological categories of the political status quo. Sometimes we are accused of being the Democratic Party at Prayer or the Catholic Caucuses of the Republican Party. We’re neither. We serve a community of faith called to test every party and every proposal by how they touch human life and dignity.
There are several paradoxes as we go to Capitol Hill:
- Our Conference is one of the few voices that fundamentally questioned a preemptive strike against Iraq and now insist we have a responsibility to work with other nations to rebuild a decent society for the Iraqi people.
- We support in principle the President’s faith-based initiative and oppose some of his proposals on welfare reform. We support the partnership between government and faith-based communities, but ask where are the resources to help families not just leave welfare, but overcome poverty.
- Our Church led the fight against the violence of partial-birth abortion and is trying to restrain and bring to an end the use of the death penalty.
- We support genuine security for Israel and a real and viable Palestinian state.
It was our work that helped secure Republican votes making it possible for the passage of a major new investment in fighting disease, debt and underdevelopment in the poorest places on earth. It was some Democratic votes that ultimately help pass the partial-birth abortion ban and got a parental choice plan for schools for poor families here in the District of Columbia. It is not easy being politically incorrect, but it is who we are.
The bad news is we serve a nation that has been wounded and is at war. We have been attacked by terrorists and are now engaged in two wars without clear enemies or clear endings. We are also part of a powerful and productive national economy but it is an economy which is pulling us apart: pushing some ahead but leaving too many others behind.
The good news is there’s a growing sense that no amount of military, political, economic, or technical power can really assure us of shared security, prosperity and progress. Even in a city as secular as Washington, the most important issues of life and death, war and peace, allocating the blessings and burdens of budget and tax cuts are seen as having important moral and even spiritual dimensions.
Another source of trouble is the division among Catholics is along ideological and other lines. This includes Catholics in politics who say their faith has no place in their public roles, that religion is simply a private matter. Both the left and the right can be selective in their orthodoxy. Too often politics shape faith instead of the other way around. A sign of hope is that we in social ministry are not divided. We’re coming together (700 strong at this historic Gathering). We’re reaching out to other parts of our community. We’re rising above concerns about turf and organizational self-interest to work together. We are not factions, but part of one family of faith; not rivals, but co-workers in a common mission to be “salt and light” and “leaven” in our society.
We struggle to make a difference and too often we know we don’t. We’re still trying to raise the minimum wage, to insure tax cuts do not exclude working poor families, to make a bigger difference on the budget and to help bring some peace to the saddest place on earth – the Holy Land. Despite our hard work, we are realizing just a portion of our potential. However, despite our frustrations about inability to stop the rush to war or other threats to human life, we have made a difference. No one gave us much of a chance to reverse decades of decline in foreign aid and development assistance, to get the Congress to appropriate significant resources for debt relief, to pass measures to restore some essential benefits to immigrant families.
We have assets: ideas, institutions, leaders, people... Look around the room: leaders from dioceses and State Catholic Conferences, Catholic Charities, St. Vincent de Paul, parishes and schools and universities and so many more.
In tough times, with scarce resources we are asked and need to ask ourselves what is essential and what is not? What is helpful and effective and what is not? These questions can make us anxious and defensive. They can also make us better. The crisis in the Church and the challenges facing the nation are calling us to these questions with new urgency.
First, the social mission of our Church is essential. Without that mission, we are not the Church of Jesus Christ. It’s anchored in the Scriptures – the call to choose life, the teaching of Jesus when he began his public life to “bring good news to the poor, liberty to captives…” It’s expressed clearly by Pope John Paul II in the twenty-five years of his leadership. It must be clear that it is Jesus who calls us to work not on some political platform or ideological agenda, but on our common mission anchored in our faith, in our prayer and worship.
We often say Catholic Social Teaching is our best kept secret. We ought to stop saying that. If it’s a secret, we’ve failed. The Church hasn’t taught it. Pastors haven’t preached it. Schools haven’t shared it. Our offices, programs, conferences haven’t done our job. We haven’t shared the secret well enough, far enough, deep enough.
It’s essential to integrate not isolate our social mission. We need to build bridges. It’s not something we do for the rest of the Church. We need to provide tools and resources, broaden our reach, and help build communities of faith where the social mission is integral, not optional, central, not fringe. We are great with words. We have our principles, do we have our people? We have our ideas, do we have our institutions? There are not enough of us yet.
Sometimes we are tempted to substitute technology for relationships. We cannot work with parishes simply through e-mail. We need to build real relationships. We need to help pastors and parishioners do their jobs better, not ask them to help us do our job better.
