Two events took place in Washington this week. The first is the release of President Obama’s FY12 budget, which includes significant cuts in funding to critical services for the poor. The budget is already generating fervent discussion across the nation. Catholic Charities is one of those voices. The other event, a meeting of more than 300 U.S. Catholic social justice leaders, has received far less notice. The two events appear to be very different. But they are inextricably intertwined.
Those attending the Catholic Social Ministry Gathering represent all those in the Church who work tirelessly to ensure that “the least among us” are treated with dignity and justice.
Appropriately, the gathering marks the 120th anniversary of the first papal social encyclical, Leo XIII’s 1891 letter Rerum Novarum. Pope Leo felt that due to massive changes in social structures, brought about by a wrenching shift from an agricultural to industrial economy, a new class of working poor was emerging and that these working poor were living in miserable conditions. He also noted that the new economic structure was creating a wide gap between the rich and poor and warned that the “public authority” now had a special duty to protect the rights of every individual, particularly the poor:
“… When there is question of defending the rights of individuals, the poor and badly off have a claim to especial consideration. The richer class have many ways of shielding themselves, and stand less in need of help from the State; whereas the mass of the poor have no resources of their own to fall back upon, and must chiefly depend upon the assistance of the State. And it is for this reason that wage-earners, since they mostly belong in the mass of the needy, should be specially cared for and protected by the government."
Reporting from the social ministry meeting National Catholic Reporter noted that in his keynote address Cardinal Peter Kodwo Appiah Turkson, who heads the Vatican’s Council for Justice and Peace, argued that Rerum Novarum is still applicable to social ministry today. He said:
"We are involved in the legacy when, in our creativity and innovativeness, we also provide new trajectories and challenging forms of social ministry to the institutional church – which are the considerations emerging from our undertakings and endeavors to better the conditions of people when we are engaged in the struggles for a faith that does justice."
We recognize that President Obama and the members of the United States Congress face tough budgeting decisions during these difficult economic times. Every one of their choices will be met with anger, frustration, and disappointment from the segments of the population they affect.
But as Catholics we reject the notion that those most vulnerable among us should feel the greatest impact of future reductions. As Catholics we are commanded to keep the welfare of every person at the center of every decision we make.
Pope Leo saw the upheaval of the late 19th century not just as a problem to be dealt with, but also as an opportunity for renewal. A century later, facing similar upheavals, Cardinal Turkson urges us to find new trajectories of thinking about the problems we face. We need to think and act anew, find those new trajectories, use the enormous power of our human creativity – which brought us Google and Twitter and Facebook – to imagine new possibilities for our real human network.
We cannot lose sight of our true purpose as a society. As Pope Benedict XVI said in Caritas in Veritate, “the primary capital to be safeguarded and valued is man, the human person in his or her integrity.” We urge our elected officials and all Americans to embrace this view. How we care for the least among us will determine not just how we live in 2012, but what kind of society we build for the future.