Bishop Robert McElroy, the auxiliary bishop of San Francisco, has a new article in America that Michael Sean Winters of NCR has labeled a “game changer” for explicitly and authoritatively challenging “the use, better to say misuse, of Catholic moral theology in discussions of public policy.” As MSW notes, some excellent theologians have addressed these distortions of Catholics social and moral teaching for partisan and ideological purposes, including Cathleen Kaveny and Millennial’s own Meghan Clark.
Yet, as MSW also notes, there is something unique about this coming from a bishop, particularly with the article’s exceptional clarity, precision, and directness. Bishop McElroy is not playing politics, trying to appease various groups by using murky language to split differences or attempting to appeal to just the left or the right. He is strongly defending authentic Catholic social and moral teaching from those who have distorted it. He is exposing the economic reality that exists both here and abroad and making our responsibility to overturn this unjust status quo crystal clear.
Bishop McElroy’s essay is inspired by Pope Francis’ call to have the Church be a church for the poor. He notes, “Pope Francis has unswervingly pointed to the scandal of poverty in a world of plenty as a piercing moral challenge for the church and the whole human community.” He describes the personal, cultural, and structural conversion necessary to respond to Pope Francis’ challenge to be a church for the poor. He highlights the growing economic injustice in the US, the disgrace of global poverty, and our capacity to utilize government action to remedy these injustices. He zeroes in on the gravest evils in the world, the most dangerous threats to human dignity and the common good: abortion and poverty. He rebukes some pernicious distortions of Catholic teaching on the matters of prudence, intrinsic evil, and economic justice. Finally, he reminds us of the fundamental unity of Catholic moral and social teaching.
This essay weaves together a myriad of critical points to provide a clear vision of what constitutes a church for the poor. It is an excellent corrective for those who have come to embrace the idolatry of the market. But it’s also a challenge to each of us. When we consider the points made by Bishop McElroy, it is obvious that we all have much work to do.
Here are the 10 key points in Bishop McElroy’s article:
- The pope’s call is a call to personal conversion—to reject materialism and other false paths to happiness (which “distort our humanity”) and establish authentic, love-based relationships with God and others so that we might reach our full potential as persons.
- “Francis’ message also has been an invitation to cultural conversion, laying bare the three false cultures that materialism has created in our world: the culture of comfort that makes us think only of ourselves; the culture of waste that seizes the gifts of the created order only to savor them for a moment and then discard them; and the culture of indifference that desensitizes us to the suffering of others, no matter how intense, no matter how sustained.”
- Finally, a structural transformation is required to meet Pope Francis’ challenge. This demands “ a transformation of the existing Catholic political conversation in our nation, a transformation reflecting three themes: prioritizing the issue of poverty, focusing not only on intrinsic evils but also on structural sin, and acting with prudence when applying Catholic moral principles to specific legal enactments.”
- The United States has a moral responsibility to fight global poverty. This arises from our power in the world economy and ability to shape the rules that facilitate international trade and development. “In addition, the United States and the richest nations of the world community have a moral responsibility to share from their plenty with the poorest peoples in the human family.” If the US and other wealthy nations fulfilled their pledge to direct 0.7% of their GDP toward the alleviation of poverty (which they pledged to do in 2002), rather than reneging and only giving 0.2% in development assistance, severe poverty around the world would have been largely eliminated. Instead, “millions of children die each year from disease and malnutrition that could be prevented.” This is social sin and “the visible presence of a ‘global culture of indifference’ that lets us avert our eyes while our governments consciously make choices to reinforce our culture of comfort while ignoring the countless human lives lost as a consequence.”
- Social mobility and the middle class are disappearing in the US and crucial government assistance to the poor is being slashed. The United States now suffers from “gross disparities in income and wealth and barriers to mobility,” while “the poor suffer a ‘benign neglect’ in our political conversations, and absorb brutal cuts in governmental aid, especially at the state level.”
- The Church “must elevate the issue of poverty to the very top of its political agenda, establishing poverty alongside abortion as the pre-eminent moral issues the Catholic community pursues at this moment in our nation’s history.” Both abortion and poverty result in the death of millions of children “in a world where government action could end the slaughter.” They both “constitute an assault on the very core of the dignity of the human person, instrumentalizing life as part of a throwaway culture.”
- “Issues of intrinsic evil do not automatically have priority in advancing the common good.” “Intrinsically evil acts are always and everywhere wrong, but not all intrinsically evil acts fall within the scope of the public order and the role of government” and key issues of justice are related to non-intrinsic evils, notably “the type of entrenched evil inherent in poverty.” And as Francis clearly teaches, “alleviating the grave evil of poverty must be at the very heart of the church’s mission. It is neither optional nor secondary.” Ultimately, “there is no single category of sin or evil, social good or virtue, that is the filter for discerning the priorities of the Church in the public order. The concept of the common good is multidimensional in its very nature, and any reductionist effort to minimize this quality is a distortion of our heritage and teaching.”
- “The role of prudence has been one of the most misused elements in the Catholic political conversation in the United States in recent years.” Prudence “is a necessary element of any effort to advance the common good through governmental action,” as “moving from even the clearest moral principle to specific legislation or administrative action involves questions of strategy, prioritization and practicality.”
- “While prudence is necessary in the formulation of economically just policies” and “many different types of choices are compatible within a full commitment to Catholic teachings on economic justice,” “the categorical nature of Catholic teaching on economic justice is clear and binding.” Certain policies and approaches to economics represent a clear rejection of Church teaching, rather than a legitimate exercise in prudence. “Choices by citizens or public officials that systematically, and therefore unjustly, decrease governmental financial support for the poor clearly reject core Catholic teachings on poverty and economic justice. Policy decisions that reduce development assistance to the poorest countries reject core Catholic teachings. Tax policies that increase rather than decrease inequalities reject core Catholic teachings.”
- There is a fundamental unity in Catholic social teaching. “We are called to see the issues of abortion and poverty, marriage and immigrant rights, euthanasia and war, religious liberty and restorative justice, not as competing alternatives often set within a partisan framework, but as a complementary continuum of life and dignity.”
The full article can be read here.