Laudato Si: On Care for Our Common Home

It’s here! A new social encyclical! As a Catholic moral theologian, I feel a bit like a child on Christmas morning. While I know that most of you were not setting your alarms for the 5am Vatican press conference, we have all been anxiously awaiting Pope Francis’ “environmental encyclical.” And, let me just say – you will not be disappointed. The Holy Father has delivered an amazing tour de force in a jam-packed 100+ (!) pages. Pope Francis invites us to work together, challenges us to take a long hard look in the mirror at our relationship to the earth, and reminds us the Lord hears the cries of the earth and the cries of the poor, and so much more.

To get you started – here are 5 things to note in Laudato Si: Read More

Must Reads for Your Social Justice Book Club

Are you interested in starting a social justice book club? Choosing books that will interest and encourage participation from a wide group of people can be difficult. One of the most challenging aspects of teaching is choosing texts that will engage my students—pique their interest, but also challenge them to think deeply. Narratives can activate our imagination and invite us into human complexity that otherwise escapes us. During the Synod, a number of the married couples who spoke criticized Church documents and theology for being incomprehensible to the average Christian; this does not have to be true. Moral theology can provoke us all to think more deeply about our relationship with God and neighbor, such that we discover the deep challenge and promise of discipleship. Blending these categories, here are some books to help you start a social justice book club in your parish, community, or campus ministry group:

Mercy in the City by Kerry Weber (Loyola Press, 2014)

Weber’s book should be mandatory reading for everyone involved in parish social ministry. She begins with a perennial Catholic discernment: what should I give up or do for Lent? She writes, “I wonder: what does it say about me that I’m giving up the same thing at age twenty-nine that I did when I was twelve? . . . And that’s not to say I haven’t tried to make Lent more meaningful, but somehow my sacrifice always sounds like a second attempt at a New Year’s resolution” (21). Rather than replacing “giving up” with the vague “more” that often accompanies our “do something” Lenten resolutions, she sets out to concretely practice the seven corporal works of mercy in New York City. Mercy requires us to let down our guard and enter into the reality of others. In her short narrative, Weber tells her own story with a self-reflective grace that gives voice to the ups and downs many of us feel in trying to figure out how to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty….and keep our day job. It is the perfect way to start a social justice book club.

Tattoos on the Heart: the Power of Boundless Compassion by Gregory Boyle, SJ (Free Press, 2010)

Founder of Homeboy Industries, Fr. Greg Boyle has spent the past twenty years living and working in the Boyle Heights neighborhood of Los Angeles. Tattoos on the Heart tells the story of Homeboy Industries and Fr. Boyle’s ministry to counter gang influence and culture in LA through a collection of moving, heart-breaking, and heart-warming stories that challenges how we usually think about God, love, mercy, justice, and redemption. Who is God? What is compassion? Boyle’s stories demand that we examine the way we set up and maintain divisions and challenge our traditional definitions of success and failure. This book made me laugh and cry, and reminded me that “Jesus just stood with the outcasts until they were welcomed or until he was crucified – whichever came first” (172).

Living Justice by Thomas Massaro, SJ (Rowan& Littlefield, 2008)

Often called our best kept secret, the Catholic social tradition provides the strong foundation for Catholic social justice work. Building on a two-thousand-year tradition of Christian reflection on poverty, peace, and justice in light of the Gospel, modern Catholic social teaching engages the complexity and specific social problems of the modern world. Unfortunately, it is a tradition that seems academic and inaccessible to many. In Living Justice, Fr. Thomas Massaro, SJ, a moral theologian and dean of the Jesuit School of Theology at Santa Clara, provides a rich and accessible overview of Church teaching on social justice. Complete with questions for discussion, this book provides the vocabulary, background, and principles for connecting one’s social justice experiences to Catholic beliefs and theology.

Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel) by Pope Francis

Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation probably made a bigger splash than any apostolic exhortation of the past. Reflecting on the internal life of the Church, Pope Francis reiterates, “I prefer a Church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out in the streets, rather than a Church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security” (49). Aimed at renewal within our parish ministries and personal discipleship, the Joy of the Gospel challenges and invites us into deeper reflection about what saying YES to the Gospel means and what it demands we say NO to – making it a perfect text for a Catholic social justice book club (even though technically, it is not a book).

