US Catholic Faith in Real Life

Catholics are people of hope

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After three days at the Catholic Social Ministry Gathering, hope is the theme that sticks out to me the most. Despite strong opposition to the policy priorities advocated for by participants, they remained positive about the challenges they face (check out a video taken after the Hill Visits).

A lot was covered over the four day gathering. While I missed Sunday—which included a raved about opening plenary (posted by NCR here) from Cardinal Peter Turkson (see our interview with him)—the conference is covered in great detail here (with the help of USCCBLive):

Live blog on domestic issues 
Video summary of domestic issues

Live blog on international issues 
Video summary of international issues (missing the Afghanistan/Pakistan workshop)
Video interview with Paul Collier, following international plenary on church role in international development (Highly recommended: Many participants said it was the best economics presentation they had ever had at the conference.)

Live blog of Wednesday morning strategy sessions and thanks to USCCBLive, Mark Shields and David Brooks always comical closing to the event. 

Some highlights from the gathering:

As usual, Catholics challenged both liberal and conservative representatives. For instance, the domestic issue was fixing health care ("mend it, don't end it") with the Protect Life Act, which challenged Democratic leaders, though some said that their Democratic representatives seemed willing to compromise on this issue in order to protect health care reform.

A unique aspect of the bishops’ priorities this year was how focused the message was. With Congress currently debating the budget, the Catholic group was in a unique position to make their voices heard at the right time.

Their message was that the budget shouldn’t be balanced on the backs of the poor, both at home and abroad. Senator Bob Casey Jr., who is very popular among the CSMG crowd, earned great cheers for repeating this line at the Capitol Hill reception last night.

Representatives and their staffers from more conservative states with new Republicans elected on promises to cut the deficit at least listened, Catholics reported. It turns out that “cutting the deficit” is an easy campaign slogan but more complicated when you actually look at the effectiveness of programs up for cuts.

Some numbers are just shocking. Steven Colecchi of USCCB reported that while legislatures plan to cut about 2.6 percent of the budget, 26 percent of international aid programs are to be cut. One specific example he gave was a proposed 12 percent cut in PEPFAR, which responds to AIDS/HIV: "That means that 12 percent of people receiving [drugs for AIDS] will die," he said. 

In what I think was the best analogy of the week, Kathy Saile of the USCCB described the approach to cutting the deficit to a family planning their budget: The family has multiple mortgages, large car payments on luxury cars, and calls a meeting to discuss the cutting of the peanut butter budget. Ellen Nissenbaum of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, called this a "look, Mom, no hands" approach to cutting the deficit. 

Presenters talked numbers, but they also emphasized the need to humanize the issue. "These aren't just moving numbers around a ledger sheet," Saile said, "This is about human life and dignity." Another presenter added that while there are national security and economic arguments in favor of stopping these cuts, the church's argument was that it was a moral issue.

While some shared frustration that other issues weren't included in the policy priorities in favored of this focused message, workshops on specific issues (whether about affordable housing and jobs or the situations in Sudan, Haiti, Afghanistan, and Pakistan) provided examples of the impact of the proposed cuts. Government support is essential to the poverty relief, peacebuilding, and development efforts presented in the workshops. For instance, both USAID and CRS partnered to talk about the progress of reconstructing Haiti.

Unfortunately, organizers pointed out, there will be no movement at least until after 2012 on some big issues such as immigration and climate change. For now, it's playing defense, and the first line of defense is the budget. 

Whether or not their representatives were happy to see them, participants seemed energized by participating in the political process. Nina Valmonte of Catholic Charities and CCHD in Queens and Bryookyn, New York ended the domestic panel with a call for hope: "Our poor, too, have to continue to be people of hope. It's small things that we can offer them...exposing them to another world so they don't think they're stuck where they are."

In this time of political division and economic uncertainty, both the poor and their advocates can feel "stuck" and frustrated, but faith helps the participants at the Social Ministry Gathering maintain hope.

I have plenty of story ideas from this week, but I would love to hear participant's perspectives as well. What stuck out to you and what would you want to read more about in U.S. Catholic?