The following comes from an article by San Francisco auxiliary bishop Robert McElroy in the Oct. 21, 2013 issue of America magazine. The emailer who sent the article to Cal Catholic last week commented, “I have read that he is the most brilliant member of the American bench of bishops.”

“How many poor people there still are in the world! And what great
suffering they have to endure!” With these words the new pope
explained to international diplomats assembled at the Vatican on March
22 why he chose the name Francis at the moment of his election. And
since then Pope Francis has unswervingly pointed to the scandal of
poverty in a world of plenty as a piercing moral challenge for the
church and the whole human community.

In part, the pope’s message has called us to personal conversion,
speaking powerfully to each of us about how we let patterns of
materialism captivate our lives and distort our humanity. In a
disarming way, Francis seeks to make us all deeply uncomfortable, so
that in our discomfort we may recognize and confront the alienation
from our own humanity that occurs when we seek happiness in objects
rather than in relationship with God and others.

Francis’ message also has been an invitation to cultural conversion,
laying bare the three false cultures that materialism has created in
our world: the culture of comfort that makes us think only of
ourselves; the culture of waste that seizes the gifts of the created
order only to savor them for a moment and then discard them; and the
culture of indifference that desensitizes us to the suffering of
others, no matter how intense, no matter how sustained. Pope Francis’
words about the “globalization of indifference” echo the poignant
observation of Pope Benedict in his encyclical “Charity in Truth”
(2009): “As society becomes ever more globalized, it makes us
neighbors but does not make us brothers.”

And finally, the pope’s message has been one of structural reform in
the world. In June Francis explained: “A way has to be found to enable
everyone to benefit from the fruits of the earth, and not simply to
close the gap between the affluent and those who must be satisfied
with the crumbs falling from the table.” Francis has made clear that
the present economic slowdown cannot be an excuse for inaction.
Rather, there must immediately commence “a new stimulus to
international activity on behalf of the poor, inspired by something
more than mere goodwill, or, worse, promises which all too often have
not been kept.”

Both the substance and methodology of Pope Francis’ teachings on the
rights of the poor have enormous implications for the culture and
politics of the United States and for the church in this country.
These teachings demand a transformation of the existing Catholic
political conversation in our nation, a transformation reflecting
three themes: prioritizing the issue of poverty, focusing not only on
intrinsic evils but also on structural sin, and acting with prudence
when applying Catholic moral principles to specific legal enactments.

The depth of the moral responsibility of the United States to fight
global poverty arises from the tremendous power that our country
exerts in the world economy. More than any other nation, the United
States has the capacity to influence trading relationships, the
availability of capital and market conditions. If Francis’ vision of a
world with truly just trading and financial structures is to be
realized, then the United States and Europe must take a leading role
in reforming the existing rules that so often victimize incipient
markets in staggeringly poor countries.

In addition, the United States and the richest nations of the world
community have a moral responsibility to share from their plenty with
the poorest peoples in the human family. In 2002 the wealthy nations
of the world pledged to direct 0.7 percent of their gross domestic
product toward the alleviation of dire poverty by the year 2015. This
level of investment would largely eliminate severe poverty on the
planet. However, the United States and most of the other leading
economic powers have reneged on their commitment; today the United
States only gives 0.2 percent of its gross domestic product in
development assistance. As a result, millions of children die each
year from disease and malnutrition that could be prevented. This is
social sin, arising from individual decisions. This is the visible
presence of a “global culture of indifference” that lets us avert our
eyes while our governments consciously make choices to reinforce our
culture of comfort while ignoring the countless human lives lost as a

Within the United States, we also turn our eyes away from the growing
domestic inequality that ruins lives and breaks spirits. Pope Francis
speaks directly to this: “While the income of a minority is increasing
exponentially, that of the majority is crumbling. This imbalance
results from ideologies which uphold the absolute autonomy of markets
and financial speculation, and thus deny the right of control to
states, which are themselves charged with providing for the common
good.” The United States, which for so much of its great history has
stood for economic mobility and a broad, comfortable middle class, now
reflects gross disparities in income and wealth and barriers to
mobility. The poor suffer a “benign neglect” in our political
conversations, and absorb brutal cuts in governmental aid, especially
at the state level.

If the Catholic Church is truly to be a “church for the poor” in the
United States, it must elevate the issue of poverty to the very top of
its political agenda, establishing poverty alongside abortion as the
pre-eminent moral issues the Catholic community pursues at this moment
in our nation’s history. Both abortion and poverty countenance the
deaths of millions of children in a world where government action
could end the slaughter. Both abortion and poverty, each in its own
way and to its own degree, constitute an assault on the very core of
the dignity of the human person, instrumentalizing life as part of a
throwaway culture. The cry of the unborn and the cry of the poor must
be at the core of Catholic political conversation in the coming years
because these realities dwarf other threats to human life and dignity
that confront us today….

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