In The Company of the Poor by Paul Farmer and Gustavo Gutierrez (Orbis, 2013)

This book is a conversation between two social justice giants: Fr. Gustavo Gutierrez, founder of liberation theology, and Dr. Paul Farmer, human rights activist and founder of Partners in Health. How do we say to the poor that God loves them, when everything in the world around them tells them they are worth nothing? How do we insist that healthcare is a human right when much of the world’s population is denied access to this right? Through these chapters, Farmer and Gutierrez offer deep theological and ethical reflection on structural violence, accompaniment, and solidarity. As we think about the ongoing Ebola epidemic, few social justice texts are as immediately relevant as this one.

Just Water by Christiana Z. Peppard (Orbis, 2014)

We cannot live without fresh water. We know that millions living in poverty do not have access to clean drinking water. Dr. Peppard explains the importance of this, writing, “Fresh water is interwoven with the most pressing realities that populations and regions will face in the twenty-first century, from agriculture to climate change to political stability, and more. . . . If fresh water scarcity isn’t the definitive ‘sign of the times,’ then what is?” (67). Dr. Peppard’s tour de force will inspire and challenge your understanding of living Catholic social justice. After reading this book, you will never look at a bottle of water or the living waters of baptism the same way again.

Ice Bucket Challenge: Why I Did It & You Should Too

The ALS Ice Bucket Challenge is all over Facebook and Twitter. Even Kermit the Frog and Mr. Met have done it. So far, it has raised more than $30 million dollars for ALS charities – the largest of which is the ALS-Association. As with anything trending on Twitter, the Ice Bucket Challenge is not without its haters. Perhaps the most frustrating came earlier this week on Vox, which questioned whether a donation to ALS is “cost-effective charity.” While people do have limited funds, it is disingenuous to set up a dichotomy in which it is assumed someone must choose between ALS and a global health charity (as if donations are all or nothing in one instant decisions). Second, the article offered good advice for investigating charity ratings, but seemed to not do its homework as the ALS-Association actually has a four star charity rating…but this is not a post about the haters. In this post, I want to share why I did the ice bucket challenge and why I hope you will too.

ALS and the Ice Bucket Challenge is not a trendy fad for me or my family; it is personal. In August 1999, my Aunt Judy was diagnosed with Bulbar-ALS. She had gone for a round of tests because she was slurring her speech and by the time the results were in, we knew there was only one possible diagnosis: Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease. Virtually everyone knows Lou Gehrig but very few actually know anything about the horrific disease that took his life. ALS is a motor neuron disease which progressively spreads throughout your body paralyzing you. Eventually, ALS paralyzes your diaphragm and you can no longer breathe. Most commonly, it starts in your hands or feet, patients can live 10-15 years with this form of the disease. Judy had bulbar-ALS which started in her mouth; she was given 18months-3.5 years to live. In October 2002, 3 years and 2 months after diagnosis, Judy died. She was 46 years old.

I am not exaggerating when I say that ALS is the diagnosis I fear most. I had a front row seat as ALS took away my aunt’s ability to speak, to walk, and to eat, and, ultimately, took her life. The horror of ALS isn’t that it takes away your independence; it’s that it takes away your ability to communicate, all while you are fully conscious of what is happening. From the moment of the diagnosis, you know exactly what is coming. Physically, emotionally, and financially this disease weighs heavily upon patients and their families. We were lucky. Judy was a school teacher with good health insurance, who, because of her terminal diagnosis, was able to cash in benefits. ALS is expensive. Over $100,000 was spent on her care in only 3 years (and that is not counting medical bills). $30,000 for a wheel chair. $500/month to lease a wheel-chair lift van. My mother is an accomplished medical professional, so we had someone to navigate the healthcare and insurance process. I don’t know how much the communication devices cost, but thanks to my mother’s advocacy, very little was denied by Judy’s insurance. In addition to an extensive network of family and friends, we had an amazing team of caregivers. It is physically demanding to care for an ALS patient in advanced stages of the disease; I learned how to properly lift and transfer Judy without hurting myself. I learned what it meant to accompany the dying.

We had resources to make sure Judy lived and communicated as long as possible and died with dignity. What are patients and families without these privileges to do? Navigating the medical world is difficult without a trained advocate. Even with Medicare and Medicaid, medications and equipment are expensive. Respite care is a necessity. This is where the ALS-Association comes in. The ALS-Association of Greater New York has support groups, resources for patients and families, advocacy support for dealing with insurance and equipment needs, and the list goes on. The ALS-Association is there and they are the only “full service” ALS group. People like funding research – science is sexy, taking care of the dying isn’t. While many advocates for the ice bucket challenge are focusing on research and awareness, I want to draw attention to the amazing work the ALS-Association does to protect the dignity of ALS patients. It is the only ALS group which has as its mission research, advocacy, and care. For me as a moral theologian, part of freezing out ALS is making sure those dying of ALS and their families are included, supported, and visible.

