Week after next, the plenary meeting of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops will be held in Baltimore. The conference has some clear choices: Will they follow the direction charted for them by Pope Francis when he spoke to them during his visit last year, or will the conference continue in cultural warrior mode, picking fights they do not need and damaging the causes the profess to care about.
Some more progressive Catholics have all but given up on the conference, but that is a mistake. I have not been shy about my criticisms of the conference, but the USCCB continues to do great good in many areas that do not make it onto the front pages of the newspapers. One such area has been the economic meltdown in Puerto Rico, about which I have written often this year. Puerto Rico has been having a sovereign debt crisis, complicated by the fact that Puerto Rico's sovereignty is a matter of dispute. It is not a country, so it can’t go to the IMF. It is not a city like Detroit, so it can't file for bankruptcy. It is most like a state, except that it has no representation in Congress and no electoral votes for the presidency, so it lacks the political clout to have gotten help in good time to prevent the crisis.
There is plenty of blame to go around. The island's economy benefited from special tax breaks for pharmaceutical companies, but since these expired in 2006, there has been no new adjustments to spur manufacturing on the island. The Jones Act, which requires commerce with the island to be conducted by American ships with American crews, increases the cost of doing business on the island relative to other Caribbean islands. It is a bulwark in the fight against unregulated markets, so I am reluctant to see it expire, but if it is retained, it needs to be balanced by other governmental actions to level the playing field. In the late stages of the crisis, the government turned to junk bonds to finance itself. Hence, the sovereign debt crisis in which, like all such crises, hedge funds desire full repayment even if it means austerity measures that will further decimate the island's economy.
The USCCB was essential to the passage of the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability Act, or PROMESA, legislation that set up a fiscal control board to help restructure the island government's debt. And, most especially, they fought for and won an amendment that charges the control board, by statute, with ameliorating childhood poverty on the island, which is near sixty percent. "The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and the leadership of Archbisop Wenski were amazing," says Eric LeCompte, executive director of JubileeUSA, which also pulled out all the stops to pass the legislation. "It was their efforts that allowed members of Congress to understand that more than a financial crisis, we were dealing with a humanitarian crisis. When members of Congress were unsure of how to move forward, Catholic bishops and partners like Catholic Charities played pivotal roles. It's interesting to note that many of the decision makers that facilitated a solution are Catholic."
After the legislation passed, I spoke with Mark Rohlena, director of domestic social development at the conference. "Archbishop Wenski pays a lot of attention to different parts of the world, many of which are connected to people in his archdiocese of Miami," Rohlena explained. "He had spoken with [San Juan, Puerto Rico] Archbishop [Roberto] Gonzalez and he had some first-hand experience from his own dioceses." Before going to Miami, Wenski was the bishop of Orlando, which has a large Puerto Rican population. Wenski wrote a total of four letters to Congress as they debated the situation in Puerto Rico. Here is an example.
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"This was an extension of the work we try to do every day and it dovetailed with our general mission to care for the poor, especially the child poverty amendment." He pointed me to a much earlier letter from 2008 by Wenski, when he chaired the International Committee at the USCCB, on the general subject of debt restructuring and the principles of Catholic social doctrine that apply as well as the USCCB's statement on the subject.
The passage of the legislation was "a pretty bipartisan moment," Rohlena said. "I think members of both parties understood the dire circumstances, the impact on the people, understanding the stories of the people. The collaboration of religious leaders helped leaders of both parties grasp the need to act." I remember listening to the debate astounded as conservative Republican members of Congress took to the floor and delivered speeches worthy of a Bernie Sanders rally! "The investment of the USCCB in Puerto Rico is a powerful testament to the values of our church," says LeCompte. "The focus on Puerto Rico is also a culmination of the U.S. Catholic church being outspoken for 20 years about protecting the vulnerable from the impacts of financial crisis. We have bipartisan victories on debt deals because of the U.S. Catholic church."
PROMESA began a process that will take a long time. Puerto Rico did not get into this mess overnight and it won't get out of it overnight either. By the end of the year, a bipartisan committee on Congress is due to deliver recommendations on stimulating economic growth on the island, which is the core issue. Debt can be restructured, but unless there is more economic activity in Puerto Rico, they will be rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. In February, the government of the island and the fiscal control board needs to propose a plan to restructure the debt. Next week, Puerto Rico will elect a new governor, one of whom is promising to come to the aid of the hedge funds and adopt austerity measures that will only make the situation worse.
The crisis in Puerto Rico has not been mentioned during the presidential debates. It almost never makes the newspapers. Much of the island lost power a few weeks back when its antiquated electric grid blacked out. But, the USCCB and JubileeUSA have been working mostly behind the scenes for a humane solution and that work will continue. Next week, in fact, the USCCB, JubileeUSA and the Institute for Policy Research & Catholic Studies at Catholic University, at which I am a visiting fellow, will be cosponsoring a talk and panel on the subject of Pope Francis and the economy, with a special focus on recurring financial crises. Archbishop Silvano Tomasi of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace will give the keynote, and Puerto Rico's Archbishop Gonzalez will be on the panel. More information and registration for this free event can be found here.
So, before anyone gives up on the USCCB, think twice. They still do important work on many issues that matter a lot to the people who need the most help, issues that do not garner much attention from the rich and important of the world. They still try to bring the leaven of Catholic social doctrine to bear on our polarized political climate, and Lord knows, we need that leaven now more than ever.
Related, US Bishops Meeting in Baltimore:
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A Francis agenda for the US bishops By Fr. Tom Reese SJ
Trump's election: What it means for the USCCB and the Church By Michael Sean Winters
Previewing the USCCB meeting: Will there be a new direction? By Michael Sean Winters