by Nancy Small
Pax Christi USA Ambassador of Peace
An unusual sight caught my eye one morning on a walk through the neighborhood. As I glanced at a dilapidated garage door I’ve passed dozens of times, the word “poor,” painted in prominent letters, jumped out at me.
I don’t know who painted the word there or why. Was it the work of someone who decided to label the garage owners poor? Or was it a cry of the poor longing to be heard?
This year marks the thirty-fifth anniversary of the U.S. Catholic Bishops’ landmark pastoral letter, Economic Justice for All. In it, the bishops laid out a bold vision of an economy that embraces the needs of the most vulnerable. “Decisions must be judged in light of what they do for the poor, what they do to the poor and what they enable the poor to do for themselves,” they wrote. “That so many people are poor in a nation as rich as ours is a social and moral scandal that we cannot ignore,” wrote the bishops decades ago.
If our nation had heeded these words, our economy today might look vastly different. Yet according to a Washington Post report, income inequality reached a record high in 2018. Between March and May of 2020, the net worth of the nation’s more than 600 billionaires increased by $434 billion, according to Forbes. There were over 33 million people living in poverty nationwide when the bishops wrote their economic pastoral. Before the pandemic, there were 38.1 million people living in poverty nationwide, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The Urban Institute projects a U.S. poverty rate of 13.7 percent for 2021. Projections for Black and Latinx people living in poverty are about twice as high as for white people.
Alongside these sobering statistics stand the prophetic words of Economic Justice for All. “The fulfillment of the basic needs of the poor is of the highest priority,” urged the bishops. “Personal decisions, policies of private and public bodies, and power relationships must all be evaluated by their effects on those who lack the minimum necessities of nutrition, housing, education, and health care. In particular, this principle recognizes that meeting fundamental human needs must come before the fulfillment of desires for luxury consumer goods, for profits not conducive to the common good, and for unnecessary military hardware.”
The bishops recognized decades ago that a preferential option for the poor requires substantive transformation at the personal, public and political levels. Profits and power in the hands of the wealthy cannot go unaddressed when the mouths of the poor cry out for bread. Military spending when the bishops published their pastoral letter was $553 billion, and it has risen steadily over the years while programs funding social needs have been cut. The 2019 military budget totaled $730 billion and represented 64.5% of federal discretionary spending.
Exorbitant military spending must be redistributed to fund programs to alleviate poverty. Refusing to bring about the economic transformation the bishops envisioned in the world’s second richest nation is unjust and immoral.
Pope Francis has said that the Church’s preferential option for the poor is “at the center of the gospel” and it has taken a prominent place in his papacy. “Each individual Christian and every community is called to be an instrument of God for the liberation and promotion of the poor, and for enabling them to be fully a part of society,” he wrote in Evangelii Gaudium (187). In his apostolic letter Misericordia et Misera, Pope Francis established an annual World Day of the Poor with the hope that Catholics might “grow in the conviction that sharing with the poor enables us to understand the deepest truth of the Gospel.” (National Catholic Reporter 6-13-17)
In his message for the most recent World Day of the Poor (November 14, 2021), Pope Francis challenges thinking that blames the poor for their circumstances. “There seems to be a growing notion that the poor are not only responsible for their condition,” he writes,” but that they represent an intolerable burden for an economic system focused on the interests of a few privileged groups. A market that ignores ethical principles, or picks and chooses from among them, creates inhumane conditions for people already in precarious situations. We are now seeing the creation of new traps of poverty and exclusion, set by unscrupulous economic and financial actors lacking in a humanitarian sense and in social responsibility.”
The revolutionary words of Economic Justice for All offer timely wisdom today, especially in the inhumane economic climate Pope Francis describes. “No one may claim the name Christian and be comfortable in the face of hunger, homelessness, insecurity and injustice found in this country and the world,” they wrote. “We are called to shape a constituency of conscience, measuring every policy by how it touches the least, the lost and the left-out among us.”
Our global and national economies fail miserably when measured by these standards. And the pandemic has made the global plight of the poor more precarious. The framework for action laid out by the bishops in their economic pastoral addresses vital moral and practical dimensions of just economic reform that remain relevant thirty-five years later. The question each of us must ask as Catholics is not if we will respond to the cry of the poor but how. How will we respond on a personal, public and political level? How will we, as a nation, work to bring about the structural and systemic change needed to create economic justice not for some but for all?
“As individuals and as a nation, we are called to make a fundamental ‘option for the poor’” wrote the bishops. “The obligation to evaluate social and economic activity from the viewpoint of the poor and the powerless arises from the radical command to love one’s neighbor as one’s self.”
May we heed this call, and may God who hears the cry of the poor guide our response.