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November 18, 2008

Perspectives on the economic crisis: the causes;
the toll taken in people's lives; the church's response

In this edition:
-- A parish's care for others in painful economic times.
-- How the financial crisis calls a model of life into question.
-- Hard economic times isolate people or bring them together.
-- Economic downturn puts pressure on Catholic Charities agencies.
-- What happens to the poor in tough economic times?
-- Current quotes to ponder: 1) Parish group aids job seekers. 2) Note on contemporary prophets.
-- Immigration realities: A bishop's first pastoral letter.
-- After the election: Social doctrine and the common good; abortion concern.

The Parish Community's Care for Others in Painful Economic Times

"We will only get through these distressing economic times together - not alone," Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles said in a Nov. 11 spiritual reflection on the economic crisis. He urged parishes and other church institutions to act on behalf of those living with fear as the financial-crisis fallout continues.

"All of us in our parishes and schools need to be very attentive to each other," Cardinal Mahony wrote. He said: "We need to step forward quickly if someone we know is suffering severe desperation; they need our encouragement and our hope. We can learn to share more fully than we thought ourselves capable."

Will job seekers find support in their parish communities? Cardinal Mahony encouraged parishes to "be places where job opportunities are posted and shared - even small or part-time jobs." He said:

"Nothing gives us more courage and hope than work. Even in times of employee cutbacks in our parishes, we can still assist those out of work to find help to get them through the immediate crisis. Our parishes need to serve as centers of hope during these times, and we need to model both understanding and outreach."

The "Christian way" is to "go forward together, not alone and by ourselves," said Cardinal Mahony. He added, "We turn to one another to share our strength and to unite our hopes with others."

Is the present financial crisis a recession, a depression or a deflation? Cardinal Mahony said the label "doesn't really matter. We are in a severe economic downturn." He said, "I have not met a single person since Labor Day who is not impacted negatively in some way by our poor economy."

What are people suffering from at this time? Cardinal Mahony responded that they suffer from:

"Loss of jobs, uncertainty about keeping our jobs, loss of homes or fear of losing them in the future, companies declaring bankruptcy or closing down, retirees whose pensions have dwindled by 40 percent or even more, employees whose savings and retirement accounts have been greatly reduced, longer lines at church and community food banks, significant household budget cutbacks."

Furthermore, he said, "everyone could readily add their own specific economic crisis to the list."

During "desperate times" like these, the strongest emotion experienced is fear, Cardinal Mahony commented. "Nothing gnaws away at us so deeply as fear of the unknown future."

To make matters worse, fear "gives way to insecurity, worry, alarm and even desperation," the cardinal noted. For, "so many of the elements causing our fears are beyond our personal ability to reverse."

What is the place for faith in this painful picture? The cardinal said that people hit hard by the economic crisis resemble the apostles caught during a fierce storm in a boat with Jesus, who was sleeping. The apostles panicked and said: "Lord, save us! We are perishing!" Jesus got up, comforted them, rebuked the winds and the sea, and calm returned.

Cardinal Mahony wrote: "Are not those the same words on our lips during this frightful economy: 'Lord, save us! We are perishing!'? Our very acknowledgement that we are powerless to save ourselves with our own ingenuity and strengths places us squarely in the embrace of our risen Savior."

How the Financial Crisis Calls Into Question a Model of Life

The global financial crisis calls into question "an economic model that is based on the continued and unlimited consumption of limited resources"; belief in this model "can only end in tears," Bishop Adrianus Van Luyn of Rotterdam, Netherlands, president of the Commission of the Bishops' Conferences of the European Community, or COMECE, said in an opening address to the commission's Nov. 12-14 plenary assembly in Brussels, Belgium. He asked the religious leaders in his audience to consider how the crisis challenges them in their role as teachers.

"Who could have imagined that the world would be rocked by a dramatic financial crisis, a crisis at whose economic, social and political consequences we can only hazard a guess?" asked Bishop Van Luyn. He said that the "rapid downturn in global markets" has "plumbed treacherous depths, the like of which we never expected to see."

