Wednesday, July 27, 2016

The Working Catholic: The Undeserving Poor? by Bill Droel

Too many people seem too sure about the causes and the cure for poverty. I hear it in the barbershop, at my favorite lunch spot and frequently at the bar. “If only they would get a job and quit living off my hard-earned money.” The adjectival hard-earned is always used.  I also hear: “My family made it on their own. Why can’t those people?” Plus other riffs on the same theme.

These longstanding complaints are not confined to barroom banter. They are part of public discourse. Elected officials, foundation executives, talk-show hosts and others routinely make a distinction (maybe not in those exact words) between the deserving poor and the undeserving poor. By popular opinion, for example, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance (which everyone calls food stamps) is an undeserved handout while Medicare and Social Security are—here’s that phrase again—hard-earned benefits.  

Have the poor always fallen into these two categories? Or is the distinction something new?

We will soon celebrate the 500-year anniversary of the great Protestant Reformation. Along with the significant improvements it made to Christianity, the Reformation created unintended consequences.  Prior to the Reformation Christian love or caritas looked upon the poor as worthy in and of themselves. They were not despised but assisted to the degree Christians were able to do so. At the same time, please note, the poor of long ago were not romanticized. The poor who made appearances in the New Testament, for example, were not held up as exemplars of virtue.

After the Reformation sympathy or humanitarianism replaced nonjudgmental caritas. This is a subtle shift that hardened into the distinction between deserving and undeserving. It solidified in our country in the 1850s as the poor became synonymous with immigrant Catholics. The orphan trains sponsored by humanitarian groups in New York serve to illustrate the newer approach. Many children wandering the streets were taken-in by an aid society and placed in “a healthier environment” with a rural family in the Midwest. The aid society judged the child’s natural family to be unfit, particularly because it was assumed the natural father (probably Irish-American) drank beer and/or whiskey. The Sisters of Charity and other Catholics in New York tried to retain the older approach: Avoid making judgments; open urban orphanages that kept the child in proximity to the natural family. (Babe Ruth in Baltimore was one example.)

The term Protestant approach or Protestant ethic in this blog is not the same as Protestant religion as practiced in a Methodist or Lutheran church. Nearly everyone in our country, including the Catholics, is Protestant in how they understand poverty, its causes and its remedy. Congressman Paul Ryan, for example, says that he thinks about poverty using Catholic social philosophy. Ryan might devoutly worship in a Catholic church, but his ideas about poverty are not traditional, old-school, mainstream Catholic ideas.

Do some people cheat on their food stamp application? Of course. Are some people who receive assistance lazy? Of course. Are some of those who appear at the door of a parish’s St. Vincent de Paul Society simply con-artists? Of course. Does a St. Vincent de Paul volunteer have a duty to use donated money and food wisely? Indeed, yes. Does a parish volunteer have a fiduciary responsibility to turn away someone who repeatedly asks for help and yet who looks like, with a fresh haircut and a clean shirt, could get a job? That is a tough call for a real world Catholic.

Droel edits a free newsletter on faith and work for National Center for the Laity (PO Box 291102, Chicago, IL 60629).

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

125th Anniversary of Rerum Novarum – On the Condition of Labor

   It was a beautiful summer afternoon for a picnic with neighbors, but we were all troubled.   The discussion was about the horrible police shootings of the past year, the sniper attack on police in Dallas, and complaining about the Roman Catholic Church saying nothing about it.  A Unitarian – Universalist friend, whose church is trying to do something commented, “I was brought up Catholic with the social encyclicals – what has happened to the Church?”   But there is a Roman Catholic response, quiet and isolated.  The director of social ministry at St. John’s Cathedral in Milwaukee has made a call for discussions on race.  Also a recent vigil at the Cathedral in remembrance of the LGBT people murdered in Orlando, Florida, showed a ray of hope for a community whose official doctrine on gays causes social confusion, tension and concern. 

  The comment about Catholic Social Teaching was poignant and surprising to me.  Who, other than a few ‘professional Catholics’ knows about Catholic Social Teaching?  Bill Droel in this blog has pointed out that this year is the 125th anniversary of the first modern social encyclical, Rerum Novarum. I haven’t seen mention anywhere else.

   Rerum Novarum – On the Conditon of Labor (1891), was both condemned and praised for stating that workers had the right to organize.    The capitalist industrial revolution had forged a society of death, illness and desperation for workers.  Catholic leaders such as Bishop von Ketteler of Germany, Cardinal Manning of England, and Cardinal Gibbons of the U.S. saw the need for a Catholic defense of the poor.    
   Looking back, the encyclical could be faulted as chauvinistic and authoritarian, but it is the basis for a prescription to achieve peace and justice. Subsequent encyclicals have progressively fortified the hope for a just society.   Fundamental to Rerum Novarum is the principle that each and every human person has transcendental value. The integrity of the person is confirmed with the recognition of everyone having the ability to make moral choices and to cooperate with others to make a better life. The poor are included as a special concern.

