Washington, D.C. – Catholics must fight the societal ills of contempt, poverty, and unemployment through solidarity, recent speakers at the Catholic University of America in Washington D.C. insisted.
“The Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost,” Arthur Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute, quoted the Gospel of Luke in his Jan. 17 address to Catholic University students on “bringing America together.”
“We’re sought. We seek others,” he continued. “If we want to change public policy and we want to change American culture, it’s not good enough to burn a bunch of money to help poor people. What are you going to do today to meet somebody at the peripheries of society?”
Brooks gave the first CEO lecture of 2017 at the Busch School of Business and Economics, in which he emphasized the importance of work in human dignity.
There are many poor or unemployed persons living “at the periphery” of society who “we prefer not to see,” he said, asking the students in attendance, “If all the poor people in Washington, D.C. suddenly disappeared, how would your life change?
“I daresay that most of you, your friendships wouldn’t change,” he answered to the students, adding that “really, intimately,” their lives would “not change very much” without the poor nearby.
“This is a country that has split in two so much” that “we don’t need the poor,” he said. “We don’t need millions and millions of our fellow Americans in any meaningful way.”
One in six “able-bodied men” are not even looking for work, he noted, and rising rates of alcoholism, drug overdoses, and suicides among white working-class middle-aged men without college degrees are “unseen and unheard.”
Yet this phenomenon of not “needing” the poor is toxic to society, he said, because “we need every human.” Every person “has the same inherent dignity,” he insisted.
“That is the source, all the politics aside, of the divisiveness” in society, he said, of “what’s pulling us apart.” The problem of “contempt” for fellow human beings, what he described as “the utter conviction of the worthlessness of another human being” is also at the heart of societal problems.
How can Catholics fight this? By going to the peripheries, befriending those with whom they disagree, and creating jobs that give human dignity back to the poor and the marginalized, he said.
He used the example of a program of the New York-based Doe Fund “Ready, Willing & Able,” which helps formerly homeless persons by employing them.
They “get back on their feet through work, through ordinary, sanctified, hard, honest work,” Brooks said. “That’s the equalizer. Human dignity is equalized when we all work in a sanctified way.”
The previous week, on Jan. 10, Bishop Robert McElroy of San Diego and Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston addressed a conference on “Erroneous Autonomy: The Dignity of Work.”
When global markets and institutions are divorced from morality, human dignity is threatened, they insisted. Catholic social teaching challenges the autonomy of markets by emphasizing the dignity of the worker and the right of workers to organize to protect their rights, they said.
“Increasing international trade and financial relationships, combined with rapidly advancing technological innovation and the world of the internet, have produced what we call globalization,” Cardinal O’Malley said.
“This development has produced enormous amounts of wealth but not a fair and just distribution of the proceeds,” he added.
Three current social trends are operating apart from morality and pose special dangers to the common good, Bishop McElroy observed.
“The first of these is the drive for the sovereignty of markets. The second is the technocratic paradigm which seeks dominance over the environment and culture. The third, and most worrying, is nationalism.
“In a very real way they have been evacuated of moral substance and operate autonomously from any moral anchors as principles of politics and governance in our national life,” he said.
Globalism was said by St. John Paul II in his 1991 encyclical Centesimus annus to “lack morality,” Cardinal O’Malley noted. Thus, leaders “have the responsibility to establish a moral framework which can assess and direct the purposes and the consequences of globalization.”
Human dignity is “the cornerstone” of the Church’s social teaching, Cardinal O’Malley said, citing Pope Francis.
“This means that each individual is to be protected by a moral framework of human rights and that the work a person does, whether manual labor, mining, or intellectual and professional work, is understood as an expression of their dignity.”
The Church must work with unions to ensure the dignity of workers is protected against markets that are separated from morality, Cardinal O’Malley maintained.
“The case for unions is rooted in the Catholic sense of our responsibilities to each other as members of the human family; we are not to be left alone in society and or in the economy,” he said.
“We are called to support the right of workers, all workers, private and public sector workers, to organize and be represented in the marketplace and in negotiations by an institution, the union, which gives workers leverage and a voice in the major decisions affecting them and their families.”
Pope Francis “has been a strong public advocate for the dignity of labor, including making interventions when companies were intending significant elimination of jobs,” he continued, noting that the Pope “has argued strongly that in the midst of the forces of technology and globalization, people cannot be reduced to arguments for greater efficiency.”
Health care, the minimum wage, and immigration are all present-day issues closely tied to Catholic social teaching and the dignity of the worker, Cardinal O’Malley explained.
“Debates about minimum wages are most relevant to those closest to poverty,” he said. “Catholic teaching about the option for the poor places us in support of reasonable initiatives to raise the minimum wage.”
“Affordable health care is foundational for the well-being of individuals and families and lack of health care directly threatens human dignity,” he said, emphasizing that “our moral obligation not to abandon people in their times of need is clear.”
Just this past week, the U.S. bishops’ conference asked Congress not to repeal the Affordable Care Act without having a replacement plan in place that would ensure health care coverage for those who most need it.
“While every country must balance numerous factors in determining immigration policy, particularly with regard to security, our national history and our principles call us to be a welcoming society,” Cardinal O’Malley continued.
“For decades the U.S. Catholic Bishops Conference has called for systematic immigration reform, including protection of undocumented individuals and families.”