So why should you dump a bucket of ice on your head? Don’t do it because Justin Bieber or Derek Jeter did it. Do it because ice water stings and its uncomfortable. The Ice Bucket challenge asks us to step out of our comfort zone and draw attention to something we would all rather not talk or think about: a horribly painful death. As we click to see Conan O’Brien or the NY Jets, we are talking about ALS. If you watched Peter Frates’ or Anthony Carbajal’s courageous videos, then you’ve heard first hand from ALS patients. The Ice Bucket challenge, I propose, can be a gateway action opening the door towards accompanying ALS patients and their families. Every ALS headline and Google search raises awareness and brings ALS into the conversation. Charity and solidarity are not all or nothing actions. But if you’ve read through this post, chances are you know more about ALS and the ALS association. And if you’re willing to dump ice water on your head and post a silly video, then hopefully you are willing to learn a little about ALS in the process. Let’s help protect the dignity of those living with and affected by ALS.*

*For those who may be concerned with the fact that the ALS-Association has previously funded embryonic stem cell research (according to RNS reporting there is only 1 such study coming to the end of its project right now), I encourage you to investigate ALS Association’s research page and the one on stem cells and to contact your local ALS-Association chapter to donate to their care programs.

Crisis on the Border: The Global Refugee Crisis Comes to America

El Salvador. Honduras. Guatemala. Three countries in Central America with increasing, rampant gang violence and homicide.


These are also the 3 countries from which the greatest influx of unaccompanied minors are crossing the border, fleeing to the United States. If we look at the graph, it is clear that the increase of unaccompanied children crossing are not coming from Mexico, but through Mexico to the United States. These children and those who are traveling with their mothers are fleeing from horrific violence and insecurity. I want to be clear from the very beginning of this post – these children are refugees.


So why is it that every time I turn on the television I hear elected officials pontificating about border security? Listening to the litany of Republican congressman, Tea Party activists, and pundits like Governor Palin I have seen interviewed over the past 4 days, it is as if the primary crisis on the border is one of security – all these children are getting across the border. As much of the nation was ensconced in celebrating “independence,” protesters blocked a bus transporting unaccompanied minors. I am horrified,  disgusted, and ashamed of my fellow citizens.

The humanitarian crisis at the border is not a political problem. It is not even an immigration problem. It is merely the latest instance of a global refugee crisis. These children are fleeing for their lives, they are refugees and we need to readjust our national discourse accordingly. currently, the global refugee crisis is at an all time high – 9 million children globally.

refugees_dayNow at this point I could point out that, according to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child,

“In all actions concerning children, whether undertaken by public or private social welfare institutions, courts of law, administrative authorities or legislative bodies, the best interests of the child shall be the primary consideration…” (article3)

But the United States will shortly find itself as the only member state in the United Nations to sign but fail to ratify the document (South Sudan has begun the process and Somalia has stated an intent to re-commit). However, there are plenty of Conventions on Human Rights, Refugees, and so on to which we have committed ourselves and which demand that the treatment of refugees prioritize unequivocally the safety and well being of the children (not political concerns).

Within this national context, the voice of the Catholic Church has been steadfast – the dignity of these children is the primary concern.  Both the USCCB and Catholic NGOs like Network have spoken out against calls for increased border security and deportation. While some Texas towns are attempting to create city ordinances to keep undocumented children out, Sacred Heart Parish in McAllen, Texas has transformed itself into a safe haven for women and children stating “This is not about politics, it’s about kids.”

For Catholic moral theology, it is quite simple. These children fleeing across our border are in the image of another child who was forced to flee political violence – the Infant Jesus.  Shortly after his birth, Jesus, Mary and Joseph were forced to flee across the border into Egypt. Jesus of Nazareth was a child refugee. Jesus Christ is a child refugee.