It now appears that "the consequences of the financial crisis" are "spilling over into all other areas," the bishop observed. Many believe the poor will pay the heaviest price, he said.

The bishop suggested that the financial crisis offers an "opportunity to question more incisively the lifestyle of Western society." He said, "The financial crisis has exposed a spiritual crisis and a distorted hierarchy of values."

In this context, Bishop Van Luyn explained, "the inner sense and value of human work has been pushed to the background in the general struggle for profit." What is witnessed is that "the pursuit of profit ultimately demolishes everything in its wake."

Yes, it is necessary to clamp down on tax havens, curtail the activities of hedge funds, modernize the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, the bishop said. Nonetheless, he added, "whoever considers the cause of the financial crisis to reside solely in a lack of transparency and legal accountability is perhaps overlooking the fact that it is far more our societal model that is being called into question."

Not only bankers and traders, but political leaders and society in general need to consider how "the goals of the few are eclipsing the greater good" (the common good), the bishop proposed. What needs to be drawn into question, he said, is the belief that "to be successful you must further your own interests rather than think about the common good."

People "act against their better knowledge and better judgment" when they set "the acquisition of wealth as a life goal," knowing "full well that it will not give them an authentic life," Bishop Van Luyn suggested.

However, the bishop advised religious leaders that "the financial crisis cannot be used as our opportunity to smile knowingly and say, 'I told you so.'" Instead, Bishop Van Luyn said, the crisis "should lead us to ask why there are not more people today who recognize" that "the key to the secret of a good and, ultimately, happy life" is found "in the Christian message to share ones gains and live in moderation."

Hard Economic Times Isolate People or Bring Them Together

Families across the U.S. "are losing their homes; retirement savings are threatened; workers are losing jobs and health care; and many people are losing a sense of hope and security," the U.S. bishops said in a brief statement on the economic crisis issued Nov. 10, the opening day of their fall general meeting in Baltimore. The statement called the economic situation "disturbing and complicated," and said it "brings home a universal truth: We are all children of God. We are our brothers' and sisters' keepers."

The statement, drafted during the bishops' meeting, was approved by a voice vote of the body of bishops and issued by the bishops' conference president, Cardinal Francis George of Chicago, on the bishops' behalf.

"We want to express our active support and solidarity with all those who are being hurt by the current economic crisis," the statement said. "The Catholic community," said the bishops, "will continue to reach out to those in need, stand with those who are hurt and work for policies that bring greater compassion, accountability and justice to economic life."

The bishops recalled Pope Benedict XVI's 2008 World Day of Peace Message, which said: "The family needs to have a home, employment and a just recognition of the domestic activity of parents, the possibility of schooling for children and basic health care for all"; society and public policy should be "committed to assisting the family in these areas."

"We pray," said the bishops, "that working together we can find the courage, wisdom and ways to build an economy of prosperity and greater justice for all."

Economic Downturn Puts Pressure on Catholic Charities

At a moment of sharp economic downturn, Catholic Charities agencies across the U.S. reported a sharp increase in demand for their services. However, Charities agencies simultaneously reported a decline of charitable donations. In a report Nov. 6, Catholic Charities USA examined the findings of its latest "snapshot" survey of Charities agencies nationwide. Forty-four local agencies responded to the online survey.

"When the middle class is affected economically, low-income families are devastated," said Ken Sawa, a Catholic Charities director in San Bernardino, Calif. He said, "We are looking at what to do when resources decrease" at a time when the need for these resources is increasing dramatically. "We may need to change the way we provide services depending on the outcome of this situation."

Paul Martodam of Catholic Charities Community Services-Phoenix said, "Across Arizona, emergency assistance demand is up 25 percent, while our food-shelf reserves are exhausted."

Catholic Charities USA said that 86 percent of the Charities agencies reported an increase in requests for financial assistance; 82 percent of agencies reported more people asking help with utilities; 70 percent saw more people requesting mortgage, rental or temporary housing assistance; and 76 percent recorded an increase in requests for food assistance."

