Who Speaks for the Least Among Us?
By Cokie and Steve Roberts
Leader-Call [United States]
December 23, 2006
Tis the season of giving — and getting. Reading the business pages of the nation's newspapers reveals that a very few people are getting a very great deal. Most aren't so lucky. That's always been the case, of course, but the disparity between the super rich and everyone else in America is greater than at any time since the roaring '20s, according to a study that was issued even before the recent Wall Street bonus bonanza. In the United States, the richest 10 percent of the country now owns almost 70 percent of the assets. Here's our question: where are the voices of moral outrage?
Catholic Charities, USA, one of the largest national social service providers, recently released a report on poverty detailing the grim statistics agencies like theirs face every day. Last year, 25 million people visited food banks. More than half of America's adults will spend a year in poverty at some point in their lives. Meanwhile, the mega-rich jet off on their private planes to one of their multiple homes where they might spend more in a day than most families make in a year. But religious leaders remain largely silent on the subject.
Not long after Catholic Charities issued its startling document, U.S. Catholic bishops convened for their annual meeting. Did they choose to take up the moral issues raised by their own social service agencies? Did they address the fact that many full time working families can't afford homes or health care? No, the prelates decided instead to weigh in against homosexuality and birth control. It's as if they are asking to be ignored.
Take the subject of birth control: Any priest who looks around at the average family in his congregation can support the literally hundreds of surveys over the last several decades that show Catholic use of artificial contraception no different from that of the rest of the population. The folks in the pews tuned out the men in miters on that subject many years ago, and the hierarchy's sway over the faithful hasn't been the same since Catholics started going their own way on that most personal of decisions.
The bishops' authority isn't likely to be enhanced by their statement concerning gays and lesbians either. Telling them that they are welcome as church communicants as long as they are celibate — essentially telling gay lay people to behave like gay priests are supposed to — will cause some gay Catholics pain, but will not stop them from being sexually active people. And it won't stop many of them from receiving Communion.
At their annual meeting the bishops also reiterated the church's stricture against adoption by gay couples. The Boston Archdiocese shut down its century old adoption agency this year rather than comply with state laws barring discrimination against gays and lesbians. The action caused an enormous upset in the city's Catholic community, still reeling from the sexual abuse scandal in the church.
That scandal so weakened the authority of the church hierarchy that now bishops seem to be using the remnants of their clout to go after the weak, rather than the mighty. Gay couples willing to adopt hard to place children, as they did in Boston, hardly appear worthy targets of Episcopal ire. Wouldn't the bishops' voices serve the public good more effectively if they took on the obscenity of executive compensation in the hundreds of millions of dollars?
Who else can do that? It's certainly not the government's purview. It is the role of religion in society to speak as the moral force for the common good. Religious leaders should be beating the message home to the community that we have obligations to each other beyond collections of cans for soup kitchens or toys for tots drives at Christmas. The bishops should be railing against the fact that the government has changed its terminology to describe the some thirty five million hungry people in this country as those with "very low food security." That way hunger doesn't sound quite so bad, even if it still feels the same.
If there's one thing the man whose birth we celebrate at Christmas was clear on, it was our responsibility to care for the "least among us." Those with the most have the greatest responsibility of all. Their religious leaders should be hounding them, and all of us, to fulfill our duty to make this a better society for all in this season when we give and especially when we get.
Steve Roberts' latest book is "My Fathers' Houses: Memoir of a Family" (William Morrow, 2005). Steve and Cokie Roberts can be contacted by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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