On Monday, I returned from a Vincentian pilgrimage. In 17century France, plagued by poverty and generations of constant war, children called “foundlings” were abandoned by mothers who could not afford to feed them.  One of the earliest missions of St. Vincent de Paul was to organize homes for foundling children staffed by the Daughters of Charity and funded by the Ladies of Charity. An unpopular cause, no one wanted to bother with the foundlings – if even their mothers do not care for them, why should we?  In response, St. Vincent created foundling homes named for the Infant Jesus reminding everyone that these children were the Infant Jesus in their midst. Jesus Christ is alone, afraid, and in need of care.  When a group of  ladies questioned continuing to pay for the foundlings – it was expensive, how long were they expected to pay? St. Vincent listened to their concerns and responded pointedly – a child can die two ways; through murder or by refusing to feed him. 

Like Moses’ mother Jochebed, mothers in Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala feel they have no choice then to send their children down the Nile and pray for their safety. The fate of thousands of refugee children in our community are at stake – American Christians need to lift up our voices and like Sacred Heart parish change the conversation.  As Christians and as Americans the choice is clear – to live up to our ideals and welcome the oppressed yearning to break free  or betray the very core of our community and return children to a situation of immense suffering and danger and possibly death.  It is their lives at stake and it is our soul.

Solidarity, Imago Dei, and the Catholic Case against Libertarianism

As prepared for delivery at “Erroneous Autonomy: The Catholic Case against Libertarianism” (with minor edits). Updated with video.

As I began preparing for today, I went back and reread some of the theoretical texts of libertarianism – Friedman, Nozick, Rand, and Hayek. These provide the intellectual claims upon which today’s political libertarian agenda are based. Freedom to Choose by Rose and Milton Friedman is particularly striking:

“Neither equality before God nor equality of opportunity presented any conflict with liberty to shape one’s own life. Quite the opposite. Equality and liberty were two faces of the same value – that every individual should be viewed as an end in himself.”

This interpretation of the American Founding sounds appealing – the language mimics that of Kant’s categorical imperative – that each human person is to be treated as an end in herself and never as merely a means to an end. And yet, I feel like Inigo Montoya in the Princess Bride – “I don’t think those words mean what you think they mean.” When you look closely, something else is going on here. The definition of equality before God is rooted in individual choice, and the definition of equality of opportunity is merely a lack of arbitrary obstacles. This is certainly not Kant. But even more important for our discussion today, this is not Catholic theology’s understanding of equality before God or equality of opportunity. This is not a Catholic understanding of the human person.

In my brief time with you today I would like to focus on two distinct yet related points: first, the Catholic understanding of the human person as created in the image of God. Second, what this means in terms of the Church’s social teaching with a particular focus on Vatican II’s Gaudium et Spes and the recent teachings of Pope Francis, both of which are integral to Catholicism’s understanding of solidarity and help to illuminate why I have argued in my book The Vision of Catholic Social Thought: The Virtue of Solidarity and the Praxis of Human Rights that libertarianism is a social vice against this virtue.

Imago Dei/Imago Trinitatis

“Then God said, “let us make human kind in our image, according to our likeness; . . . So God created humankind, in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them” (Genesis 1:26-7).

All discussions of human dignity and the human person for Catholic theology begin with one very clear unequivocal statement: all human persons are created in the image and likeness of God. Imago Dei. Catholic moral theology (and Catholic social teaching, in particular) is largely a series of reflections on what this means. There is radical equality before God; we are equally loved by God and equally created in the image of God. However, equality before God is not primarily about freedom of choice but relationship. And it is this equality before God that grounds the preferential option for the poor. I’d like to focus on two elements of the Catholic understanding of human persons as relational and social: the question of creation and what imago dei means for human community.

Perhaps the most important divergence between Catholicism and libertarianism are in these very basic theological claims: I do not create myself; I do no call myself into existence; and I always exist in relationship to others (other persons and to God). As I explain in my book, The Vision of Catholic Social Thought, “We are not simply individuals who should choose to enter into community and relationship. While the freedom of the individual person allows for a number of choices . . . to be a human person created in the image of God is to be in community, this is not something from which we are able to opt out” (Clark 58). Human freedom is crucial in this. But it is not reducible to negative liberty. In Caritas in Veritate, Pope Benedict XVI urges us to resist the “intoxication with total autonomy,which is not true freedom.

Freedom to love, freedom for human flourishing, freedom for community, freedom for God – these all shape the Catholic understanding of freedom. And these begin with the recognition that human persons are fundamentally and inescapably relational. I began with a verse from Genesis 1, and in that verse we see that, from creation, human persons are unavoidably relational, in relationship with other persons and with God.   Far from reducing the importance of freedom, this deeper and broader approach to freedom elevates freedom and with it our responsibility before God.