The effects of the housing crisis are becoming clearer, with Charities agencies encountering a growing number of people seeking housing assistance, said Catholic Charities USA. It noted that Catholic Charities of Omaha, Neb., reported a 500 percent increase in people seeking foreclosure counseling, and the Diocese of Springfield, Mass., reported "50 percent more people seeking housing relocation assistance."

... What Happens to the Poor in Tough Economic Times?

While a modern economy needs to be structured in such a way that economic growth is fostered, it also needs "a built-in optic for equity and justice," Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin, Ireland, said Nov. 8 in a homily during a Dublin regional meeting of the St. Vincent de Paul Society.

"Times are tougher in the society in which we live, and the prospects for the coming years do not augur well," the archbishop commented. He pointed out that "cutbacks in public expenditure have a habit of affecting the poor in greater proportion than others because the poor are the ones who depend most on public services." He cautioned that "reducing the opportunity of the poor in times of crisis may well be condemning then to exclusion also in times when things improve."

When society lacks "its own in-built poverty strategy," the economy inevitably tends to become self-serving, said Archbishop Martin. He said, "When the pillars of an economy become self-serving, it is the poor who are the long-term victims."

Poverty is not restricted to the "lack of financial or material resources," Archbishop Martin said. Rather, "poverty is the inability of people to realize their God-given potential." Thus, fighting poverty is about helping people "realize their God-given potential."

That is why, in times of budget cutting, a poverty strategy needs to focus not just on how the economy affects the poor today, but on ensuring that the poor maintain the "possibilities they have of enhancing their human potential" through education and health care, for example. Then, "when times get better they can emerge rapidly as active and productive subjects of their own and our own future," the archbishop said.

Current Quotes to Ponder

Parish Support Group Aids Job Seekers: "We started out thinking we'd review resumes and interview techniques, but we found that the main thing people really need is support. What [job seekers] don't know is that the job market has changed so much. Resumes are not enough." (Betty Dobies, who chairs the Career Mentoring Ministry at St. Andrew Parish in Rochester, Mich., quoted in a Catholic News Service story Nov. 17. She told CNS that landing a job today is often based more on networking than anything else. The CNS story told of the job-support group at the parish, now attended by at least 80 people twice monthly.)

On Contemporary Prophets: "[One] test of the true prophet is that he challenges us rather than makes us feel good about ourselves. The false prophet is somebody who tells us that we're great the way we are. The true prophet is somebody who says, 'We need to take another look.'" (Robert Inchausti, author and editor of books about Trappist Father Thomas Merton, quoted in "Soul Searching: The Journey of Thomas Merton," a just-published book, edited by Morgan Atkinson, from the Liturgical Press in Collegeville, Minn. The book is closely tied to a new documentary with the same title developed by Atkinson and scheduled for broadcast Dec. 14 by PBS)

Immigration Realities: A Bishop's First Pastoral Letter

"The protection of human rights should be the starting point for any attempt at immigration reform," Bishop Anthony Taylor said Nov. 5 in his first pastoral letter as new bishop of Little Rock, Ark. He also stressed in this pastoral on immigration that "there must be no dividing lines within our parishes, no second-class parishioners - all are welcome, without exception."

The pastoral letter forcefully insists upon the rights of new immigrants, while advocating U.S. immigration reform that allows law-biding migrants to enter the country in a legal fashion so that their positive contributions to U.S. society and its economic well-being may continue.

The church does not promote illegal immigration, Bishop Taylor said. Instead, he continued, the church supports those who have no alternative but to exercise their human right to immigrate when circumstances require this of them. Moreover, the church works to remove the causes of illegal immigration by promoting policies that reflect the economic realities underlying immigration and that allow the free flow of otherwise law-abiding people, he said.

The church, Bishop Taylor explained, works to foster economic development in the countries from which so many people emigrate and to create a system that welcomes immigrants, while also facilitating their adaptation to life in the United States and providing a timely path to citizenship.