       …it is in the power of a ruler to benefit every    order of the State.
       And amongst the rest to promote in the highest degree the    interests of the poor; and this by virtue of his office, and without   being exposed to any undue interference - for it is the province of the commonwealth to consult for the common good. #26 

This is in stark contrast to the liberatism of the time based on the utilitarianism of J. S. Mill (1806-1873) "the greatest good for the greatest number" which leaves out the marginaized - those forced into poverty and those relegated as social outcasts. Liberal morality refers to David Hume (1711 - 1776) who thought that morality was simply the customs of a particular time in history which leaves us mired in repeating the same mistakes over and over.

The obvious conclusion after reading Rerum Novarum is – the death and destruction caused by poverty is morally wrong. Random, violent acts cannot be justified in the name of the economics, the “greatest good for the greatest number” nor in the name of law and order. So, what do we do about this?

The social encyclicals show a progression from Rerum Novarum, but Pope Francis’ analysis and rhetoric has brought a new dimension of awareness (concientizaci√≥n in the language of Liberation Theology). His language is personal and relevant - no matter if it is about climate change or income inequality. He is an advocate of justice, as previous popes, but he underlines another dimension of law and justice. Francis, in his declaration of a Jubilee Year of Mercy, defines mercy as; “…the fundamental law that dwells in the heart of every person who looks sincerely into the eyes of his brothers and sisters on the path of life.”

Recognizing humanity in each other is the path to a concrete understanding of what Leo XIII calls, “the common good.” Political activism to achieve the “common good” is more realistic and practical when it is sanctioned and explained in the language of Pope Francis.

Let us consider a quote from John Allen’s article on Pope Francis in a 2016 special edition of Time magazine.

America is the mother ship of free-market global capitalism that Francis, history’s firsts pontiff from the developing world, routinely excoriates as ‘savage’ for fostering an ‘economy that kills,’ denouncing it as responsible for a ‘throwaway culture’ in which whole categories of human beings are regarded as disposable.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

The Working Catholic: Fashion Statement by Bill Droel

Some philosophical and religious traditions look askance at fashion. Eastern religions, for example, focus on the transitory nature of the material world. They advise us not to get infatuated with appliances, jewelry or one’s wardrobe. Gnostic philosophy, which has at junctures influenced Roman Catholicism and other expressions of Christianity, says appearances are a deceptive illusion. Some strains in evangelical Christianity are unimpressed with art because only a direct relationship with God is important.

Being an Irish-American Catholic, I carry around an analogical imagination. That is, in my tribe God is mediated through the world’s beauty and order, particularly through God’s primary analogue, other people. Nature, artifacts, responsive institutions, plus architecture, music, film, novels and even fashion can dispose me to God’s grace.

This column won’t at first ring true to anyone who knows me because nearly my entire wardrobe is off-the-rack from outlet stores. Nonetheless, I take notice of a student or neighbor who has style, a look, or flair—maybe an unusual hat, a colorful scarf, or a sport coat that seems to match the personality. These touches, at times, briefly reflect the divine to me. In Fyodor Dostoevsky’s novel, The Idiot, a character says, “The world is saved by beauty, if at all.” That seems right to me.

Catholicism is in favor of fashion, though with an urgent caution. There is no place for the exploitation of designers and models, including on the so-called reality TV shows. Similarly, the sweatshop conditions in the apparel industry must give way to international labor standards.  

Bill Cunningham (1929-2016), the longtime fashion reporter for New York Times, brought his Catholic faith to bear in his work, though implicitly. Cunningham himself was no fashion plate. He usually wore a blue jacket with large pockets. Into his 80s, Cunningham peddled a bicycle around Manhattan. He never owned a TV; he didn’t go to movies. Yet society types and models were pleased whenever Cunningham drifted into a party or a show. Cunningham never sampled the hors d’oeuvres nor even took a soda at any of the galas. “I just try to play a straight game, and in New York that’s almost impossible to be honest and straight,” he once said.

Upon return to New York from his service in the Korean War Cunningham took newspaper writing assignments about fashion. He added a $35 camera to his reporter’s notebook. By the late 1970s he was full-time and soon developed a popular “On the Street” column.

His idea was that fashion is not just patterns and material in a studio. I went to “the shows and the streets to see how people interpreted what designers hoped they would buy,” he once said. He found out that ordinary New Yorkers in their own way create fashion. Cunningham came to believe that fashion is all around. He spent many hours on the streets looking for a stylish accessory or a unique outfit. On the street, he said, “you find the answers you don’t see at the fashion shows… My whole thing is to be invisible. You get more natural pictures that way, too.”
Fashionable does not mean expensive. It is about a person’s confidence and their consciousness of the world around them. We are saved by beauty.