The divergence between Catholicism and libertarianism I’ve argued hinges on creation and the implications of the imago dei for human community. While we may be able to achieve significant agreement that human persons are social or interdependent – that we need other people to survive – this is not the core of how Catholicism understands human community. Human society is not merely a requirement for survival; it is a good of humanity itself. Human persons are created in the image of God, and God is Trinity. What does it mean to say that to be imago dei must be imago trinitatis?Throughout Christian history, theological schools have answered this in different ways, but today I want to invite you to think more deeply about this idea: how might we be in the image of God?

Relation then isn’t atomized and added up, but points us towards Jesus’ prayer in the Gospel of John: “that they may be one as we are one” (17:21). And so we end up with the Trinity and equality, mutuality, and reciprocity, providing quite clear and challenging normative criteria by which to evaluate whether or not we as a community are imaging God more or less fully in the world. It also links us as one human family created in the image of God. Thus, we end up where libertarianism cannot: “Our humanity, as in the image of God, is not only a matter of creation but also places a claim on us” (Clark 59). In a speech to Georgetown, U2 frontman Bono challenged students that “when you truly accept that those in some far off place in the global village have the same value as you in God’s eyes or even just in your own eyes, then your life is forever changed, you see something that you cannot unsee.” The image of God places a claim upon us that goes well beyond simply not harming or impeding others. It leads us to Paul VI’s observation that “there can be no progress towards the complete development of the human person without the simultaneous development of all humanity in the spirit of solidarity” (PP43).

Catholic Social Teaching/Vatican II & Pope Francis

Reflecting on that same passage from Genesis 1, Vatican II’s Church in the Modern World emphasizes the presence of the human community at creation, as I have already highlighted. Building on this, the Council stated, “God did not create the person for life in isolation but for the formation of social unity. So also ‘it has pleased God to make men holy and save them not merely as individuals, without any mutual bonds, but by making them into a single people . . . So from the beginning of salvation history, he has chosen people not just as individuals but as members of a certain community” (32). In Christianity, God enters into relationships – covenants – with peoples. More than this, God enters into covenants with succeeding generations of peoples reaching across our traditional understandings of past, present, and future.

Already in 1965, globalization and interdependence were understood as radically pervasive and as universal in reach. As the Council explains, “In our times, a special obligation binds us to make ourselves the neighbor of absolutely every person and of actively helping him when he comes across our path, whether he be an old person abandoned by all, a foreign laborer unjustly looked down upon . . . or a hungry person” (27). Gaudium et Spes, like St. John XXIII’s Peace on Earth before it, offers a comprehensive account of what must be accounted for in upholding human dignity and the flourishing community, and it is a basic list of human rights. The concerns are always both personal and structural, recognizing that “human freedom is often crippled when a man falls into extreme poverty” (31). Again, it’s important to note that human freedom is crippled by extreme poverty whether arbitrary obstacles exist or not. Freedom is not reducible to negative liberty.

Integrating the Catholic view of the person and community, the US Bishops in their 1986 Economic Justice for All offered an integrated moral vision which places participation as central to the ethical evaluation of the economy (and social arrangements more broadly). Economic Justice for All defines basic justice as participation, as the minimum conditions for the person’s participation in the economic, social, and political life of the community (15). Catholic social thought develops this social vision into an integrated understanding of poverty as exclusion.

Pope Francis has unequivocally reminded us that Christianity is a radical call to community, building upon the vision of Gaudium et Spes. When asked to explain his decision to continue living at Santa Marta guest house and not the papal apartment, he explained, I cannot live without people. I need to live my life with others. In the now famous “Jesuit interview,” and earlier in Lumen Fidei, he explains that “self-knowledge is only possible when we share in greater memory.” You will notice that his words sound very similar to the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World: “There is no full identity without belonging to a people. No one is saved alone, as isolated individual, but God attracts us looking at the complex web of relationships that take place in the human community. God enters into this dynamic, this participation in the web of human relationships.” Francis echoes this in Evangelii Gaudium as well.

To understand what Pope Francis says on poverty, inequality, and exclusion, you have to first understand this deep unity of the one human family, of our belonging to each other and our standing together before God, which provides its necessary backdrop. The threat of libertarianism is that it creates a barrier to seeing the other as neighbor, as brother or sister.

