Critic Blasts Catholic Bishops for “Two-tier Morality”

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Mauro Bighin /

May 16, 2012; Source: Remapping Debate

Reporting for Remapping Debate, Kevin C. Brown paints a pretty devastating picture of what he characterizes as the “two-tier morality” of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB). One tier, he writes, is the anti-poverty advocacy that the Catholic Bishops are known for—for example, calling on New York’s legislature to increase the state’s minimum wage and condemning the U.S. House Budget Committee’s proposed cuts in food stamps and Medicaid.

That’s the tier that the public thinks it knows about the bishops’ social politics, but Brown contends that “the strength of the USCCB’s anti-poverty advocacy does not, in general, match the rhetoric.” He cites a fellow at the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University, the Rev. Thomas Reese, who contends that “there is not real muscle” behind the bishops’ public anti-poverty agenda. According to David Hollenbach, a Jesuit theologian at Boston College, “The status of abortion and homosexuality and stem cell research issues and so forth [have been elevated] to a level of discussion…in a way that…is inappropriately stressing those issues above the broad range of issues that really need to be dealt with,” including, says Brown, poverty.

While many people credit the Catholic Church with extensive charitable support of poor people, Brown quotes Fred Rotondaro, chair of the board of directors of Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good, who asserts that Catholic charities such as the Campaign for Human Development “alleviate the suffering…(but) have failed to…attack the causes of poverty in America.”

Brown compares the advocacy of the USCCB on federal poverty and social safety net issues, delivered through the Domestic Social Development Office with a staff of five, to the Pro-Life Activities office, with eight staff people. Brown also notes the Bishops’ torrid written condemnation of the Ryan budget in Congress, but Brown says that effort was undercut by Cardinal Timothy Dolan, head of the USCCB, after Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) responded forcefully; Brown characterized Dolan’s response to Ryan’s defense as “conciliatory” in comparison to the more forceful bishops’ letters.

He concludes with a quote that he seems to agree with from Steve Krueger, the national director of Catholic Democrats, who says that the bishops “spoke out much more vigorously, much more unambiguously…25 and 15 years ago than they are today” on anti-poverty issues.

Do you think that the Catholic bishops engage poverty issues from two different tiers, one that seems to be strongly committed to promoting policy changes to benefit the poor, and another which either offers charity rather than social change advocacy or diminishes support for anti-poverty efforts because of the bishops’ elevation of their pro-life, anti-abortion, anti-stem cell agenda? –Rick Cohen

  • Julie

    The Church says that poverty may be addressed in a variety of ways: governmental or non-governmental are both acceptable. The Church states that people of goodwill may disagree on how best to address those issues of social justice.

    However, issues like abortion and the resultant fetal stem cell abuse exist at such a fundamental level of the most basic human rights -there can be no health or wealth without life- that where death is threatened, there must be a clear and unequivocal stand. If you believe that unborn babies are human beings then abortion is an incredibly dire situation.

    In other words, if you are threatened with metal tools to dismember your body, a vacuum to suck you out of your environment of life, or a bath of acid that will kill you -what you’re eating isn’t all that important at the moment. Those are all methods of abortion -methods that destroy a living being with a unique, unrepeatable set of human DNA.

    Now, of course food and shelter are incredibly important, but that is not the same as someone who is actually in imminent danger of being killed -as are unborn babies in America.

  • Greg

    The Catholic Church has the largest charitable organizations working to alleviate the suffering of the poor everywhere in the world. Brown quotes Rotandaro that both Catholic Charities and the CHD have failed to alleviate the causes of suffering and poverty in the United States. The last thing to know it’s in water is a fish. Sadly, both Brown and Rontandaro fail to see that most of the suffering and poverty in the United States is caused by inept government programs that foster such quagmire.

  • Jill

    The Catholic Church is all talk and no action.

    Pro-Life marches haven’t done a thing towards moving the abortion issue. Railing against pro-choicers doesn’t do a thing to lessen the number of US abortions.

    What the Catholic Church CAN do is put its actions to work:

    *All Catholic high schools have an extra-curricular program called the Pro-Life Club. Considering the Church’s implacable position, why isn’t this part of the curriculum? Religion classes cover too much subject matter to focus solely on pro-life.

    *All Catholic high schools require service hours. A percentage of these hours should be devoted to working with a local program that focuses on unwed, pregnant women who are indigent. Drive them to pre-natal OB appointments, run errands, do chores to help. Offer any and all assistance, including raising money. After the birth, visit the mother and help with the newborn. Drive them to Pediatric appointments for follow-up care including shots. Sometimes there are siblings who also need care- assist with them to make it easier for the new Mom by running errands and doing chores.

    There is a plethora of ways the Catholic Church can be MORE pro-life and less anti-abortion. We need to practice what we preach and not expect marches and rallies alone to solve problems. It’s been 30+ years and not much has changed except others’ perception that the Catholic Church is even more talk and no action.

  • James H

    The article has several flaws in my view. First its puts religious liberty in scare quotes a good bit. Why not put “poverty prevention” in scare quotes. Also why are only people for the most part aligned with the Democrat Party mentioned so often , and other the viewpoint is not. I am talking Laity not Bishops. For some reason that is missing from their “Missing voices” column because they failed to seek them out.

    I would also point out that the fact that Bishops efforts on a National Level to get immigration reform and the Dream Act passed usuing SIGNIFICANT resources is not mentioned. That seems very much is a poverty issue , and it’s a issue that the Bishops take a good meaning arrows from on the right. Its absense is glaring.

    I have no doubt that the Bishops as a National Conference have a harder time coming together on economic issues. Partly because well have do you get a 100 Bishops to agree on what should be cut , and how high taxes should be raised. Is that even their place.

    The Bishops standbye position is usually CUT NOTHING and lets hold on to as much anti poverty programs as we can. That is in fact an understandable position. However after a while it’s not one that exactly is going to garner a lot of support in these time of tough choices.

    It should be noted Bishops are much more active on the State level. Something that is rarely noted. This makes sense because they are closer to the problem and the Bishops can have some more likely agreement on a State level.

    By the way the Bishops sent out a statement on Fed Sentencing Reform? How many mentions of it did I see? Hardly none though I think it’s a important document. Again whose thought is that?

    In the end the Bishops can’t have Political statements read al the time at each Mass each week. SO a National Level it must choose it’s Issues carefully and space them out. For instance immigration , prolife, and now religious liberty are huge issues that take some “capital”.

    Further again we also have the Bishops having statements read as to developments in ther State legislature.

  • rick cohen

    Dear Greg: Most people agree with one part of your statement, that the Catholic Church has sponsored and housed some of the largest charitable organizations in the nation fighting poverty. Many of us old poverty warriors admire not only the work of the Campaign for Human Development, for example, but also the local anti-poverty leadership of church leaders who often stood in the forefront of social justice when the church hierarchy might not have been quite there. However, the notion that government programs have fostered suffering and poverty in the U.S. isn’t accurate. Even Cardinal Dolan wouldn’t agree with that. Look at the Catholic Bishops’ consistent stands on poverty. I think that part of your analysis is untenable. Thanks for your comment.