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Social action workers tackle international fissures, domestic stress


Bishop Wilton Gregory of Belleville, Ill., president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, is not a very good golfer. But when a friend recently invited him to play “at a very, very exclusive country club,” he jumped at the chance.

“While I was waiting to get to the first tee, another member of the club asked me if I would go and get his clubs,” Gregory told the 500-plus attendees at the Feb. 9-12 Catholic social ministry gathering. “He simply presumed that any black face at that club would necessarily be on staff.”

Gregory did not say how he resolved the problem. He did, however, offer a comment: “It was a helpful reminder to me -- bishop, president of the USCCB, and widely recognized public face of the Catholic church in the United States -- that much work needs to be done to heal racism and its many attitudes.”

Healing racism, promoting peace, and staving off cuts in social programs provided the substance for the four-day gathering.

Attendees heard big themes. Moral theology professor Fr. Bryan Massingale urged genuine commitment to diversity in the church. Fr. Bryan Hehir discussed “a world broken” by war and income disparities. Participants heard nuts and bolts briefings on issues ranging from welfare reform and agriculture policy to aid to Africa and Iraq.

As the diocesan social action workers prepared to bring their case to Capitol Hill, the House of Representatives scheduled consideration of a welfare measure church lobbyists consider punitive. Kathy Curran, policy adviser in the Office of Domestic Social Development for the USCCB, urged conference participants to push to restore benefits to newly arrived immigrants and promote “flexibility” in the work requirements for welfare recipients so that training and education count. In addition, she said, food stamps and Medicaid benefits should be continued for at least one year after a family leaves the welfare rolls, and two-parent families should not be penalized in the legislation.

A Feb. 11 letter to members of the House from Hehir, president of Catholic Charities USA, and Washington Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, reiterated those themes. The letter also found fault with provisions of the legislation that would allow states to turn their food stamp programs into block grants -- considered a much less stable funding source than the current formula -- with spending frozen at 2001-03 levels. “Limiting food stamps spending to 2001-03 levels makes it unlikely that a block grant state would allow legal immigrants to receive food stamps,” said McCarrick and Hehir.

In other briefings, conference participants heard that:

Post-war Iraq faces huge humanitarian challenges. War would add 900,000 displaced Iraqis to the 1 million already displaced within the country, with an estimated 600,000 to 1.5 million heading to neighboring countries. Iran, Syria, Jordan and Turkey have indicated their borders would be closed if war breaks out and the U.N. plans to evacuate the 1,000 representatives it has in Iraq should hostilities erupt, said Christine Tucker, the Egypt-based Middle East regional director for Catholic Relief Services. Meanwhile, Gerard Power, director of International Justice and Peace at the U.S. bishops’ conference, argued for alternatives to war, including more stringent U.N. weapons inspections, a U.N. mechanism to keep Iraq from gaining access to oil reserves, and for the world community to pay more attention to more immediate threats to world peace, such as North Korea.

Federal crop subsidies may help to sustain U.S. farmers, but the low prices their crops get on the open market depress prices worldwide, sending poor farmers elsewhere into an economic tailspin, a U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization official said Feb. 10. “You’re not going to get growth to alleviate poverty unless you do something about agriculture,” warned Charles H. Riemenschneider, director of the North American liaison office for the FAO.

Catholic social action leaders should press their representatives in Congress for at least $2 billion in the 2004 budget for global health needs and $1.7 billion for food and development aid. Gerald Flood, counselor to the U.S. bishops’ Office of International Justice and Peace, reminded the group that the total U.S. foreign assistance annually today is only one-1,000th -- 0.1 percent -- of the U.S. gross national product.

Back on the home front, Dennis Rivera, president of the New York City-based Service Employees International Union Local 1199, told the participants that health coverage should be viewed “as a birthright, and not a privilege for those who can afford it.” He urged support for union organizing efforts as an effective way to eradicate poverty.

Catholic News Service contributed to this report.

National Catholic Reporter, February 21, 2003