My humanity is bound up in yours. This is concrete, not abstract. In a visit to the Jesuit Refugee Center in Rome, Pope Francis addressed the refugees, saying, “To serve means to work alongside the neediest, first of all to establish a close human relationship with them, based on solidarity. Solidarity, this word elicits fear in the developed world. They try not to say it. It’s almost a dirty word for them. But it’s our word!” Theologically, we are now back to the very heart of Christianity: Jesus Christ, the Word made Flesh, God becoming Human. Solidarity is our word. This passage has followed me around for the last year. I cannot think of a clearer way to show the divergence between Catholicism and libertarianism than the radical identification of Jesus with the marginalized in Matthew 25 or in Catholic social thought’s understanding of solidarity, the social virtue by which we commit ourselves to participation in the universal common good of all by all.

Inequality & Social Sin: Pope Francis & Elizabeth Warren

“Inequality is the root of social ills” (EG 202) is becoming perhaps the most quoted and (for some) infamous line in Pope Francis’ Evangelii Gaudium. Just last week, there was an excellent piece here at Millennial detailing the theological anthropology behind Catholic Social Teaching’s apprehension of extreme inequality. On the one hand, as the article notes, Pope Francis is not saying anything radically different from his predecessors; if you think you cannot find similarly progressive statements by St. John Paul II or Pope Benedict XVI, you simply aren’t reading very closely. However, I do not think Pope Francis is simply repeating what his predecessors have already said – he is integrating Catholic social teaching on the preferential option for the poor with a more robust understanding of social sin in ways necessary for, as Pope Leo XIII explained in Rerum Novarum, “engaging the world as it really is” and “looking elsewhere for the solution.”

Catholic social teaching on economic justice has often avoided discussing inequality directly; it remains virtually absent from Economic Justice for All, for example.* Catholic moral theologians have also avoided the topic, with very few academic articles written on the subject in the last fifty years. Modern Catholic social teaching, until very recently, assumed that “a rising tide raises all boats,” focusing instead on poverty and raising up those at the bottom whose basic needs are not met (except when it came to global development). Populorum Progressio, for example, spends considerable time on the question of global inequality, seen in profound underdevelopment and corresponding super-development. Yet overall, there has been hesitancy in speaking about inequality of income or wealth itself.

And yet, as scores of scholars have now effectively demonstrated, we do not live in a world where we can focus on poverty without specific and concerted attention to inequality. The Spirit Level by Wilkenson and Pickett, as well as recent works by Joseph Stiglitz and others provide clear evidence of the structural problem within the current domestic and global status quo of capitalism. Like his predecessors, Pope Francis shows a commitment to engage the world as it is. This is what we find in his emphatic “No” to economic and social exclusion, inequality, idolatry of money, etc. Far from setting up a supposed straw man of “free market capitalism,” as some have accused, Pope Francis rightly identifies specific ideological theories like “trickle-down economics” which perpetuate these structures of inequality. (The frequent calls for lower taxes and sweeter regulatory deals for those in the 1%, including the fights about the “Bush tax cuts” demonstrate that the Pope is engaging reality rather than imagining ideological strawmen.)

We have a structural problem, and this is where Catholic social teaching is bolstered and strengthened by the work of liberation theology. Social sin is the theological concept which allows us to more clearly examine human-made structures which violate human dignity or the common good, taking into account that the structures themselves self-perpetuate and cause a harm that exceeds that of individual circumstances, such as racism, colonialism/neo-colonialism, and sexism. But what the work of Fr. Gustavo Gutierrez, OP and human rights scholar Dr. Paul Farmer also emphasize is that these always reveal deeper pathologies of power. Catholic social teaching can learn from Farmer’s appropriation and adaptation of social sin into what he calls structural violence. In Pathologies of Power, he explains: “Structural violence is a broad rubric that includes a host of offensives against human dignity: extreme and relative poverty, social inequities ranging from racism to gender inequality, and the more spectacular forms of violence that are uncontestedly human rights abuses.” And here we start to see the integration found in Pope Francis’ Evangelli Gaudium. As we take a step back, a deeper structural problem comes into view. Our economic and political structures perpetuate rather than mitigate inequality, and this is no accident.

