NEW YORK — More than 100 Catholic organizations, primarily religious orders, have sent a letter to Congress urging particular attention to low-income communities and those of color amid the global pandemic.
The two-page letter was sent on May 5 and asks that future relief packages be mindful that marginalized communities are bearing a “larger burden from the pandemic and the economic fallout.”
Signatories to the letter ask that particular responses be provided to African Americans, Latinos, and tribal nations who are at risk of air and water pollution exposing them to higher risks for respiratory illnesses, a nationwide moratorium on electricity, heat and water shut-offs during the pandemic, and increased funding for energy efficient programs that could benefit low-income households.
Among the signatories to the list are the Sisters of Mercy of the Americas, which organized the effort, the Ignatian Solidarity Network, Franciscan Action Network, Marist Fathers and Brothers, Xaverian Missionaries USA, the Catholic Health Association, and scores of other religious orders in the country.
Marianne Comfort, who serves on the Justice team for the Sisters of Mercy, told Crux that one of the major hopes of the letter is to elevate areas not getting as much attention, particularly environmental injustices and sustainability questions.
For example, she said, people are being encouraged to wash their hands constantly during this pandemic and “some people cannot wash their hands because they’ve experienced shut offs of water or because they don’t have access to clean water.”
Similarly, Stephen Schneck, executive director of the Franciscan Action Network, emphasized that the letter is meant to spotlight communities that have been overlooked in past relief efforts because they often lack the resources to advocate for themselves.
“The initial COVID relief packages from Congress were pitiful for the populations hit hardest by the pandemic, the marginalized and impoverished who don’t have resources to advocate on Capitol Hill for themselves” Schneck told Crux.
“We’re not talking about charity,” he continued. “In the spirit of Catholic teachings about preference for the poor, we’re talking about justice for those who are already the most vulnerable in our society. Justice for those in poverty and those without healthcare must come before bailouts to big business and the wealthy.”
In addition to short term relief, Comfort said the letter seeks to raise questions about long term matters of justice.
“Everyone says we’re wanting to get back to normal, but the way things were ‘normal’ before were very unjust to many people and environmentally not sustainable,” she said. “We wanted to tell members of Congress that when they’re thinking about recovery, we can think about recovery in a much more just and environmentally sustainable way.”
In particular, she emphasized, when Congressional leaders talk about creating jobs, they should prioritize ones that foster clean energy and when they seek infrastructure projects, they should prioritize clean water systems.
A quote from Pope Francis’s 2015 encyclical on the environment, Laudato si’, precedes the letter to congressional leaders.
“True statecraft is manifest when, in difficult times, we uphold high principles and think of the long-term common good,” they quote from the pope’s letter.
Comfort told Crux that “Laudato si’ and Pope Francis’ call for us to care for our common home is the momentum for all of our work.”
“That’s an underlying context all the time, particularly for women religious congregations,” she added.
In addition to their letter, Comfort said she was pleased that on Monday, the U.S. bishops released a statement calling on Congress to examine the racial disparities evidenced by the pandemic.
“Our hearts are wounded for the many souls mourned as African American communities across the nation are being disproportionately infected with and dying from the virus that causes COVID-19,” wrote the bishops. “We raise our voices to urge state and national leaders to examine the generational and systemic structural conditions that make the new coronavirus especially deadly to African American communities.”
“I’m thrilled to know they’re taking a strong stance on this,” said Comfort. “It seems to be a natural follow-up to the work they’ve done in recent years against racism.”
“Far too many people and communities, left behind in the best of times, are becoming disproportionately vulnerable to COVID-19 and the economic fall-out,” the letter states. “Yet we also see a willingness to make individual and collective sacrifices for the common good, and the capacity for governments at all levels to allocate in a short period of time the resources needed to address a global crisis.”
Now, they conclude, “is an important moment to prepare for the next crisis and increase resilience for everyone, regardless of race, class, income and zip code.”
Follow Christopher White on Twitter: @cwwhite212