Saturday, June 16, 2012

How well do we identify with the poor?

On June 13th and 14th the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) held their Spring General Assembly in Atlanta, GA.  The conference provided streaming video coverage of the meeting so I watched some of the footage.  During the meeting the bishops discussed drafting a document called, “On Work, Poverty and a Broken Economy.”  The video for this particular discussion begins roughly 2.5 hours into the first session.

My bishop, Earl Boyea, was the first to comment on the topic.  He said he was “reluctant to support” the bishops drafting such a document and expressed concern that the bishops lacked sufficient “humility not to stray into areas where we lack competence and where we need to let the laity take the lead.”  He said, “We need to learn far more than we need to teach in this area; we need to listen more than we need to speak.”  His remarks stemmed from a concern that it would appear a partisan effort against Republican Representative Paul Ryan and his proposed federal budget that guts funding for many social programs aimed at caring for the poor.  My bishop worried about the bishops causing polarity in a deeply divided country.

I applaud his acknowledgement of the bishops' collective ignorance and his desired restraint from advising on a topic from which they are so distantly removed.  However, I wonder why they feel experts enough to offer voluminous advice on women, women's roles, women's health, human sexuality, marriage, family living, psychology, and biology.  I find their brotherhood supremely unqualified to speak about these topics too.  Why does ignorance in economics give pause to learn more than teach but ignorance on so many other topics does not?

Unfortunately, despite the stunning ignorance the bishops have on marriage, family living and the economy, Archbishop Vigneron of Detroit in his comments stated, “Our wisdom about healthy family life is essential for a healthy economy.”  I hate to burst his bubble but many people question that unmarried childless men have much wisdom about “healthy family life” and believe they lack the humility to “listen more than speak” in this area.  Despite their self-acknowledged ignorance in economics, he and other bishops asserted that the cure for the economy rests in implementing the bishops’ views about strengthening families, an unacknowledged area of their ignorance.

I could scarcely suppress laughter at the bishop’s concern regarding partisanship.  The U.S. bishops have managed to transform RCC to mean “Republican Catholic Church” rather than Roman Catholic Church.  Their overt partisanship against initiatives by the Democratic president but concern for not appearing partisan against a Republican budget that clearly conflicts with gospel teachings illuminated how deeply enmeshed the bishops are with the Republican party in this country. 

On the other hand, I was unsuccessful suppressing laughter at expressed concerns over dividing an already deeply divided nation.  What is the bishops’ ill-founded "religious liberty" campaign but a giant wedge with the episcopal brotherhood hammering away on the wedge to drive it deeper into the nation, dividing it more pronouncedly?  Furthermore, the wedge around "religious liberty" is based upon Aristotle's understanding of human biology.  Rather than humbly listen and learn rather than speak and teach about areas in which they are ignorant, the bishops cling to flawed understandings of human biology and sexuality from a 4th century B.C. philosopher.  It seems odd that the bishops are concerned about new understandings in economics since the 1980s when they wrote their previous document on this topic yet are unconcerned with 25 centuries' increase in understanding about human medicine, biology, and psychology.  It is even more perplexing that the bishops would fashion a huge societal wedge based upon those 25 centuries-old flawed understandings and feign concern about dividing society.  

However, I think the most illuminating part of the discussion was a statement made by the USCCB’s president, Cardinal Dolan, and the brotherhood’s subsequent reaction.  It belied their disposition.  After introducing this topic about poverty, he said he had to limit discussion to “14 minutes or the pasta will not be al dente” and the brothers responded with laughter.  Perhaps most painful in this discussion was the bishops’ lack of humility regarding their ignorance on poverty. 

This country has tens of millions of hungry people – many of them children.  Yet, Dolan - who looks like he has never involuntarily skipped a single meal - limits discussion about the poor to just a few minutes lest it impact his lunch.  The poor are so important that the bishops can mock them by trivializing discussion about the hungry so that these very well-fed bishops won't experience a delay or impediment to their meal's quality? 

I do hope the pasta was al dente perfect because the discussion about poverty didn’t even take the 14 minutes and it focused very little on the poor.  Instead, comments centered much more around economics, a topic about which they are supposedly ignorant.   It was apparent that they had intimate interactions with academic economists and were well-versed in their concerns.  However, it was not apparent that they had intimate knowledge of the realities of the impoverished.  Did they invite any of Atlanta’s hungry to dine with them?  Did they visit with any of Atlanta’s impoverished?  Did they send the leftover al dente pasta to the hungry in imitation of Christ’s preference for the poor? 

Multiple bishops spoke of the need to turn to economists to understand caring for the poor.  None of them mentioned walking with the poor to understand caring for the poor.  And yet Bishop Blaire had the audacity to say, “We identify with what you are going through” with regards to unemployment, poverty and fear of falling into poverty.  How?  How do they identify with what people are going through?  When have they suffered unemployment?  It is almost unheard of that a bishop or any priest loses his source of income despite stomach-churning atrocities committed.  How do they identify with a fear of slipping into poverty?  They levy parish taxes and take what finances they need or want from local parish communities.  How many of them are homeless?  My bishop has not one but two bishop mansions because we have a retired bishop and heaven forbid that two bishops share a single mansion.  What is the evidence to support a claim that they identify with the poor because the evidence I see points to the contrary.

I believe this exchange between Dolan and "the brothers" offered tremendous insight into why the bishops are widely seen as patsies for the Republican Party as well as callous, indifferent, arrogant, elitist, irresponsible, misogynist males who have lost more than 50% of the flock entrusted to them.  It is difficult to call men “good shepherds” who have managed to drive away the majority of their sheep.

Take heart.  Jesus said, “I am the Good Shepherd” and that he would be with us till the end of time.  As the bishops absorb themselves with self-affirmation, self-congratulation and self-admiration, bandying around with the wealthy and academic elitists, we can still be imitators of Christ.  Just because the bishops do not walk with the poor and at times mock the poor, it is no excuse for us to do likewise.  How much intimate interaction do you have with the impoverished?  How much do you legitimately identify with their condition?  What do you do to alleviate human suffering in the micro-cosm of your world? 


  1. How much do I identify with the poor? Maybe I qualify as sympathetic to their plight when I divulge I was unemployed 3 times from August 2007 to April 2009 and I struggled even after I was employed because I took salary cuts and still had bills to pay. I was fortunate because my family helped me in many ways and managed to do so while still respecting my dignity. Between occasional odd jobs from some of them and outright financial support, I managed to make it through. Even during that time, I tried to "pay it forward" by donating clothing and non-perishable food to charitable organizations, not because "there but for the grace of God go I", but because by the grace of God, I was there and I still felt an obligation to help those worse off than I.

  2. Louise, you stomached more than I could. I thought your bishop to be the best of the lot in confessing his ignorance and need to consult the laity. Many thanks for the great summary and right-on analysis.

    Bob S

  3. Jesus warns us always to be wary of those who claim to be our leaders or teachers. We also need to be wary of saying 'well at least I am not as bad as....' It's a good reminder to check our own personal behaviours whenever we are scandalised by others. Thank you