A church for the poor, not a 'pure' church

Don't hold your breath waiting for politicians to talk about this but the United States lags behind the rest of the developed world when it comes to tackling what Pope Francis decries as an “economy of exclusion and inequality.”

Thirty-two percent of U.S. children live in poverty compared to only 5 percent of Norwegian kids. Despite having the world's largest economy, the U.S. has the second highest child poverty rate among 35 industrialized countries. As a recent report from the Children's Defense Fund puts it, this is a "moral disgrace." If income inequality at levels not seen since the Great Depression and scandalous child poverty figures are not enough to puncture inflated notions of American exceptionalism, I’m not sure what will. At a time when Washington seems incapable of governing for the common good -- the silly season of presidential politics is painfully already starting -- the Catholic church is one of the few institutions with a footprint big enough to make a serious impact.

The church already walks the walk. The U.S. bishops’ Catholic Campaign for Human Development (CCHD) – which funds community organizing that addresses the root causes of poverty -- and Catholic Charities USA are heavyweights in the fight against poverty. On the global stage, Catholic Relief Services helps 100 million people in 93 countries. These vital institutional expressions of the Gospel mandate to serve and empower the marginalized are exactly what Pope Francis has in mind when he calls for “a poor church for the poor."

Nevertheless, many of the church's leading justice organizations face relentless attacks from a network of fringe, but well-organized and often well-funded Catholic watchdog groups. In some cases, this pressure has pushed church leaders to cut ties with social justice coalitions for fear of being “tainted” by any association with groups or individuals that don’t align with Catholic teaching on every issue.

Last summer, the Voz Workers’ Rights Education Project, a small Portland-based group with a shoe-string budget that helps immigrant day laborers, lost out on a $75,000 grant from the church’s anti-poverty campaign because it would not disaffiliate with the nation’s premier Hispanic civil rights organization, the National Council of La Raza. La Raza, which primarily focuses on immigration reform and helping Hispanics gain economic security, also happens to support civil same-sex marriage. As one might expect, the Portland day laborer group does not advocate for same-sex marriage or focus on LGBT issues. It’s an immigrant rights’ organization. This “guilt-by-association” mentality hurts the church’s credibility, undermines effective partnerships on behalf of the marginalized and also runs counter to clear signals from Rome.

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Pope Francis recently warned new cardinals at St. Peter’s Basilica against making the church a “closed caste.” In essence, he wants a church for the poor, not a “pure” church.

“Jesus responds immediately to the leper’s plea, without waiting to study the situation and all its possible consequences,” Francis said in his homily. “For Jesus, what matters above all is reaching out to save those far off, healing the wounds of the sick, restoring everyone to God’s family! And this is scandalous to some people!” Jesus, said the pope, “does not think of the closed-minded who are scandalized even by a work of healing, scandalized before any kind of openness, by any action outside of their mental and spiritual boxes, by any caress or sign of tenderness which does not fit into their usual thinking and their ritual purity.”

This builds on a consistent theme of the Francis papacy. While some prefer the church to hunker down and avoid taking any risks, Pope Francis wants what he describes in Evangelii Gaudium as “a Church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a Church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security.”

A U.S. Catholic bishop is echoing that message, and standing up for an interfaith coalition in Las Cruces, N.M. that is working to raise the city’s minimum wage. When the Catholic Coalition of New Mexico took out an advertisement accusing the treasurer of the CCHD-funded interfaith coalition of “organizing pro-abortion rallies,” Bishop Oscar Cantú responded with a strongly worded op-ed in the Las Cruces Sun-News.

“As your bishop, I do not take lightly to the efforts of anyone driving a wedge between my flock and me,” he wrote. “… I will not be bullied into compromising the legitimate work of social justice of the church or allowing someone to lead the flock astray.”

At 48, Cantú is the second youngest bishop in the country. He is the son of Mexican immigrants. “The Incarnation is messy,” Cantú told me in a recent interview. “There was nothing clean about that stable in Bethlehem 2,000 years ago. Sometimes we sterilize the stable, and we lose the mystery of the Incarnation. We can’t be afraid to get our hands dirty.” In response to self-appointed watchdog groups that claim it causes “scandal” for the church to have any association with organizations that are not in total agreement with Catholic moral teaching on every issue, Cantú worries about who is being left behind.

“What about the scandal of not caring for the poor?” he asked. “This is the silent scandal. It becomes a moral theology question. There are some people who think if the church is in any way associated with an intrinsic evil we are guilty by association. We have to be careful about how we understand cooperation with evil and intrinsic evil. Material cooperation is often remote and indirect. Intrinsic doesn’t point to gravity. I would like to see more theologians take this issue up.”

For Cantú, aside from the need for broader theological insights, the church already has a clear road map for responding to urgent needs in a messy world. “When we read the Gospel, Jesus goes out to those on the margins,” he said. "We can never let a fear of being contaminated to allow us to be bullied.”

[John Gehring is Catholic Program Director at Faith in Public Life, an advocacy group in Washington. He is writing a book about how the Francis papacy will affect the church in the U.S. along with values debates in American politics. It will be published in the fall by Rowman & Littlefield.]


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