Where Pope Francis calls upon all to “say no to an economy of exclusion,” Senator Elizabeth Warren is making that principle concrete. She is demanding we say no to particular social, political, and economic policies of exclusion. An accomplished scholar who understands financial regulation and the intricacies of the system like few others, she is exposing elements of our social, political, and economic system that perpetuate inequality. Banking regulation, student loan interest rates, and the minimum wage are merely three of the topics she is currently tackling. Student loan interest rates are not a naturally occurring phenomena – it is a system created by and for persons. Who are the persons it is meant to serve? At the heart of her mission is exposing the way in which the very structure of our economic system is built upon these deeper pathologies of power which concentrate wealth and influence in the hands of the few, pushing the many even further to the margins. Methodologically, she is asking the fundamental questions of Economic Justice for All: what does the economy do for people? What does it do to people? And how do people participate in it? Her focus is on those who are structurally disadvantaged by the status quo. Students facing crippling debt, the unemployed, low wage workers, families who were manipulated and deceived in the sub-prime mortgage system- the list goes on. Economic policy is chosen, it does not simply happen.

Another of Paul Farmer’s important insights is that as our science and technology develop, our social sin deepens. He frequently uses the example of cholera –which because of science and technology is now exclusively a disease of poverty (for those whose poverty prevents their access to basic sanitation and clean water). As science and technology develop, we are responsible for how we choose to use them (or not to use them) for the common good. We are responsible in a new way for our failure to address injustices that perhaps previously could not have been tackled.

Despite their critics, both Pope Francis and Elizabeth Warren are focusing on inequality, because as it exists now, it is a structural injustice harming persons and communities. Dismantling social sin requires two steps – both of which are important. First, we need to tackle the specific structural policies and laws of injustice. Here Elizabeth Warren proposes concrete political and economic changes to the American structure to use our resources more fully for the benefit of all. Second, and something that is much more difficult, we need a conversion of hearts to build solidarity. Pope Francis urges us to participate in building solidarity, thereby reducing divisive inequalities by reminding us that we are all equally created in the image and likeness of God. It is a message we must fully embrace.

*The word ‘virtually’ has been added for greater clarity and accuracy. (5/16/14)

Caution: Entitlement & Personal Responsibility

This morning my colleague Julie Hanlon Rubio posted an excellent blog post on Paul Ryan and Poverty at Catholic Moral Theology.  I agree with her 5 points (on help as the first duty in the face of poverty; the need for personal, cultural, and social change; the need to increase job readiness, job opportunities, and wages; the importance of strengthening committed relationships; and the benefit of exploring ways to empower those with few options) and find them helpful. In the face of poverty, responding to the immediate need is necessary, as is structural change (employment, education, affordable housing, etc). This is why the USCCB emphasizes charity and justice as the “two feet of love in action.”  One of the key elements of her post is the recognition that we are all deeply embedded in personal, familial, social, and cultural realities. Social programs and family life both need to be strengthened to empower those for whom “life is a hill.” We  need a broader and deeper understanding of what constitutes family – so that the inter-generational reality of strong families is captured within our vision of “the answer.” Thus, as she notes, strengthening families headed by single mothers and single fathers can only be done by listening and engaging them.

We seem to have hit a point where we are on a merry-go-round, unable to break free from a familiar pattern. Personally, I find it particularly difficult to keep blogging about the same issues – because actual data doesn’t seem to make a difference in the public debate. And yet, I want to make a strong case that the loud and constant debunking of Ryan’s claims about poverty and poor persons is absolutely necessary for the common good. Personal responsibility, as self-determination, agency, and empowered participation is absolutely crucial. Personal responsibility as an ideological weapon is an attack on the human dignity of persons in and near poverty. Part of why I find treating it as an ideological battle cry incredibly dangerous is in doing so one misses the assumption of one’s own moral superiority, which is latent within the use of this language.

So why am I stuck on this need to debunk? Because the assumptions of privilege and the re-shaping of the landscape from that position of privilege strikes me as particularly dangerous to the very project of finding common ground to fight poverty.

Almost 3 years ago, I wrote  “The Overwhelming Desire to Connect Wealth and Holiness: The Primordial Social Sin?” in which I argued that:

Linked with the sin of pride, 21st century upper- and upper-middle class Americans find it very difficult to view their power, privilege, status and wealth as largely an accident of birth and circumstance.  I do make choices, and I am responsible for my choices. However, my choices are also highly socially conditioned and one can only choose from the range of available options.  The powerful image of the American Dream (when divorced from the necessary social structures it presumes) and the myth of the rugged individual pulling himself up by his bootstraps fuel this Americanized version of material wealth as a sign of God’s favor and become a dangerous weapon with which to blame the poor for their inability to get out of poverty.

