It was in a fitting place, a Catholic high school gymnasium, and among the appropriate people, grassroots organizers from around the globe attending the World Meeting of Popular Movements, that leaders of the Catholic Church in the United States recently found a newly determined voice — and the message — to help guide us through the current period of social turmoil and threats to human dignity.
In one particularly charged 20-minute segment on day three of the four-day gathering, Bishop Robert McElroy of San Diego seemed to grab hold of the lightning of the moment and used it to illuminate the best of what the church has to offer these increasingly dark times.
The meeting of popular movements brought to Central Catholic High School in California’s Central Valley community leaders from 12 countries. It was not a venue where one might normally find U.S. bishops. But nearly two-dozen showed up to join in discussing the assembly’s theme: “land, labor and lodging,” and the concomitant matters of racism and immigration.
To those questioning whether bishops should get caught up in such “political” matters, it can be noted that the Vatican’s new Dicastery for Integral Human Development was among the principal organizers of the event at the request of Pope Francis. Other promoters included PICO, a Jesuit-founded community-organizing group, the Catholic Campaign for Human Development, and the California dioceses of Stockton, Fresno and Sacramento, which hosted the meeting.
Cardinal Peter Turkson, head of the dicastery, read a letter from the pope setting out a compelling rationale for the gathering, which was the first such regional meeting held in the United States. “The grave danger,” said Francis, “is to disown our neighbors. When we do so, we deny their humanity and our own humanity without realizing it; we deny ourselves, and we deny the most important Commandments of Jesus.”
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The pope raised, as he has repeatedly, the corrosive effects of “a system that causes enormous suffering to the human family, simultaneously assaulting people’s dignity and our Common Home in order to sustain the invisible tyranny of money that only guarantees the privileges of a few.” He said humanity at the moment “is experiencing a turning point in its history.”
He ended by sharing two reflections. The first is that “the ecological crisis is real.” The second is that “no people is criminal and no religion is terrorist … There are fundamentalist and violent individuals in all peoples and religions— and with intolerant generalizations they become stronger because they feed on hate and xenophobia. By confronting terror with love, we work for peace.”
The pope made it clear he was “not speaking of anyone in particular,” but of “a social and political process that flourishes in many parts of the world and poses a grave danger for humanity.” It was not lost on those attending, however, that the church’s consistent social teaching and Francis’s message were especially poignant given the events of the first month of the Trump era. The failed presidential order regarding a travel ban, the aggressive executive orders that ramp up efforts to deport immigrants, the rollback of numerous environmental measures and of consumer safeguards all elevated the four days of talks and small group discussions well beyond an intellectual exercise.
“We had no idea when we were planning this meeting how important it would be,” said Bishop Stephen Blaire of Stockton. Organizers noted that 25 people who had planned to attend did not show up because of uncertainty over the executive orders on immigration and refugees.
The deportation practices of past administrations were condemned the second day of the conference by Los Angeles Archbishop Jose Gomez, whose archdiocese has nearly a million undocumented immigrants. Of Trump, Gomez said, “I do not like the harsh tone, the sense of indifference and cruelty that seems to be coming out of this new administration in Washington. They are playing with our emotions, with people’s emotions, toying with their lives and futures, and that’s not right.” He later added, “A person is still a person even though he is without papers.”
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The “person” can get lost in the rough rhetoric over immigration policy. But in this simple setting they remained front and center, both in their presence and in the stories of human suffering and fear, as well as hope, that these front-line workers brought to the table.
Against that backdrop, McElroy laid down a new marker, especially for Catholics in the crowd. From the Catholic Action movements in Europe to Pope John XXXIII’s Mater et Magistra to the “piercing missionary message of the Latin American Church at Aparacida,” said McElroy, “the words ‘see,’ ‘judge’ and ‘act’ have provided a powerful pathway for those who seek to renew the temporal order in the light of the Gospel and justice.”
Seeing the situation clearly, he said, “shapes everything you do to transform the world. The transformation required is a heavy lift. “The fundamental political question of our age,” he said, “is whether our economic structures and systems in the United States will enjoy ever greater autonomy or whether they will be located effectively within a juridical structure which seeks to safeguard the dignity of the human person and the common good of our nation.
Confronting a presidency that has welcomed being described as “disruptive,” McElroy said “we must all become disruptors” but also rebuilders. “We must disrupt those who would seek to send troops into our streets to deport the undocumented, to rip mothers and fathers from their families. We must disrupt those who portray refugees as enemies rather than our brothers and sisters in terrible need. We must disrupt those who train us to see Muslim men, women and children as forces of fear rather than as children of God. We must disrupt those who seek to rob our medical care, especially from the poor. We must disrupt those who would take even food stamps and nutrition assistance from the mouths of children.”
But people of faith are also required “to rebuild this nation so that we place at its heart the service to the dignity of the human person and assert what the American flag behind us asserts is our heritage: Every man, woman and child is equal in this nation and called to be equal.”
McElroy’s Modesto speech is certainly the most comprehensive articulation in the current circumstance of a Catholic vision for this unsettling and even dangerous moment in our national politics. But he follows on strong statements by such figures as Gomez, Chicago Cardinal Blase Cupich, Newark Cardinal Joe Tobin (who also sent a message to the gathering) and others who have seen clearly and judged wisely what we face and have been moved to speak out. A great hunger exists in the U.S. church for leadership that fashions an approach of “hope which is realistic,” as McElroy phrased it, out of the heart of the Gospel.
The bishops in the crowd that met in the California high school showed what the “accompaniment” so often advocated by Francis actually looks like. McElroy said that in the United States “we stand at a pivotal moment.” Our obligation now, seeing clearly and judging wisely, is to find out how we join the work of transformation.