Cunningham’s humble lifestyle attuned him to the beauty of all God’s creation. One of Pope Francis’ major themes is the priority of experience over ideology or abstractions. Cunningham once explained his approach to work in words that echo that theme: “I never go out with a preconceived idea. I let the street speak to me.” Seek beauty and it will find you.

Trivia contest: Who was the world’s first fashion designer? 
Hint: Genesis 3:21.
Droel edits INITIATIVES (PO Box 291102, Chicago, IL 60629), a free newsletter about faith and work.

Thursday, July 7, 2016

The Working Catholic: Urban Decline? by Bill Droel

It wasn’t so traumatic here when in the 1980s Los Angeles overtook Chicago, until then the Second City, in population. Last month, however, demographers caused a stir in Chicago; predicting that soon Houston will be the Third City, while Chicago will drop to number four. Ouch.

The city of Chicago lost about 2,890 residents between 2014 and 2015. Our entire metro region lost an estimated 6,263 residents in the same time period. Meanwhile, Houston had the second-largest increase, gaining 40,032 residents.

Many people are not aware that the black migration to our city is long over. In fact, blacks in a steady stream have moved from here to Atlanta, Birmingham and elsewhere in the South over the past several years. Nor are Mexican-American arrivals offsetting any exodus from Chicago. Actually, the plateau for migration from Mexico to Chicago was reached in about 2005. 

In itself, Chicago’s modest population decline is neither here nor there. It is worrisome, however, when tied to several perceptions: That violent crime gravely affects public health; that public schools are incapable of adequately educating young people; that our police prejudicially administer the law; that the Catholic church is abandoning the neighborhoods with which it was once synonymous; that our mayor is more interested in Obi-Wan Kenobi and R2-D2 than he is in working-class families; that our governor wants to destroy charitable groups; that the Democratic Machine does not deliver services but only enriches a few well-healed families; and that business is fleeing our city and state.

Are these perceptions accurate? Are there countertrends to those trumpeted by the prophets of doom?

Mike Gecan of the Industrial Areas Foundation ( spoke last month to leaders of Chicago’s Episcopal Community Services. The IAF was founded in Chicago in 1940, but now has headquarters in the District of Columbia. Gecan drew attention to similarities and differences between the New York City of the late 1970s and 1980s and Chicago today. 

          New York then and Chicago, both then and now, are “crippled by federally subsidized suburbanization and by the loss of their manufacturing base,” Gecan began. Both cities “saw decades of white flight… Both regions overspent when times seemed good--pouring millions and even billions into service programs, wages, and benefits and showering tax breaks and other subsidies on corporations and insiders.”  Charitable agencies in both places became “dependent on what seemed like an unending flow of public money,” he continued. “Both had deep-seated cultures of corruption in their political spheres--New York mostly at the state level, Chicago and Illinois at many levels.” Finally, “both resorted to gimmicks and one-offs to plug holes.” Things like “sports venues, tourist attractions, sales of public assets, and more.” (The Working Catholic will develop this point in a subsequent blog.)

Gecan began “the differences” portion of his talk by recalling a famous October 1975 N.Y. Daily News headline: President Gerald “Ford to City: Drop Dead.” New York was at its low point with only one lifeline left: a federal bailout. When it didn’t materialize, Gecan said, new leadership emerged from all three sectors--private, public and third or civic sector. “A union leader named Victor Gotbaum (of ASFCME), an investment banker named Felix Rohatyn, young professionals like Donna Shalala and Peter Goldmark, a governor named Hugh Carey, and many more moved to the center. Union pension funds were put at risk to shore up the credit rating of the city. A Financial Control Board was put in place to strictly monitor city finances for ten years… Accountability and painful belt-tightening were imposed on the financial life of the city. Groups in the third sector realized that, going forward, they could no longer rely so heavily on public support and figured out new ways to staff and address programs. A fierce public transit advocate named Marcy Benstock led an effort to block a proposed West Side Highway… A start-up affordable housing finance group named CPC began renovating apartments in Washington Heights and Inwood. And our [Industrial Area’s group] EBC announced its intention to build 5,000 new affordable Nehemiah homes in East Brooklyn.” With emphasis Gecan told the audience: No one asked a politician or a newspaper editor or a financial mogul for permission.

Several New York church entities “found new money” for affordable housing, the backbone of urban recovery. And, concluded Gecan, Mayor Ed Koch (1924-2013), “even when times were still tight, understood that a city is a physical place that needs major physical improvements to show people that it is moving forward.”

Before departing Chicago, Gecan left us with a question: Will enough new leaders here “have the stamina, the endurance, the physical and emotional and spiritual strength, to start what will undoubtedly be a marathon of rebuilding and renewal?” 

Droel serves on the board of National Center for the Laity (PO Box 291102, Chicago, IL 60629). It distributes Gecan’s book: After America’s Midlife Crisis; $6 includes postage.