Latent within statements identifying the poor as lazy or as simply not working hard enough, in my opinion, is a strong desire to see oneself as morally superior and favored by God. Another aspect that is increasingly skewing this debate is the growing sense and expression of “affluenza,” wherein those who are privileged somehow “have it harder.” This week that case was made quite starkly by Gwynth Paltrow, who said in an interview :

“It’s much harder for me,” she said. “I feel like I set it up in a way that makes it difficult because … for me, like if I miss a school run, they are like, ‘Where were you?’ I don’t like to be the lead so I don’t (have) to work every day, you know, I have little things that I like and obviously I want it to be good and challenging and interesting, and be with good people and that kind of thing.”

“I think it’s different when you have an office job, because it’s routine and, you know, you can do all the stuff in the morning and then you come home in the evening,” said the polarizing Paltrow. “When you’re shooting a movie, they’re like, ‘We need you to go to Wisconsin for two weeks,’ and then you work 14 hours a day and that part of it is very difficult. I think to have a regular job and be a mom is not as, of course there are challenges, but it’s not like being on set.”

The overwhelmingly negative reaction was almost immediate, including many “Open letters from working moms.”  Yet, I don’t want to reduce Paltrow’s clear lack of perspective as just another aspect of the “mommy wars.” I think it is representative of something much deeper – a sense that how hard one works and one’s moral character  are connected to material success.  That Paltrow cannot recognize her privilege is deeply troubling but even more troubling is the connection between poverty and assumed laziness. It is predicated on this idea that if one works or works hard enough – one simply would not be poor.  It should be obvious that the single-mother working 14 hour days at minimum wage to make ends meet day in, day out, with no job protection in the event of illness has it much more difficult than an A-list movie actress. Yet, this understanding of “hard work” is underlying almost every single attack on SNAP and other anti-poverty programs.

From the perspective of Christian ethics, this is precisely the “self-righteousness” Jesus rebukes throughout the Gospels. Why is it so difficult in America for us to see our neighbor as equally human? As our brother and sister? As even just our “neighbor”? Within the Christian community, I think part of the problem lies in the popular “WWJD?” or What Would Jesus Do? Such a configuration immediately places me in the ROLE of God, the outcome of which makes it easier to “pat myself on the back” for all of my good works. It is much more difficult to focus instead on SEEING CHRIST in the other person.   Visiting a homeless shelter in Rome last May, Pope Francis highlighted that:

“To love God and neighbor is not something abstract, but profoundly concrete: it means seeing in every person the face of the Lord to be served, to serve him concretely. And you are, dear brothers and sisters, the face of Jesus.”

As I have previously argued, the key question is not, “Would Jesus cut the SNAP budget?” (although I do think the answer is obviously no…), but rather, “Would You Deny Jesus Food Stamps?”

Jesus is not like the poor. Jesus is the poor. Jesus is not like the unemployed father who cannot find work and for whom food stamps are the only thing preventing his children from going to bed hungry. Christ is not like single mother working two low-paying part time jobs surviving only through access to housing and child care subsidies. Jesus Christ is that father. Jesus Christ is that mother.

Are you prepared when confronted with systemic food insecurity and hunger to determine who is and is not “worthy” of having their basic needs met? Standards for federal programs are one thing, this constant assumption of mistrust and suspicion of the poor as the starting point for evaluating poverty programs is quite another. It begs the question – what are we overlooking in ourselves when assuming the other is “undeserving”?

The need to debunk is not simply a matter of defending means tested poverty programs, it is also a check against pride and self-righteousness. This is why I find  the invocation of work, hard work, and laziness  so problematic. I am a tenure track college professor – this places me firmly within the middle class and with significant control over my day-to-day life.  As those who know me can attest, I work hard to be sure – but it is sheer arrogance and pride to use that to make any evaluation or comparison to the reality of “hard work” of those workers upon whom my lifestyle depends.

Cesar Chavez: An American Hero opened this past weekend, chronicling the Catholic labor leader, the birth of the UFW, and the ongoing fight for farm workers rights. Farm workers engage in backbreaking work, often in unsafe working conditions with little or no security or protection. The fight for their basic rights as workers did not end with the successful grape and lettuce boycotts of the 1960s and 70s. It continues today – we still live in a world where someone who picks our food often cannot afford to feed their family.

Structural change is needed. Cultural change is needed. Personal participation is needed. But perhaps a good place to start is changing the “entitled culture” of the privileged more than obsessing over a potential “entitlement culture” of those living in or near poverty.

A version of this post is also featured at Catholic Moral Theology.