This meeting demonstrates that it is absolutely essential to link our service as a community to our action as a community. The best advocates are those whose passion comes not from ideology but from individual lives. Service is required by the Gospel, but it is incomplete unless we stand up and ask why people need our services and what would it take so that they don’t depend on us for a meal or a cot.
It is essential this year and beyond to promote and practice Faithful Citizenship. We must do a better job helping those we serve know and act on challenges of faithful citizenship in a difficult ecclesial and political environment.
It is also essential to reflect better the diversity of the community we serve. Look around this room. We have a lot of work to do.
It’s essential we do this together as one family of faith. Not factions or rivals. We can divide up the work, but we can’t divide our community.
I have a few non-essentials, but will skip most of them. One thing that is not essential it’s to get caught up in false choices. In this city there’s lots of talk of personal or social responsibility. In our movement there’s lots talk of service and advocacy. We tend to focus on the poor at home or around the world. We can’t get trapped in those false choices. One of the worst false choices is whether we’re called to be faithful or effective. When there are millions of children dying every day here and abroad we have to be more faithful and more effective. We have to bring about more change which reflects the values of our faith.
Go to the Hill
So we go to Capitol Hill, bringing moral convictions and ethical principles drawn from our faith, our everyday experiences and practical expertise drawn from our service of those in need at home and around the world. We go with a simple message – put the poor and vulnerable first in budget, domestic and international policies. These days there is a lot of talk about soccer moms and NASCAR dads. What about poor moms and dads and their kids. We must look at budgets and globalization from the “bottom-up” for how they touch the weak and vulnerable.
This is a contrarian message here on Capitol Hill which is buffeted by the power of political contributions and well organized special interests. But we belong here. The lives and dignity of those we serve and the poor and vulnerable we stand with have the most powerful moral claim on the Congress and the nation’s conscience.
We need to return to a central idea. It is not new, but more urgent than ever: the consistent life ethic. As articulated by Cardinal Bernardin, as advocated by our Bishops’ Conference and as taught by the words and example of John Paul II, the consistent life ethic does not make all issues equal. Clearly the unborn child destroyed by abortion has different moral claims than the convicted murder on death row. The lives of millions of children directly taken by abortion is a different moral issue than the millions dying of HIV-AIDS or Hunger in Africa. In the Capital city, more young women destroy their children than give birth to them. Here in Washington a child born across the river in Anacostia is five times more likely to die before their fifth birthday than those born in Georgetown. That’s not right. We believe all these children are precious, all their lives deserve protection. The fundamental problem is not the laws that permit abortion on demand or the indifference or inadequate action that permits so much death and disease in Africa. It is a fundamental lack of respect for human life. It is treating people as things which are dispensable if they inconvenience us, or cost us, or require sacrifices from us. We will not really prevail on any of these matters until we engage and persuade our fellow citizens that life – all life – is truly precious and the moral measure of our lives is whether we work to protect the lives and dignity of all God’s children.
Some friends on left and right don’t like this message – too bad. It’s what our Church teaches. It’s who we are and what we stand for. We may feel politically homeless, but we cannot lose hope. Sometimes this meeting feels like a support group for the politically incorrect. We know we must change the culture, change society before we can really change politics. This is not the work of one campaign or election, but the work of a lifetime. This is not the work of one or two of us or 700 of us. This is the work of a whole community of faith. I often quote Jim Wallis – when our politicians and many of us have our finger to the wind, we need to “change the wind.”
Let me conclude. Some of you might have noticed that I don’t tell many stories about my kids any more and that’s because they are not very funny any more. However, I recently visited my daughter Kelly at the University of St. Thomas. I said let’s go to dinner. She said she couldn’t do dinner, “I need a business meeting.” She wanted to move off campus. She said she needed a car and it should be red. And she wanted to participate in a semester abroad in Rome. I said that you seem to have worked all this out, what am I supposed to do? She said “pay for it.” I resisted, but she won out. She is going to Rome. She did move off campus, but the red car she now has is older than she is.
I told Kelly, “I’m very proud of your choice of Catholic Studies, but how are you going to turn that into a career and how are you going to support your mother and me in our old age?” She said I can do what you do – you make a decent living. But more important, she said, you have a great job. You get to make a difference every day. You get to work on what you believe. And it reminded me of something my brother said at a family reunion. I was whining about how tough my work was, with the scandals, the unresponsive Congress, and lots of other pressures. I expected some sympathy and consolation. Instead I got a direct challenge. “Stop whining, seize your opportunities and do the best job you can – because it’s really important.” There’s not a lot of whining here, but it’s still good advice. In these tough times, we need to seize our opportunities and do the best job we can because it’s really important.