Justice Perspective: Be mindful of the poor

Wed, Feb 25th 2015 08:00 am
Deacon Don Weigel
Deacon Don Weigel

There was a bit of history made this past December, and it deserves some thought beyond just the headlines it made. Bishop Richard J. Malone and Episcopal Bishop R. William Franklin issued a joint pastoral letter on the renewal in Western New York.

You have undoubtedly seen the write-up in this paper and elsewhere about this notable event, and it is a significant achievement for our area. But, we should really pay attention to the content of this joint pastoral letter because their message is urgent, challenging and critical.

The bishops were drawing our attention to the very positive success that the Buffalo area, and the city in particular, is having in its redevelopment. There are new medical facilities, new sports arenas, hotels, residences, law offices - all types of new or refurbished buildings and businesses. But the bishops give us a very stark reminder that it is easy to leave a significant part of the population behind in all of this growth - particularly minorities, the poor and the marginalized.

This call for concern is a very real recognition that even with all of the recovery in the economy and the boom in Buffalo, "not everyone is benefitting," as the bishops said. The truth of their claim is borne out by the fact Catholic Charities is opening food pantries in new parts of the diocese - in rural areas and in suburban areas as well. This rising tide of economic development is supposed to "lift all boats," but it does not seem to make it any easier for many to keep their heads above water.

We have heard the bragging from plenty of politicians who want to take credit for the economic recovery - both local and national. But amid all the bluster there is not enough discussion about who is truly benefitting from this recovery. Unfortunately, all studies show that the real benefactors from the recovery are those who were well off before - and almost none of the benefits went to people of color, the poor or the marginalized.

It is not just this recovery of the most recent six years. It has been widely reported (including in this column) that income and wealth inequality has grown over the last 40 years. Recently Pope Francis remarked, "It is true that in absolute terms the world's wealth has grown, but inequality has also increased and new (forms of) poverty have arisen." And it typically happens that the gap between the rich and the poor widens - sometimes rapidly, sometimes slowly - when we are not paying attention.

This is the reason for the Church's teaching on the "preferential option for the poor," what the bishops are saying in their letter, and what Pope Francis talks about repeatedly when he calls us to pay attention to the poor.  Because it is about paying attention. It is about always asking how the poor are affected when new economic or budgetary or legislative proposals are made.

It is easy to lose our attention to the poor and vulnerable. We have to constantly remind ourselves that the poor have the most urgent moral claim on our society. The U.S. bishops have written that the "'option for the poor,' states that the deprivation and powerlessness of the poor wounds the whole community. The extent of their suffering is a measure of how far we are from being a true community of persons." There is a "preferential option" for the poor because we all need a reminder to pay attention.

In Galatians 2:10 St. Paul recalls how the other apostles in Jerusalem encouraged him to "be mindful of the poor." Good advice for us all.

Deacon Don Weigel is the associate public policy coordinator at Catholic Charities of Buffalo and is a Global Fellow with Catholic Relief Services.  He may be reached via email.

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