A few weeks ago, during the acrimonious debate over the debt limit and deficit reduction, a number of religious leaders met with President Obama to ask him not to forget the poor as our nation struggles with its financial crisis.
Commenting on the meeting, Catholic Bishop Ricardo Ramirez, said, “We’re not interested in which party wins the current political battles but we are worried about who is likely to lose – the families trying to feed their kids, the jobless looking for work, children who need healthcare, the hungry, sick and hopeless.”
The religious leaders are part of the Circle of Protection, a non-partisan movement that works to protect the poor and vulnerable in the midst of the challenges presented by a flagging economy. The Circle of Protection includes religious leaders as well as heads of community organizations and agencies.
The American Bishops have also chimed in with their own statement on behalf of the poor: “Their voices are too often missing in these debates, but they have the most compelling moral claim on our consciences and our common resources . . . A just framework for future budgets cannot rely on disproportionate cuts in essential services to poor persons.”
Most people would agree, I think, that one of the primary responsibilities of the government – federal, state and local – is to provide a safety net for the poor. While churches and non-profits, community groups and even individual families can and should do their part to assist their neighbors in need, it’s only the government that has the financial resources and political infrastructure necessary to respond in a systematic way to the enormous social needs of our time – providing food for the hungry, suitable housing for the homeless, basic healthcare for the sick, sound education for children and opportunities for productive employment. The religious leaders who met with the president were absolutely correct in reminding him of this obligation and encouraging his support. Other political leaders – on a national, state and local level – should be challenged as well.
It occurs to me, however, that if the religious leaders who met with the president to advocate for the poor didn’t use the opportunity to speak on behalf of another endangered population, unborn children – and I’ve seen no report that they did – they missed an important opportunity to instruct and challenge the president on the most substantive moral issue of our time, abortion. The religious leaders had a chance to be courageous prophets, to speak moral truth to secular power. And that opportunity was critical because President Obama is the most ardent pro-abortion advocate we’ve had. It is an evil agenda he pursues aggressively at every turn.
Obviously it’s good, essential in fact, that religious leaders speak on behalf of the poor. That advocacy is a primary obligation of faith. But I can’t think of anyone poorer or more vulnerable than an unborn, unwanted child.
We speak of homelessness – but who’s more homeless than the unborn, unwanted child about to be destroyed, not even finding warm shelter in his mother’s arms? We speak of hunger – but who’s more in need of sustenance than the unborn, unwanted child totally dependent on the compassionate care of others? We speak of welcoming immigrants and refugees – but who’s more alienated than an unborn, unwanted child who’s viewed as a burden and then exiled from the human family? And we speak of being weak and disenfranchised – but who has any less control over their own fate than an unborn, unwanted child who will never have a place at the table, whose tiny voice will never be heard?
Now, lest I’m accused of being a single-issue bishop or narrow-minded, ignoring other important social justice issues – and it’s a charge I’ve endured in the past – permit me to present this little apologia for some of the other issues in which I’ve been involved. In my earliest days in Providence I visited with and supported the “Janitors for Justice” during their labor protests. I’ve marched in our streets for affordable housing and publicly supported the bond issue for the same cause. I founded and have enthusiastically supported the “Keep the Heat On” program which has provided heating assistance for thousands of families across our state. I directed that diocesan property be used to establish Emmanuel House, a shelter for the homeless during a difficult, even dangerous winter. I’ve regularly visited our adult prison, the ACI, and have met and prayed with the inmates. I’ve toured numerous community programs and social agencies in our state to learn about their services and needs, and have sent financial grants to soup kitchens and food pantries. And I’ve provided a strong and consistent voice on behalf of the immigrant community – documented and otherwise – despite being personally vilified for presenting the position of the Church on that divisive issue.
Please understand that I mention these initiatives not to boast, nor to claim any special credentials but, simply to say that I, like the institutional church itself, am committed to many social justice issues beyond that of the unborn child. Some have accused pro-lifers of being concerned about children only until they’re born. It’s a ridiculous and scurrilous charge!
At the same time, it’s also quite reasonable to insist that the social justice agenda include concern for, and public advocacy for, the poorest, most vulnerable members of our human family – unborn, unwanted children. And at every opportunity we need to challenge our public leaders on this issue, especially those who talk a good game about social justice but actively contribute to the culture of death around us.