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Recharging the Catholic Church’s social justice tradition

Wow. Where did this guy come from? Well, this “guy” came from Latin America, a land where poverty was rampant and thousands of people, including nuns and priests, had been murdered in the struggle for justice. It’s no wonder that Pope Francis’ first major document, “Evangelii Gaudiam” (“The Joy of the Gospel”) urged communities worldwide to address the poverty and greed prevalent in their own backyards.

The pope “is a master at bringing individual spirituality and social justice together,” said Harvey Cox, professor emeritus at Harvard Divinity School. However, Francis was simply updating the church’s social justice tradition, launched by Leo XIII’s “Rerum Novarum” in 1891. In 1919, the American bishops followed suit with their declaration, “Social Reconstruction.” Rejecting the laissez-faire philosophy, the hierarchy set forth several policies aimed at making capitalism work for all classes, including minimum wages for workers, unemployment, old-age insurance, health care and the right of workers to organize.

When the stock market crashed in 1929, propelling the nation into the Great Depression, Catholics, influenced by their church’s teachings and their own experiences, were primed to support President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal. The community included bishops, priests, politicians, union leaders and city machines organized mostly by Irish Catholic bosses.

Yes, the machines were corrupt, but it was corruption with a heart. Many of the leaders, descendants of survivors from Ireland’s Great Famine, won their allegiance with the immigrants and the unlucky by providing jobs, food and other programs, enabling people to survive and thrive in the harsh industrial cities. In a time when laissez-faire was dominant, the machines provided a model for government intervention to help the lower classes.

Under FDR’s administration, the government put millions of people back to work through public works, while promoting numerous programs to help farmers, workers, homeowners and the elderly, providing a safety net for the unlucky while stimulating the entire economy. It took the New Deal and World War II to overcome the Depression. The next five presidents, including Republicans Dwight D. Eisenhower and Richard M. Nixon, expanded the New Deal. It reached its apex under President Lyndon B. Johnson’s “War on Poverty.”

But by the late 1960s, the New Deal coalition was falling apart. The Southern Democrats were moving toward the Republican Party after Johnson promoted the civil rights laws. Many white workers turned against the Democratic Party, assuming that the benefits given to African-Americans were at their cost. Many Catholics, more affluent than their ancestors, became Republicans. If that was not enough damage, the party endorsed abortion rights at the 1972 Democratic Convention, alienating a large section of the Catholic community.

Under Pope John Paul II, the Vatican loaded the church with bishops who put the church’s sexual morality above social justice teachings, relying on the Republican Party to overturn Roe v. Wade and prevent laws supporting same-sex marriage. Under Republican Presidents Ronald W. Reagan, George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush, Washington cut taxes favoring the upper classes, reduced social programs and increased military budgets, contributing to our recent recession.

When President Obama arrived at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., he faced an economical tsunami: the largest gap between the rich and lower classes since 1929, financial institutions collapsing, millions of people losing their jobs and homes, industrial factories fleeing to foreign countries, a soaring debt relying on foreign creditors and two costly wars.

To pull the country out of the hole, Obama promoted the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act to stimulate the economy, putting millions of people back to work through public works, and the Affordable Care Act, aimed at providing medical insurance for all Americans. In contrast, the Republicans adopted austerity strategies to balance the budget by cutting social programs. The conflict touched off a fierce battle in Congress to reduce the Recovery Act and eliminate Obamacare.

But in March 2013, a new voice entered the political battles. Pope Francis is endowed with a quick wit, a simple lifestyle and a tendency to hang around poor people – he invited some of them for breakfast to celebrate his 77th birthday. The new pope has been a gold mine for journalists, commentators and late-night comedians, enabling Francis to deliver his sizzling critique, worldwide, described in his “Joy of the Gospel.”

“Can we continue to stand by when food is thrown away while people are starving? … Some people continue to defend trickle-down theories, which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world. This opinion, which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and naive trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system. Meanwhile, the excluded are still waiting.”

The pope added: “The culture of prosperity deadens us. … In the name of Christ, the rich must help, respect and promote the poor.”

That’s strong stuff – enough to impact American politics. During a Democratic caucus last December, Sen. Bernard Sanders, a Jew, startled his colleagues by claiming, “We have a strong ally on our side … and that is the pope.”

“You’re quoting my pope,” Sen. Richard Durbin said with delight. “He has given a number of us in the political ranks encouragement, and really a challenge, to step up and remember many of the values that brought us to public life.”

“The pope is starting to sound like the nuns,” said House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. She was referring to the Network lobby, arguably the church’s strongest organization in promoting peace-building, immigration reform, health care and economic justice.

Led by Sister Simone Campbell, the Network launched the “Nuns on the Bus” in 2012, rolling through towns and villages, and capturing the attention of millions of people through the media. She has dueled with Republicans in Congress for shortchanging the poor. Count on the nuns to carry the pope’s message into the battles ahead.

Not everyone was pleased, especially Republicans. “The guy is from Argentina,” said Rep. Paul Ryan, House Budget Committee chairman. “They haven’t had real capitalism in Argentina.”

Political commentator Rush Limbaugh proclaimed the pope has “gone beyond Catholicism” to “pure Marxism.”

In sharp contrast, John Freehery, a Republican strategist, argues that the pope’s words go “to the soul of the party. … What does the party actually believe in? Is it just to have unbridled capitalism without any moral core?”

Newt Gingrich, former Republican House speaker, urged his party to “embrace the pope’s core critique … The pope may be starting a conversation” just when “the Republican Party itself needs to have the conversation.”

Before Obama’s visit with the pope last week, the president was eager to talk about “their shared commitment” to address the “poverty and growing inequality.” Indeed, Obama’s State of the Union address reads like something right out of the “Joy of the Gospel.”

“Today, after four years of economic growth, corporate profits and stock prices have rarely been higher, and those at the top have never done better. But average wages have barely budged. Inequality has deepened. Upward mobility has stalled. The cold, hard fact is that even in the midst of recovery, too many Americans are working more than ever just to get by – let alone get ahead. And too many still aren’t working at all.”

Of course, there will be issues between the two leaders, especially Obama’s support for abortion rights. But the president has declared that income inequality is “the defining challenge of our time” – echoing the pope’s objective. Indeed, the American people want the same things. A CNN/ORC International poll shows 69 percent think our economic system is unfairly favoring the wealthy and 60 percent believe that raising taxes on the wealthy and corporations to increase programs for the poor would do more to reduce poverty while encouraging economic growth. According to a recent Bloomberg National Poll, 64 percent of Americans now support Obamacare.

But it will take active citizenship to pressure our representatives to summon their moral strength to help revive our core values. With Pope Francis in his bully pulpit, he will undoubtedly be a force to recharge the church’s social justice tradition and empower nervous Democrats and moderate Republicans to make our government work for all people.

Edward Cuddy is a history professor emeritus at Daemen College.