Fifty Years Later, Are We Still the Church of the Poor?

Fifty years ago today, Pope John XXIII proclaimed that the Church is a “Church of all and in particular the Church of the poor.”  This statement, from a radio address one month before the opening of Vatican II, was further developed in a number of council documents that articulated the nature and mission of the Church as responsible for, and accountable to, the poor and afflicted (see, for example, Ad Gentes nos. 5 and 12).  Recognizing the church’s vocation to restore all persons to “one family” and “one people of God” (AG, no. 1), the council proposed that the four marks of the church as one, holy, catholic and apostolic are to be understood as dimensions of solidarity with the poor and vulnerable.

Fifty years ago, on the eve on the Second Vatican Council, Blessed John XXIII called the on the faithful to be the “Church of the poor.” Marc Mescher wonders if we are still living up to the call.

These teachings flourished most especially in Latin America, where they gave birth to Liberation Theology and its special attention to the preferential option for the poor.  Despite some misgivings about how this was being applied, both Pope John Paul II and Benedict XVI have highlighted the Christian duty to solidarity with the poor and affirmed that the preferential option for the poor is implicit in Christological faith and the exercise of Christian charity.

For their part, the U.S. Catholic Bishops have stressed the principle of solidarity and the preferential option for the poor in several key pastoral letters, including 1986’s “Economic Justice For All” and 2003’s “Strangers No Longer” (on immigration, co-written with the bishops of Mexico).

But what does this mean for most American lay Catholics, to call the Church “of all and in particular the Church of the poor”?

It’s one thing to take this as an institutional description.  It’s quite another to consider what this might demand from each of its members.

What is solidarity, anyway?  If you ask any five Catholics what “solidarity” means, you’ll probably get at least six answers.  And if you ask them what it actually demands of their daily lives, you’ll likely get either blank stares or vague ideas.

It’s one thing to claim solidarity as a theological principle. It’s another to transfer it to the moral plane, and it’s yet another to actually put this into practice.

Gustavo Gutiérrez, who is sometimes referred to as the “Grandfather of Liberation Theology,” contends that at its core, the call to solidarity and to give preference to the poor is a call to establishing friendships with people who are poor.  Because, as he explains, when you are friends with someone, their problems become your problems and when you are friends with the poor, you really care about solving the issues of exclusion, deprivation, and dehumanization they face.

But friendship isn’t enough.  Friendships with the poor won’t change the systems and structures, the policies and practices that keep poor people poor (and help the rich stay rich).

When the U.S. Census report comes out later this Fall, it is expected to show the highest poverty rate since 1965.  Nearly one in six Americans lives in poverty.  Tavis Smiley and Cornel West point to information that suggests that as many as 100 million Americans are on the cusp of falling into poverty, which could push that ratio closer to one in three.

Democrats don’t want Americans to learn that income inequality is worse under President Obama than it was under President Bush.  They don’t want Americans to hear that President Obama’s promise to keep banks from getting too big to fail has failed, despite five of the biggest banks (Bank of America, Citigroup, JPMorgan Chase, Wells Fargo, and Goldman Sachs) claiming $8.5 trillion in assets at the end of 2011, equal to 56% of the U.S. economy, an increase from the 43% they held five years ago. They don’t want Americans to notice that President Obama has failed to deliver on his campaign promise to raise the minimum wage by 2011.  And they don’t want to bring attention to the fact that President Obama has no intention of following through on his second stimulus, the jobs plan he proposed a year ago.

And of course Republicans don’t want Christians to read the Ryan Budget too closely, as it plans to balance the budget on the backs of the poor and weakest members of society, with two-thirds of Ryan’s proposed cuts targeting programs for the poor.  It is laudable that in his speech at the RNC, Congressman Paul Ryan said, “We have responsibilities, one to another – we do not each face the world alone. And the greatest of all responsibilities, is that of the strong to protect the weak. The truest measure of any society is how it treats those who cannot defend or care for themselves.”  But Republicans cannot just apply this duty to the unborn or the elderly or undercut this sentiment by denying the government’s role in carrying out these responsibilities.  Congressman Ryan defended his budget by acknowledging that while the “preferential option for the poor” is “one of the primary tenets of Catholic social teaching,” he does not interpret this to mean increased government action (or even maintaining current programs that help those in need).  As opposed to the USCCB, Ryan believes such programs are counterproductive, saying, “Don’t keep people poor; don’t make people dependent on government so they stay stuck in their station in life.”  But he hasn’t explained how cutting funding for food stamps, welfare agencies, and social services will empower the poor by increasing social mobility and helping them to gain access to the food, shelter, education, and health care they need.

Perhaps neither party really cares.  There was very little mention of “the poor” at either the Republican National Convention or the Democratic National Convention in the last two weeks.  Instead, both parties are focusing on the middle class. This may be due to the fact that most Americans identify as “middle class” even though its share of America’s income is shrinking.  It may be because neither party wants us to think about how hard life has been for the most vulnerable members of American society since the Great Recession hit.

It is sadly ironic that the parties are appealing to the interests of “the great middle” in a time when this country’s politics are growing increasingly polarized, partisan, and acrimonious – especially when their failures in Washington have resulted in fewer Americans belonging in this category.

For all these reasons, the Church’s commitment to solidarity with the poor is absolutely crucial.  This is not to say the Church should impose its vision of society on the state, but it should at least give voice to the voiceless and to remind its members that solidarity is not a pious platitude, but a moral obligation.  Contrary to Stephen Colbert’s satirical claim that the gospels quote Jesus saying, “I’ve got mine, Jack,”  Jesus did say that the Final Judgment would be based on what we did for the hungry, thirsty, sick, imprisoned, and others in need (Mt. 25:31-46).  One cannot draw straight lines from biblical passages to ballot boxes, but teachings such as these should give us pause to consider to whom we are accountable when we vote.

For most Americans, voting is a once-in-four-years-activity.  Solidarity requires so much more than a trip to the voting booth.  It invites us into friendships with people who are marginalized and in need, as Gutiérrez believes.  But it also makes claims on how we spend our money and time each and every day.  It offers a divine perspective on who we are as a people, as both disciples and citizens.

It’s a perspective that needs more of our attention today.