“The poor you will always have with you, and whenever you wish you can do good to them,” Jesus says in Mark’s Gospel.
This would, at face value, seem like a fairly open-ended statement. But it gets a pretty heavy degree of specificity from the U.S. bishops in the introductory note to the reissued Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship, when the bishops cite “an economic crisis … , increasing national and global unemployment, poverty, and hunger; increasing deficits and debt and the duty to respond in ways which protect those who are poor and vulnerable as well as future generations” as one of their six areas of concern going into the 2012 elections.
If these are issues that are supposed to matter to Catholics, the bishops have certainly led by example in this area. For the Church, political engagement isn’t just about what happens in a voting booth in November; it’s about consistently bringing one’s values and perspective to the public discussion. The U.S. bishops have brought their values to the issues of debt, poverty, unemployment and hunger in numerous letters to leaders in Congress. The Vatican has even tackled the more overarching challenge of financial reform.
Of course, every Catholic is called to engage the political process, as voters, lawmakers, advocates, etc. And all Catholics are called to, as Jesus said, do good for the poor, through whatever means are at their disposal, whether they’re a teacher educating the next generation, a banker engaging in responsible lending practices or a legislator shaping public policy that will impact millions of lives. In his encyclical Caritas in Veritate, Pope Benedict XVI called this the “institutional path of charity.”
On this path, Catholic teaching places a crowded cast of characters, all with their own responsibilities: government, businesses, churches and other organizations, and individuals. The Church’s vision for society involves all of these stakeholders working together in a way that allows people to flourish, living life with a sense of dignity and reaching the potential God intended for them. In Catholic terms, everyone has a responsibility to promote the common good. To keep this from becoming stifling or chaotic, the Church prescribes principles like solidarity and subsidiarity.
Solidarity is the recognition of the responsibility of everyone in society to care for those who are poor and vulnerable. (The words of Jesus in Matthew 25 put this in perspective by saying that feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, etc. are requirements for entering the kingdom.) Subsidiarity is the principle that says care for the poor — and all human problems, in fact — should be addressed at the lowest level possible and the highest level necessary. It promotes the robust network of relationships in society, from the individual to the global. It can be seen at work when, for instance, funding from the federal government goes to finance anti-poverty programs that are regulated and administered at the state or local level, often by charities, sometimes by Catholic charities.
The goal is always human flourishing. The tangled, interconnected mess of joblessness, the economy, poverty, etc. is a political concern for the bishops because it impacts the lives and dignity of so many. “Work is more than a way to make a living,” the bishops write in Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship, “it is a form of continuing participation in God’s creation.” And as so many people struggle in financial hardship to regain that part of their lives, it becomes apparent that “The poor you will always have with you” isn’t a license to ignore the poor or assume they will disappear when times improve for everyone. Rather it’s a reminder of a duty shared by everyone and articulated by the bishops: “The economy must serve people, not the other way around.”