Will the meeting between Pope Francis and President Obama foster a ‘social justice spring’?
Ever since I read that President Obama and Pope Francis will meet at the Vatican later this month, my hopes for the year have been rising.
Not just for the two of them—although as a Catholic and as director of the group where Obama learned to be a community organizer I feel a connection to both—but for all of us who see this as the year that social justice comes roaring back.
The two have more in common than appearing on the cover of Rolling Stone. These are two people who wish they could do big, big things in the world. They are both being handcuffed by their own systems to some extent, President Obama by Congress and the pope by his Curia. Most importantly, just by speaking out with the most mild of critiques of corporate capitalism—and by taking baby steps to remedy the same problem, such as raising the minimum wage for federal contractors—the pope and the president have put social justice back at the top of the agenda, where it belongs.
When they meet, it would be easy for the two of them to mouth platitudes at each other. But I hope and pray they don't. I believe that when the pope and the president get together, they are going to have a radical conversation.
The most important thing they should discuss is immigration. Pope Francis should urge President Obama to cut the deportations—well, the pope would probably not use that kind of language. It’s time to stop dividing families; the president knows it, and the pope should tell him to take action now.
Deportations lead to poverty, desperation, and death. Recently, I traveled home to the Dominican Republic, where I had the opportunity to talk to both Dominicans and Haitians. While these countries are not uniformly desperate, contrary to what we hear in U.S. news media, there are few opportunities for deportees who have been forced to return with no places prepared nor safety net to catch them. This leaves aside the many who languish, awaiting deportation (and draining U.S. finances) in our private prisons.
President Obama should encourage Pope Francis to continue to speak out on the dignity of work and workers rights and the need to curb the worst excesses of corporate capitalism. He can help the pope stay strong on these issues. I recently heard an advocate point out that the head of a major bank earns $9,500 per hour. Which means that in the first two hours of the first day of the year, that bank head made more than a minimum-wage worker in the United States will earn in an entire year. That just does not make sense.
Together, the two men can be affirmed that the majority of the people in this country, like the majority of Catholics, support livable wages and safe and fair migration. They can push the discussion further, if they will, when they meet together.
It seems like during the past several years social justice has taken a beating from economic conservatives in the United States who seem to want to keep all the money for the 1 percent, as well as from social conservatives in the Catholic Church who seem to want to stifle the strong imperative to social justice in church teachings. At last we are starting to turn the tide and while we can continue to organize at the grassroots to win real victories, it sure helps to have leaders talking about the issues that matter. When these leaders come together, we can expect real change to follow.