I have always admired and respected Catholic social teaching, especially with regards to helping the so-called least of these. Concern for the needy and the disinherited in the United States and in the world has been a continuous focus of mine for all of my adult life. As a progressive thinker, I have not bought the Church’s orientation hook, line, and sinker, for it is very conservative on a lot of issues, such as abortion, ordination of women, war, and marriage. There appears to be some hope, however, with the ascendancy of Jorge Mario Bergoglio to Pope Francis.
The fact he chose to name his papacy after Francis of Assisi, who chose to identify with the poor, truly resonates with me. Pope Francis has characterized his own religious life by his concern for the indigent and oppressed. The language that he has used to address penury in the world has been quite critical of capitalism, the wealth gap, and our emphasis on the myth that economic growth trickles down to the lower classes. Earlier in his life, he had an affinity towards communism and his words and actions over the course of his ministry have reflected democratic socialism, the ethics of Jesus, and the political economy of Martin Luther King, Jr.
I cannot say the same regarding Barack Obama. Since his organizing days on the Chicago’s South Side, Obama has been touted for this work, as he has strayed quite far from helping women and children in the hour of their greatest need. During his 2008 candidacy for the Democratic presidential nomination, Obama scarcely discussed directly and transparently the plight of the working poor and the underclass. He never answered my questions concerning the alleviation of poverty, and promises that his staff made concerning his economic platform were unfulfilled, if not completely disregarded. His first term as President of the United States did not improve upon that record, despite the passage of the Affordable Care Act of 2010—the verdict of which is still unsure.
On December 4 of this year, Obama spoke at a meeting of the Center for American Progress in THEARC in Washington, D.C. During his speech, he declared what was the “defining challenge of our time: making sure our economy works for every working American.” Wanting his enduring legacy to be addressing income inequality is admirable, and the very fact he finally spoke directly on this subject momentarily warmed my heart. However, this sanguine interlude was evanescent at best, for immediately I realized Obama’s plan to have government play a marked role in the attempt to eradicate poverty was as old as the ineffectual War on Poverty of the 1960s!
Unlike President Obama, Pope Francis has been willing to attack market capitalism at its core. He recognizes that poverty is a structural issue that the church must work to eliminate. He rightly asserts that a system that produces separation into classes and the majority of people possessing less than one-tenth of the nation’s wealth cannot be improved upon through sporadic remedies: such as a meager raise in the minimum wage; simple undergirding of labor unions; and/or spotty WPA-like programs that by themselves did not pull this country out of the economic depression of the 1930s. In stating that capitalism’s ability to deal justly with poverty “has never been confirmed by the facts,” he reflects King’s aversion to the “skirmish” against poverty under the Johnson Administration, who stated in 1967 that “a nation that produces beggars needs restructuring.”
Obama’s focus on the middle class and the working poor, with his emphasis still on competitiveness and productivity, does not get at the root of the problem. We can no longer stress the importance of temporary measures that continue to function within a system that sustains egregious income disparities. It’s time to make a serious change in the way we do business.