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Issue Date:  March 7, 2008

No neat fit for social ministry message


Perhaps the most memorable image in recent Catholic life to express the church’s social teaching is that of a “seamless garment,” invoked by the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago to capture what he called a “consistent ethic of life,” including antiabortion efforts as well as support for the poor and opposition to the death penalty and war.

The iconoclastic message heard at a late February conference of Catholic social ministers in Washington, however, is that in reality the “seamless garment” is neither.

John Carr, who heads the Office of Justice, Peace and Human Development for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, told roughly 700 diocesan and parish-level social ministers that the church’s social message is not “seamless,” in the sense that not every concern has equal weight. Some are more important than others, he said, beginning with the right to life.

Catholic social teaching is also not a “garment,” Carr said, in the sense that it doesn’t “fit” with either of the current political alignments in the United States.

“We don’t fit with the right or the left, with Democrats or Republicans,” Carr said. “I sometimes think of us as a self-help group for the politically incorrect, for people who insist on standing both with the unborn and the undocumented.”

The Catholic Social Ministry Gathering, held Feb. 24-27, is the most important annual gathering of Catholic political and social activists working on the church’s “peace and justice” message.

While the social ministers spent time on Capitol Hill, the focus was not exclusively on national politics. There was also a buzz around old-fashioned labor organizing, especially the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, a movement of Latino, Haitian and Mayan Indian farm workers in Florida that forced Taco Bell, McDonald’s and other fast-food companies to require produce suppliers to improve wages and working conditions. As a consequence, the workers will get a penny more a pound for tomatoes they pick.

Speaking in Spanish, one of the Immokalee workers, Gerardo Reyes-Chavez, told the assembly that the typical Immokalee agricultural laborer earned around $7,500 a year, and prior to this campaign had not seen a wage increase since 1978. Even with the wage increase, simply to make minimum wage on an average day, he said, the typical farm worker in his part of Florida would have to pick two and a half tons of tomatoes.

At the level of national policy, the social ministers appeared to chalk up an early success on the reauthorization of the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, or PEPFAR.

George W. Bush had proposed spending $30 million in 2009 to combat HIV/AIDS worldwide, with the bulk of the funding going to Africa. Many Democrats and progressive social groups hoped to boost that outlay to $50 million, including funds to curb tuberculosis and malaria. The social ministers supported that position, yet they opposed proposals from Democrats to incorporate “family planning” measures into PEPFAR, which some feared could mean abortion as well as eliminating support for abstinence and behavior change campaigns.

On Tuesday night Feb. 26, after the social ministers spent the day on Capitol Hill, a bipartisan compromise was reached boosting spending on PEPFAR to $50 billion, including abstinence and behavior change programs, and barring family planning groups from spending the money on reproductive health services.

The three other top legislative priorities that the social ministers carried to Capitol Hill were:

  • Funding for the poor in the 2009 federal budget, including opposition to proposed cuts in child care, nutrition programs such as WIC (Women, Infants and Children), housing for the elderly and people with disabilities, and programs serving homeless families;
  • Affordable housing and prevention of predatory lending practices;
  • Peace in the Middle East, especially the Israeli/Palestinian conflict.

Participants also discussed a bewildering variety of other policy concerns, from the impact on the rural poor of anti-narcotic fumigation campaigns in Latin America, to a proposed “Pregnant Women Support Act,” which would boost child care assistance and nutritional support programs, as well as preventing insurance companies from considering pregnancy a “pre-existing condition” to deny coverage.

Sen. Robert Casey, a pro-life Democrat from Pennsylvania, is the main sponsor of the bill. He told the social ministers Feb. 26 that the Pregnant Women Support Act offers a way to get beyond the current ideological stalemate.

“For a lot of women in America, pregnancy is a time of boundless joy,” Casey said. “But for others, it’s a time of crisis and trauma, especially if they’re poor. No pregnant woman should feel alone in this country,” Casey said, quoting John Paul II about “radical solidarity” with women struggling with a pregnancy.

Sara Feldman of the bishops’ Office of Migration and Refugee Services discussed the impact of post-9/11 security measures on refugees and asylum seekers.

Feldman offered the example of “Amina,” a Somali woman whose husband was killed and son kidnapped by a militant group considered a terrorist organization by the United States. To rescue her son, Amina was forced to pay a $2,000 ransom. Members of the group later invaded her home, stole her valuables and raped her. Amina fled to the United States, but, according to Feldman, was denied entry on the basis that the ransom constituted “material support” to a terrorist group.

Feldman argued that more accommodating standards for refugees and asylum seekers would not only be an expression of compassion, but it would enhance American security, in part by improving U.S. credibility abroad.

Not everything at Washington’s Hyatt Regency, however, was an exercise in policy-wonkism. There were also flashes of humor, such as a Feb. 27 presentation by veteran TV journalist Mark Shields handicapping the ’08 elections.

A sample of Shields’ wit: “Republicans are the party that says government doesn’t work, and then they get elected and prove it.” Another example: “The most succinct concession speech I ever heard came from a congressional candidate who said, ‘The people have spoken … the bastards!’ ”

In general, Shields said, the 2008 elections should be the Democrats’ to win -- especially, he said, because Barack Obama is a “10,000-watt bulb,” the likes of which he said he hasn’t seen since Robert F. Kennedy in 1968. Yet Shields warned that voting for president is a highly personal choice that could still hold surprises.

John L. Allen Jr. is NCR senior correspondent. His e-mail address is

National Catholic Reporter, March 7, 2008

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