For today's Common Good Forum, we are featuring an essay by Fred Rotondaro. Fred is the Chairman of Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good.

Last week, Pope Francis urged Catholics to struggle “against the structural causes of poverty, inequality, the lack of work, land and shelter, the denial of social and labor rights.” He denounced the “empire of money.” And, for good measure, he added, “if I speak of this some people conclude that the pope is a communist.”

The pope is not a communist. The pope is a Christian. As he told the meeting of lay ecclesial movements, “love for the poor is at the heart of the Gospel.”

With the obvious exception of slavery, poverty has been the greatest immorality in American history. I know some people get glassy-eyed when confronted with statistics, but we must face them head-on and remind ourselves about the immorality they portray. There are more Americans in poverty today than ever in our history-- some 46 million with an additional 90 million plus just one short step above poverty. In addition to this persistent evil, America now has its greatest income inequality in 80 years. Despite a rise in productivity of 85 percent in the last 30 years, the wages of working Americans have been virtually stagnant in that same time, even as corporate profits and CEO salaries rose to their highest levels in history

We Americans have always prided ourselves on being the “can do” nation. No matter where we start from, we can make it to the top through grit and hard work. This has been our national belief. But compared to 34 other major industrialized nations, America now ranks in the bottom tier for economic mobility. We are dead last in infant mortality rates, and with the exception of Romania, America has more kids under in poverty. 22% of our children grow up in poverty, which is unacceptable in a country as rich as the United States.

In his talk, the Holy Father warned against “euphemisms” to describe the plight of the poor and the poor themselves: “Behind every euphemism lies a crime,” he said. Behind every statistic on poverty, there is a human person in need, a person with dreams and hopes that are being squashed, a family being threatened by crushing poverty, an ill person unable to get proper medical attention, a child unable to concentrate at school because she had no breakfast.  

American Catholics have much reason to be proud of our role in helping the poor, vulnerable, and over ten million working Americans who need assistance. In every diocese, in every parish, something is being done to help the poor. Catholic Charities USA and its state affiliates are on the front lines in helping alleviate human suffering. The hospitals that belong to the Catholic Health Association provide medical care for the indigent. The Catholic Campaign for Human Development helps the poor organize and argue for better living conditions in their neighborhoods. Countless Catholic schools bring a quality education to poor children, Catholic and non-Catholic alike, in America’s inner cities. This work on behalf of the poor constitutes the healing, helping hands of Jesus in today’s world.

Concrete assistance is vital and necessary but it is also insufficient. Public policies matter also. Poverty and the parallel problem of stagnant wages are not accidents. They are in large measure the result of deliberate public policies that for three decades have favored corporate America and our economic elite. 

Trade policies that put American workers in danger and that increased profits for corporations have been enacted; outsourcing American jobs has been rewarded with corporate tax breaks. Trade unions have been attacked by politicians; nutrition and education programs aimed at giving low income kids a break have been cut even while corporate and high income individual taxes came tumbling down.

There was a time when Church leaders not only labored to fund Catholic Charities and other ministries for the poor but also collaborated with labor unions and progressive public officials to alleviate poverty and in strong support of working Americans. That policy advocacy continues with groups like NETWORK and their signature “Nuns on the Bus” tours and with the advocacy arm of the Catholic Health Association and Catholic Charities. Notre Dame’s Alliance for Catholic Education (ACE) helps save inner city schools and help them to flourish, but also advocates for public policies aimed at making a quality education available to poor children. Catholic University’s Institute for Policy Research & Catholic Studies has begun a series of academic conferences aimed at confronting the intellectual mythology of libertarianism and arguing for policies that reflect the solidarity that is at the heart of Catholic social teaching. Lay-led groups like the Franciscan Action Network and Catholics United have worked to educate voters on issues related to poverty. And, of course, here at CACG, fighting poverty is our most cherished goal.

