SHAFAQNA – Ever year, the Republican Party grows more closely identified with the agenda of conservative Catholic bishops, and vice versa. Unfortunately, too many bishops have been tempted by the allure of political power as they join America’s culture wars. They treat Roe v. Wade as a litmus test and urge Catholics not to vote for Democrats, who are likely to add liberally minded judges to the Supreme Court.
Somehow, however, in these decades of polarized politics and a polarized church, Catholic social teaching has persisted, albeit in the background of our faith.
Fortunately, Pope Francis has turned us away from partisan politics and back to the fundamental justice tenets of our faith. Catholic social teaching is at the heart of Pope Francis’s leadership and the beginning of what I hope will be a sustained renewal in the church. Such renewal is critical if the Catholic Church is to remain relevant in the political world, especially as the public’s views shift on social issues.
That’s not to say that Pope Francis plans to align himself or the church with the Democratic Party. Rather, he is raising up what is at the heart of Jesus’ message—care for those who are left out of our economy, not just with charity, but with justice. He is calling on all of us to create an economy and society of inclusion. And right now that moderate message is making Republicans look like extremists.
We already see how deeply the pope’s heart is affecting the church as a whole. Bishops from around the world have been meeting in Rome to discuss issues important to families. A summary of their initial discussions came out on Monday and its language was compassionate, calling for the church to listen more and to be merciful in dealing with people’s real lives. This includes a more pastoral approach to the situations of people in civil unions or living together, and more openness to gays, who have “gifts and qualities to offer to the Christian community.” Not exactly in keeping with U.S. conservative rhetoric.
In November 2013 in his exhortation Joy of the Gospel, Pope Francis laments, “How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points?” He also decries how our economic systems leave too many people out both at a national and global level, saying that not only are we all responsible for each other, but also that government has a key role in regulating markets and ensuring that all have access to the basic necessities of life. He boldly states that limitless capitalism (as advocated by many on the American right) is morally repugnant.
Pope Francis challenges his bishops to become leaders in caring for the 100 percent—focusing their attention on those that the economy has left out. This is, I’m sorry to say, the antithesis of the current policies of the U.S. Republican Party.
The Republican Party regards people at the economic margins of our society as lazy. The solution, they say, is to remove the social safety net so they will work harder. But these politicians are too far away from the reality on the ground to know what hard work it is living in poverty. They don’t know that in Asheville, North Carolina, Madison, Wisconsin, and so many other towns, low-wage workers wait every day for buses to take them and their children to daycare—only to turn around and take another bus to work. At the end of their shifts they wait again or walk miles because the bus has quit running. I hear these and similar stories every day as I travel around the country as part of my organization’s “Nuns on the Bus” campaign.
These politicians do not know that living on a minimum-wage job means that families survive by using the very programs—Medicaid, SNAP (food stamps), etc.—that Republicans talk so flippantly about cutting. They do not know that low-income families sometimes need to choose between heat, gasoline, food and medicine, and that a hard day’s work might not be possible for those struggling from hunger or illness. It is not a question of being lazy; it is a question of not earning a living wage.