ROME – As the Catholic Church and governments around the world explore different solutions to the the COVID-19 pandemic and its fallout, one Vatican official has said the Church’s priority will be assisting those hurt by rising poverty and unemployment.

And, pointedly, he added, that’s not socialism, it’s Church teaching.

Father Augusto Zampini noted that in the Church’s advocacy for the poor, “some people accuse us of being socialists.”

“Our answer is, hold on a minute: ‘So, some companies are asking for help, and that’s not socialism, but if poor people or informal workers need help, that’s socialism?’” he said, insisting, “This is not about ideology. This is not about socialism or capitalism.”

“All the structures of society are being challenged at the moment. What we are trying to implement is the preferential option for the poor. That’s one of the basic principles, and it is an ethical imperative according to Laudato Si,” Zampini said, who serves as an adjunct secretary in the Vatican’s Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development.

While all proposals have complications, including providing a universal basic income, “we need to do something,” he said. “We cannot remain indifferent, and these people cannot be invisible for society.”

Speaking to journalists at during a May 16 press conference titled, “COVID-19, Food Crisis and Integral Ecology: The Action of the Church,” which offered journalists an update on the activities of the Vatican’s coronavirus taskforce, Zampini noted that currently, “Millions of people are losing their jobs.”

Some people’s needs are covered by the market, he said, and others receive unemployment insurance from the state, “but what happens to those millions of people who aren’t covered by either the market or the state, but we’re forcing them to stay at home?”

Many people are caught between a rock and a hard place, he said, recalling a conversation with one employee who said that if he stayed home without working, his family risked dying of hunger, but going out meant he could also be infected or that he could infect someone else.

For people caught in this situation, “We cannot force them to stay at home…without any support,” Zampini said, and echoed Pope Francis’s call for a universal basic income.

“It has its pros and cons, but if you weigh these pros and cons today, there’s no doubt we should do something, at least if we want to promote health for everyone,” he said. “We need to sustain those who are doing something for society such as staying home.”

Announced April 15, the Vatican’s coronavirus taskforce is charged with handling the challenges resulting from the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic. It is led by the Vatican’s development department, headed by Ghanaian Cardinal Peter Turkson, and is divided into five working groups tasked with facing different aspects of the coronavirus fallout, including unemployment and research.

The commission is also coordinating with different organizations and Vatican offices, including Caritas Internationalis, the papal almoner’s office, the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, the Vatican pharmacy, the Pontifical Academy for Life, the Pontifical Academy of Sciences and the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences, as well as local churches.

Formally called the “Vatican Covid-19 Commission,” the taskforce is expected to last for at least a year, but its mandate could be extended if need be.

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Speaking to journalists, Cardinal Peter Turkson of Ghana, head of the Integral Human Development office, noted the press conference coincided with the 5-year anniversary of Pope Francis’s environmental encyclical, Laudato Si, which, despite being published in June 2015, was dated May 24 of that year on the feast of Pentecost.

Core themes the document highlights are the “cry of creation” and the “cry of the poor,” he said, noting that pre- COVID-19, the Church’s focus was largely on creation, targeting issues such as climate change. However, with the breakout of the pandemic, “little by little, attention was turned to people in vulnerability.”

The virus is forcing focus to shift to the different types of poverty in society, he said, noting that those most at-risk from the virus are “ethnic minorities and the poor,” because, among other things, they often lack health insurance and tend to have low immunity levels due to malnutrition.

As a Church, Turkson said, “We listen to the cry of creation and the cry of the poor.”

Zampini noted that as part of the coronavirus aftermath, the world is facing a severe food shortage, which in turn could cause more violent conflicts to arise due to insecurity, creating an even larger class of those living in poverty.

“The value of society is determined by how it treats its most vulnerable members,” he said, insisting that COVID-19 is, “an opportunity to change, both in production and consumption patterns and in private and public actions.”

Aloysius John, secretary general of Caritas International, highlighted the various initiatives the organization is leading on behalf of the poor and needy, saying the coronavirus crisis has “brought to evidence too strongly what Laudato Si has been emphasizing,” in terms of current flaws in global economic systems.

“Unfortunately, there are hundreds of thousands more who need our help,” in addition to the millions they are already assisting, he said, and reiterated Caritas’s plea to remove economic sanctions in troubled countries such as Iran, Lebanon, Syria, Libya and Venezuela, “so that aid to the affected population can be guaranteed.”

He also called for debt cancellation for poor countries, or at least the cancellation of interest on debt payments, and that international aid to countries most in need “and not diverted to other purposes.”

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