No Neat Fit for Social Ministry Message

By Allen, John L., Jr. | National Catholic Reporter, March 7, 2008 | Go to article overview

No Neat Fit for Social Ministry Message


Allen, John L., Jr., National Catholic Reporter


Perhaps the most memorable image in recent Catholic life to express the church's social teaching is that of a "seamless garment," invoked by the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago to capture what he called a "consistent ethic of life," including antiabortion efforts as well as support for the poor and opposition to the death penalty and war.

The iconoclastic message heard at a late February conference of Catholic social ministers in Washington, however, is that in reality the "seamless garment" is neither.

John Carr, who heads the Office of Justice, Peace and Human Development for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, told roughly 700 diocesan and parish-level social ministers that the church's social message is not "seamless," in the sense that not every concern has equal weight. Some are more important than others, he said, beginning with the right to life.

Catholic social teaching is also not a "garment," Carr said, in the sense that it doesn't "fit" with either of the current political alignments in the United States.

"We don't fit with the right or the left, with Democrats or Republicans," Carr said. "I sometimes think of us as a self-help group for the politically incorrect, for people who insist on standing both with the unborn and the undocumented."

The Catholic Social Ministry Gathering, held Feb. 24-27, is the most important annual gathering of Catholic political and social activists working on the church's "peace and justice" message.

While the social ministers spent time on Capitol Hill, the focus was not exclusively on national politics. There was also a buzz around old-fashioned labor organizing, especially the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, a movement of Latino, Haitian and Mayan

Indian farm workers in Florida that forced Taco Bell, McDonald's and other fast-food companies to require produce suppliers to improve wages and working conditions. As a consequence, the workers will get a penny more a pound for tomatoes they pick.

Speaking in Spanish, one of the Immokalee workers, Gerardo Reyes-Chavez, told the assembly that the typical Immokalee agricultural laborer earned around $7,500 a year, and prior to this campaign had not seen a wage increase since 1978. Even with the wage increase, simply to make minimum wage on an average day, he said, the typical farm worker in his part of Florida would have to pick two and a half tons of tomatoes.

At the level of national policy, the social ministers appeared to chalk up an early success on the reauthorization of the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, or PEPFAR.

George W. Bush had proposed spending $30 million in 2009 to combat HIV/AIDS worldwide, with the bulk of the funding going to Africa. Many Democrats and progressive social groups hoped to boost that outlay to $50 million, including funds to curb tuberculosis and malaria. The social ministers supported that position, yet they opposed proposals from Democrats to incorporate "family planning" measures into PEPFAR, which some feared could mean abortion as well as eliminating support for abstinence and behavior change campaigns.

On Tuesday night Feb. 26, after the social ministers spent the day on Capitol Hill, a bipartisan compromise was reached boosting spending on PEPFAR to $50 billion, including abstinence and behavior change programs, and barring family planning groups from spending the money on reproductive health services. …

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