Bishop Taylor asked: "Will we take a positive approach that helps newcomers to become full participants in society? Or will we take a negative approach that creates a marginalized underclass and a breeding ground for resentment?"

Neither expelling the 12 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S. nor closing the door to further immigration is a realistic option, said the bishop. He believes the only real choice "is whether to facilitate this process for the common good or to create as much misery as possible - and reap the undesirable consequences."

After the Election: Social Doctrine and the Common Good; Abortion Concern

The present moment in time - "the interim before a new presidential administration takes office" in the U.S. - "touches more than our history when a country that once enshrined race slavery in its very constitutional order should come to elect an African American to the presidency," Cardinal Francis George of Chicago said in his presidential address Nov. 10 opening the fall meeting of the U.S. Catholic bishops in Baltimore. He said, "In this, I truly believe, we must all rejoice."

Cardinal George said, "We must also hope that President Obama succeed in his task, for the good of all." But, said the cardinal, "the odds against success are formidable. We are internally divided and, in a global order, we will be less the masters of our economic and political fate."

Yet, he continued, "we can rejoice today with those who were part of a movement to bring our country's civil rights, our legal order, into better accord with universal human rights, God's order." Among those the cardinal referred to were many in the church: priests, religious women, bishops and lay people "who took our social doctrine to heart." Such people, he said, "can feel vindicated now."

After the 2008 U.S. presidential election, "we are, perhaps, at a moment when, with the grace of God, all races are safely within the American consensus," Cardinal George commented. But, he said, "we are not at the point when Catholics, especially in public life, can be considered full partners in the American experience unless they are willing to put aside some fundamental Catholic teachings on a just moral and political order."

In working for the common good, racial justice is "one pillar" of the church's social doctrine, Cardinal George said; "economic justice, especially for the poor both here and abroad, is another" pillar of church social doctrine. But, said the cardinal, "the common good can never be adequately incarnated in any society when those waiting to be born can be legally killed at choice."

At the conclusion of the bishops' meeting, Cardinal George issued a statement on behalf of all the bishops on a concern the bishops earlier had discussed during their meeting. It addressed abortion in a particular way. He said at the outset that the U.S. Catholic bishops "welcome this moment of historic transition and look forward to working with President-elect Obama and the members of the new Congress for the common good of all."

Cardinal George said the bishops "want to continue our work for economic justice and opportunity for all; our efforts to reform laws around immigration and the situation of the undocumented; our provision of better education and adequate health care for all, especially for women and children; our desire to safeguard religious freedom and foster peace at home and abroad." He added, "The church is intent on doing good and will continue to cooperate gladly with the government and all others working for these goods."

The cardinal then observed that the "fundamental good is life itself." He said, "A good state protects the lives of all." However, the 1973 U.S. Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion "was bad law," he said. And, "the danger the bishops see at this moment is that a bad court decision will be enshrined in bad legislation that is more radical than the 1973 Supreme Court decision itself."

The proposed legislation that concerned the body of bishops is known as the Freedom of Choice Act, or FOCA. Cardinal George said this legislation, introduced in the last Congress, "would, if brought forward in the same form today, outlaw any 'interference' in providing abortion at will. It would deprive the American people in all 50 states of the freedom they now have to enact modest restraints and regulations on the abortion industry." The cardinal said FOCA could cause great harm in a number of ways, among them harm to Catholic health care institutions.

On the issue of "legal protection of the unborn, the bishops are of one mind with Catholics and others of good will," said Cardinal George. He said:

"The recent election was principally decided out of concern for the economy, for the loss of jobs and homes and financial security for families, here and around the world. If the election is misinterpreted ideologically as a referendum on abortion, the unity desired by President-elect Obama and all Americans at this moment of crisis will be impossible to achieve."

Cardinal George said: "Our prayers accompany President-elect Obama and his family and those who are cooperating with him to assure a smooth transition in government. Many issues demand immediate attention on the part of our elected 'watchman' (Ps 127). May God bless him and our country."