Faith leaders, citing Francis, push GOP debate to address inequality, climate change

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Presidential hopefuls participating in the first Republican debate Thursday and all contenders for the White House would do well to voice their visions on how to protect the poor and the planet, said more than 70 Catholic and Christian leaders.

“Candidates for the most powerful office in the world have a responsibility to clearly articulate plans for addressing two of the most urgent moral challenges of our time: economic inequality and climate change,” they said in a letter Tuesday arranged by Faith in Public Life.

Copies of the letter were sent to representatives for each presidential campaign in both political parties.  

The faith leaders noted that in his own encyclical letter on the environment, Pope Francis “reminds us that ‘the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor’ are one and demand a collective response. The same global economic system that puts profit before human dignity leads to the sin of environmental degradation.”

“Poverty, inequality and climate change are not abstractions. They are life and death issues,” their letter said.

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The group pointed out that in Cleveland, site of the first debate of the 2016 presidential election cycle, there exists high rates of child poverty and infant mortality.

According to the National Center for Children in Poverty, 54 percent of children in Cleveland grew up in poverty in 2013, second only to Detroit, which had a child poverty rate of nearly 59 percent. In addition, Cleveland ranked sixth in the nation in the fastest growing child poverty rate, increasing nearly 12 percent since 2007 and the beginning of the Great Recession.

Nearly 20 percent of all U.S. children live in poverty, as do 30 percent of children in the nation’s largest 71 cities.

In terms of air quality, the Northeast Ohio region ranked 10th for most annual particle pollution in the American Lung Association’s State of the Air 2015 report. ALA said that daily breathing of high levels of particle pollution -- a mix of solid and liquid bits in the air that can emerge from, among other sources, construction, mining operations and the burning of fossil fuels -- has been linked to lung cancer, shortened life spans by up to 3 years, and slowed lung function growth in children and teens.

“These intolerable conditions are the reality in many cities and communities across our country and globe. It’s a reality no nation should ever accept,” said the Christian leaders, adding Latino and African-American children in low-income neighborhoods are often disproportionately affected.

In the release Monday of the final rules of its Clean Power Plan -- which aims to combat climate change and improve human health -- the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimated that by 2030 its standards for reducing carbon emissions from power plants could prevent 90,000 annual asthma attacks and 3,600 premature deaths.

Among the Faith in Public Life letter’s signees were:

  • Adrian Dominican Sr. Donna Markham, president of Catholic Charities USA;
  • Archbishop Emeritus Joseph Fiorenza, former president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops;
  • retired U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See Miguel Diaz;
  • Immaculate Heart of Mary Sr. Sharon Holland, president of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious;
  • James Winkler, president and general secretary of the National Council of Churches;
  • John Gehring, Catholic program director for Faith in Public Life;
  • Dan Misleh, executive director of the Catholic Climate Covenant;
  • the leadership team of the Sisters of Mercy of the Americas;
  • Fr. Anthony Cutcher, president of the National Federation of Priests’ Councils;
  • Social Service Sr. Simone Campbell, executive director of NETWORK, a Catholic Social Justice Lobby;
  • Patrick Carolan, executive director of the Franciscan Action Network;
  • Christopher Hale, executive director of Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good;
  • Notre Dame de Namur Sr. Patricia Chappell, executive director of Pax Christi USA;
  • Michael Galligan-Stierle, president of Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities;
  • and 10 heads of Catholic colleges and universities.

The field of 10 participants for the first Republican debate has yet to be set from the 16 declared candidates. Of those 16, six are Catholic, including expected debate participants Jeb Bush, the former Florida governor; U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida; and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.

“We ask all presidential candidates -- in particular those who identity as people of faith -- to recognize and act upon our shared responsibility to be stewards of the earth and to build an economy of inclusion,” the faith leaders said.

Presidential elections, they suggested, should be less about scoring political points and sharpening partisan divides and more about values and priorities.

“The 2016 election is an opportunity for a national examination of conscience,” their letter said.

[Brian Roewe is an NCR staff writer. His email address is broewe@ncronline.org. Follow him on Twitter: @BrianRoewe.]

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