Each August, about 150 migrant farm workers head to the Sin Fronteras Center in El Paso, Texas. There, they head to bed while it’s still light out so that they can wake up at 2 a.m. to board buses headed for the chili pepper fields in New Mexico.
After long days in the southwest sun, these workers – mostly men – return in the late afternoon to shower, check in at the medical clinic or legal aid center, and receive mail from loved ones back home. While there, they’re likely to meet Fernie Bermudez, a lifelong El Paso resident and practicing Catholic who has volunteered in the social justice movement for nearly two decades.
Bermudez, who serves on the board at Sin Fronteras, also directs a ministry at Saint Pius X Catholic Church in El Paso that works with people living on the outskirts of El Paso, in the colonias. The 500 families the ministry serves each year live in homes without running water; some got access to electricity just within the past couple of years.
When Pope Francis said in an interview one year ago today that “The church’s ministers must be merciful, take responsibility for the people and accompany them like the Good Samaritan, who washes, cleans and raises up his neighbor,” he could have been talking about Bermudez.
The interview, granted to major Jesuit journals, showcased Francis’ determination to re-focus the Church less on culture wars – contraception, abortion, same-sex marriage and the like – and more on poverty and inequality.
Has the pope’s call for “a new balance” found a receptive audience in the States?
Some doubted so in June, when the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, meeting in New Orleans, renewed its focus on abortion, gay marriage, and the Obamacare contraception coverage mandate.
Patrick Carolan, executive director of the Franciscan Action Network in Washington, D.C., told Crux that too much energy remains directed away from social justice, leaving structures that cause poverty to go unchallenged.
“The Catholic Church is certainly one of the leading organizations in terms of providing services for the poor,” he said. “Where I think it’s lacking is on the other side of the coin, addressing the problem of poverty through change, not just providing food. I think we have to do both, and the church has fallen behind.”
Immigration reform, however, is one area where some Catholics believe the institutional church in the US is most focused, and united, on poverty-related issues.
“Tackling the poverty issue through immigration reform advocacy” is a constant refrain in many dioceses, Maria Elena Durazo, executive secretary-treasurer of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, an organization that partners with many Catholic organizations, said.
Others point out that the church’s actual priorities don’t always adhere to public perception.
“We devote much more attention and financial resources to those who are poor and in need every day,” the bishop of Spokane, Wash., Blase Cupich, told Crux. “I am fairly well convinced that the amount we spend on these other issues is just a small fraction of what we spend on poverty each and every day.”
Cupich, nonetheless, said Pope Francis “has given us, as bishops in this country, a chance to recalibrate how we are going to highlight, in our own efforts, putting poverty front and center.”
In contrast with unequivocal statements from the Vatican — the pope called social inequality “the root of all social evil” and the head of the Vatican’s media reform committee said those who don’t talk about the poor are “ignoring some of the most important lessons of the New Testament” — the message from American clergy, though hardly a monolithic group, remains muddled.
New York’s Cardinal Timothy Dolan nuanced the pope’s critiques of capitalism in the Wall Street Journal in May, writing that American-style economics aren’t necessarily the target of the Argentine-born pope’s criticism. “Americans must remember that the Holy Father is speaking to this worldwide audience,” he wrote.
Other bishops, however, see in the pope’s comments a direct challenge to all Catholics, lay and ordained.
“I think Pope Francis’ statements on the challenge of global poverty and questions of inequality provide a unique opportunity for the Catholic community to deepen its institutionalized lay resources,” Robert McElroy, an auxiliary bishop in the Archdiocese of San Francisco, told Crux. “This is a unique opportunity for a resurgence in bringing this rich tradition of our faith to society in an age when inequality is growing, and I do see a resurgence beginning.”
If the church isn’t talking forcefully about poverty, some believe this is a reflection of wider culture.
“The Catholic community in the US does a great deal to fight poverty and its effects in many ways, including initiatives established by the bishops themselves,” Meghan Clark, an assistant professor of theology and religious studies at St. John’s University in Queens, New York, told Crux. But, “where we are perhaps most lacking is a strong, clear, public voice connecting justice and spirituality, for how these efforts don’t just flow from our faith, but are demanded by it.”
John Carr, who was director of the US Catholic Bishops Department of Justice, Peace and Human Development for more than 20 years, said the church’s reticence to speak up on poverty mirrors a wider unwillingness to address inequality. But Carr, who now runs the Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life at Georgetown University, hopes that the pope’s insistence on keeping the issue alive might make waves in Washington.
“The silence on poverty is widespread and dangerous,” he said. “Hopefully that silence is coming to an end, and Pope Francis ought to get a lot of credit for taking that on.”
Both Clark and Carr said that the church does a great deal to fight poverty, even if it doesn’t appear to some to be the top priority.
Carr pointed to the bishops’ conference lobbying lawmakers in Washington and the Catholic Campaign for Human Development, the bishops’ anti-poverty initiative that awarded more than $14 million in grants to community organizers this year.
But Clark believes poverty must become more central in the church’s public dialogue, which she hopes can spur a wider discussion around the issue.
“There are a lot of individuals in the church who really want to prioritize poverty, but the reality is, they aren’t the loudest voices,” she said. “The question that I’d like to see addressed isn’t just the question of Catholic priorities, but how do we stimulate a wider conversation that’s simply not happening?”