National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date:  December 26, 2003

U.S. politics ignores the poor

Catholic teaching points way to making political culture life-affirming


The dignity of the human person. The common good. Solidarity. The option for the poor. These and other principles form the foundations of Catholic social teaching.

Our political debate does nothing to speak to such principles.

Think about it. When does the dignity of the working poor ever become an issue in our political discourse and our larger political culture? And if the poor are mentioned in public debates, are they usually championed, or are they labeled “welfare parasites” by a conservative Republican or a centrist Democrat looking to score with independent voters?

When was the last time the common good truly formed the core of a presidential campaign, and a presidential candidate truly spoke to -- and gained acceptance from -- ordinary and struggling Americans? You’d have to go back to “Give ’Em Hell, Harry” Truman, who deeply and genuinely identified with the blue-collar American worker in 1948 during his whistle-stop campaign tours. That, in many ways, was the last genuinely honest and largely un-spun presidential campaign in America. As the television age has emerged, presidential campaigns have become a matter of imagery and stagecraft, raised to an art form by both the Clintons and the Karl Rove-George Bush team.

What about solidarity and the option for the poor? When do major politicians -- and especially presidential candidates -- ever express solidarity with the poor, in the form of real and genuine associations with the poor that are enduring and meaningful, and that clearly transcend cheap photo-op politics? And when do politicians ever frame tax policy or economic packages in terms of the poor, as opposed to “the middle class” or “small businesses”? When do politicians ever frame the state of America in terms of the state of its poorest and most vulnerable citizens?

This is not an indictment of Republicans because Democrats have become over the last 10 to 15 years just as guilty of excluding the poor and vulnerable from their political vocabularies and from the personal circles and networks politicians choose to establish. Few, if any, heavyweights in American politics associate with the poor and base both their rhetoric and policies on the well-being of the poor. Certainly not Bush, and certainly not Clinton as well.

Solidarity, the common good, the welfare of the poor (not draconian welfare reform), and the dignity of the human person are given zero consideration by our larger political culture and the greatly impoverished discourse that flows from it.

How, then, do we change this sorry situation to make our political discourse more authentically Catholic and life-affirming?

We can effect change by framing issues as interconnected parts of a larger whole, using the “seamless garment” formulated by the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago.

Let’s consider the hot-button issue of abortion, a topic whose politics were extensively examined in a fascinating set of pieces in the May 16 NCR.

Abortion is currently viewed as a particularly important issue, but ultimately one issue among many. Bishops tell pro-choice Catholic Democrats that good views on other issues don’t excuse a pro-choice view on abortion. Pro-choice Catholic Democrats respond by saying they can’t sell a pro-life position within the party, not to mention the larger culture.

There is a solution. Redefine the political debate to not only respect the principles of Catholic social teaching but to lovingly live out those principles toward those who need compassion and support more than anyone else: the vulnerable pregnant women who are agonizing over the toughest decision of their lives.

How to do this? It’s not rocket science: Abortion should not be considered an isolated issue anymore. If young women could see an America where living-wage jobs with benefits packages, generous family leave policies, and reasonable welfare-to-work time limits -- among many other women-friendly policies -- all existed, they’d be less inclined to choose abortion.

Yet Republicans and Democrats have tragically failed to link abortion to the many social issues that affect the poor. Republicans, who never put the poor at the heart of their politics, ignore the value of the social issues in the first place, while Democrats, so excessively focused on preserving the legality of abortion, have -- amazingly -- never considered the political gold mine awaiting them if they linked abortion to the morality of the issue, as seen through collective government policy and overall cultural attitudes.

Republicans and Democrats can instantly form a national consensus on abortion that would drastically reduce abortions, all while bringing the principles of Catholic social teaching to life on many other fronts in our society. Similar results could be achieved on many other issues as well -- but not until we begin to change the focus of our political discourse.

Matt Zemek is a member of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, the author of an e-book, Liberalism the Right Way, and the publisher of the political and religious Web log, “The Wellstone Cornerstone.”

National Catholic Reporter, December 26, 2003

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