Social Ministry Day Two: Housing, the Holy Land, and HIV among legislative priorities

By JOHN L. ALLEN JR.
Washington, D.C.

Tomorrow some 700 Catholic social ministers will be heading to Capitol Hill to knock on the doors of House and Senate members, and this afternoon staffers of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops armed the "lobbyists for a day" with talking points on four key legislative priorities.

Those priorities are:
•tFunding for programs serving poor and vulnerable people, including the Pregnant Women Support Act;
•tAffordable housing;
•tHIV/AIDS, especially the reauthorization of the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR);
•tEfforts to resolve the Israeli/Palestinian conflict.

Funding for the Poor

Bishops’ staffers said that President George Bush’s proposed 2009 budget contains cuts in several programs that serve the poor, including child care assistance, several community development grant programs, the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program, nutrition programs such as WIC (Women, Infants and Children), Section 8 housing vouchers, housing for the elderly and people with disabilities, and programs serving homeless families.

According to conference figures, over 36 million Americans, representing 12 percent of the population, lives in poverty.

A particular focus for tomorrow’s lobbying efforts is the Pregnant Women Support Act, which backers see as a vehicle for bringing pro-life forces and groups concerned with women’s issues together. The bill would boost existing programs that serve women with children, such as child care assistance and WIC, and would also create new provisions, such as preventing insurance companies from considering pregnancy a “pre-existing condition” to deny health care coverage.

A briefing paper prepared by the conference states that three out of four women who have an abortion say that a belief they cannot afford a child was one of the key reasons. Overall, there are roughly one million abortions in the United States each year.

The idea behind the Pregnant Women Support Act is that by avoiding “red-line” issues for both pro-life and pro-choice forces, the bill can draw bipartisan support in an effort to make abortion rare. The main sponsor of the bill in the Senate is Robert Casey, a pro-life Democrat from Pennsylvania. A conference staffer reported that to date, no pro-choice group has yet endorsed the measure.

Affordable Housing

Driven especially by the sub-prime lending crisis, conference materials suggest, America is experiencing a shortage of affordable housing for low-income people. In response, the U.S. bishops have proposed a National Housing Trust Fund, the aim of which would be to provide 1.5 million additional units for the lowest income families over the next 10 years.

The House of Representatives has already passed a bill to create such a fund, and a similar bill has been introduced in the Senate.
t
tParticipants in the Social Ministry Gathering will also be encouraging legislators to pass effective legislation to curb predatory lending practices, especially in the case of already vulnerable low-income borrowers.

HIV/AIDS

While the White House has proposed $30 billion in funding for PEPFAR next year, the USCCB, in tandem with a bill currently pending in the House, support an allocation of $50 billion. That amount would not only increase support for anti-HIV campaigns, but also provide resources to resist the spread of tuberculosis and malaria – both diseases that disproportionately strike developing nations.

As one staffer put it this afternoon, “We’re concerned about fiscal responsibility, but not on the backs of people dying from HIV/AIDS.”

At the same time, however, participants in the Social Ministry Gathering were urged to express strong reservations about two other elements in the legislation to reauthorize PEPFAR: a provision to integrate “family planning” services with HIV/AIDS relief, which could include abortion; and the elimination of funding for abstinence and behavior change programs, the first two components of the so-called “ABC” approach (referring to abstinence, behavior change, and condoms).

If those two provisions were to become law, bishops’ staffers warned, Catholic charities and health-care providers could be effectively excluded from anti-AIDS funding. Given that an estimated 25 percent of AIDS patients worldwide are under the care of Catholic facilities, including a strong share of the world’s poorest and most isolated regions, staffers warned that the practical result of these provisions could be to exclude hundreds of thousands of the most vulnerable from access to services.

Peace between Israel and Palestine

Participants were encouraged to urge legislators support peace between Israelis and Palestinians, focusing on the White House’s effort to promote “concrete, reciprocal steps” on both sides leading toward a two-state solution.

Stephen Colecchi, director of the U.S. bishops’ office for International Justice and Peace, acknowledged that focusing on the Israeli/Palestinian conflict might seem an odd choice for Catholic social ministers this year, given the on-going war in Iraq.

The explanation, he said, is simple: “Congress is totally stalemated on Iraq,” Colecchi said. “They exhausted themselves last year trying to pass resolutions to bring an end to the war, and there seems little appetite to revisit it. The consensus seems to be that the issue will play out in the national elections.”

Meanwhile, Colecchi said, the White House is actively engaged in trying to broker a peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians this year, most recently convening a major peace conference in Annapolis.

Colecchi said he accompanied Cardinal Francis George of Chicago to the Holy Land in January, part of annual visit made by the president of the U.S. bishops’ conference to show support for local church leaders. Colecchi said that the cumulative impact of continuing rocket attacks from Gaza and the threat of suicide bombers have left Israelis on edge, while Palestinians are smoldering over confiscation of land by Israelis to build a security barrier, the expansion of settlements on the West Bank, and deepening poverty.

Nonetheless, he said, meetings with Israel’s Interior Minister and with the Prime Minister of the Palestinian authority suggested a degree of hope related to the American initiative.

Colecchi noted that all three parties – the Americans, the Israelis and the Palestinians – currently have weak leadership. In the case of the Americans, that’s due to the realities of a “lame duck” presidency.

“Wouldn’t it be the way of God,” Colecchi said, “in a moment of weakness for all three parties, to bring forth something good?”

Sponsored by 18 different Catholic organizations, including the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, the Social Ministry Gathering brings together around 700 diocesan and parish-level leaders involved in charitable service and social advocacy. The session runs Feb. 24-27 in Washington, D.C.


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