However, at the highest level of the Church in America, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), the work against policies favoring the economic elite has been mediocre for decades and indeed disgraceful in the last half dozen years.

In the wake of the Supreme Court’s 1973 decision to legalize abortion, many Catholic bishops became less focused on fighting poverty and exclusively focused on fighting abortion. For about twenty years, the USCCB managed to focus on both effectively. But, starting in the 1990s, the focus became almost exclusively on abortion and, in the past ten years, same sex marriage was added to the list. In the last few years, religious liberty joined the other two as a triumvirate of issues neatly aligning the conference with the Republican Party. A case can be made that the bishops have given a de facto approval to the congressional reactionaries to enact any economic legislation favoring the rich and hurting the middle class and the poor as long as the politicians proclaimed their support of the bishops on cultural issues.

We all remember the hysterical reaction of some bishops to the decision by the University of Notre Dame to invite President Barack Obama to be the school’s graduation speaker in 2009. One bishop accused the school of “prostituting its Catholic identity 

The USCCB opposed the Affordable Care Act in 2009 and 2010. Their rationale? Based only on tendentious evidence, they were afraid that under the ACA federal funds would be used to fund abortions. This concern, which a federal judge dismissed prima facie, joined other fake concerns about the ACA – remember death panels? – and amounted to a betrayal of the USCCB’s long standing support for universal health care.

Pope Benedict issued his encyclical Caritas in veritate in 2009, calling for economic justice for the poor and severely criticizing laissez-faire economics. It was largely ignored by the USCCB which did nothing to promote it in America.  The following year, Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, a friend of Cardinal Timothy Dolan, the President of the USCCB, became chair of the House Budget Committee. His budget proposal reduced help for the poor by 2.9 trillion dollars over a ten year period. Bishop Stephen Blaire, chairman of the USCCB Committee on Domestic Justice wrote Congressman Ryan a letter urging him not to cut programs that assist the poor. Cardinal Dolan immediately wrote a letter to Ryan praising him as a great Catholic public servant, which was posted on the congressman’s website website. It was an attempt to pretend the Ryan budget cohered with Catholic social justice teaching, which it was not.  Ryan said he did not want to create a culture of dependency in the poor. This was ironically exactly the language used by British officials when the Irish were starving in the 1840s. 

In 2011, the Catholic University of America, with 27 bishops on its board, gave the new House Speaker, John Boehner, a Catholic like Ryan, an honorary doctorate and made him the commencement speaker. Boehner has been notorious since then in his opposition to issues favored by Catholic social justice tradition, even refusing to bring the Senate-backed immigration reform bill up for a vote. No one accused Catholic University of “prostituting its Catholic identity” by hosting Boehner.

Keep in mind, the bishops of the United States continue to raise money for Catholic Charities. They continue to struggle to keep schools in the inner cities viable. But, when it comes to public policy, they have put fighting poverty on the back burner and brought the issues of abortion, same sex marriage and religious liberty to the front of the policy stove. CACG is a pro-life organization to be clear. But, we have to wonder why the bishops do not see the connection between fighting abortion and fighting poverty. As Catholic University Professor and former CACG board member Steve Schneck aptly put it, “poverty is the leading abortifacient in America.”    

If I were a far right politician, I would look upon these actions by bishops as condoning my economic policies or, at the very least, as saying they will not oppose me so long as I stand with them on cultural issues. Even at the recent synod, many bishops seemed more concerned with holding the line against gays and lesbians than with engaging Pope Francis’ profound, and profoundly needed, focus on the socio-economic pressures that families face.

Here at CACG, we stand with Francis in his understanding that current poverty rates are an assault on human dignity. We call on Catholic politicians of all political persuasions to work for creative ways to lift people out of poverty and to protect those who, for whatever reason, remain in poverty. Most of all we call on the U.S. bishops to follow Pope Francis’ lead – and the lead of other Catholic groups here in the U.S. that join with CACG in advocating for policies that lift up the poor.