Option for the Poor

Bishop Seitz Addresses “Option for the Poor”

When it comes to fighting for the poor, which poor most deserve attention?  Bishop Mark Seitz addressed that in his keynote speech at the “Option for the Poor” awards dinner held on Oct. 17 which is the Diocesan Peace and Justice Ministry annual fundraiser dinner.

The dinner is held annually to create awareness in the Catholic community about the social teachings of the church and to recognize who often pick up the torch of social justice in the case of the greater good.

Here’s our bishop in his own words:

Option for the Poor Keynote by Bishop Mark J. Seitz
Diocese of El Paso
October 17, 2014

The Consistent Life Ethic: Principles of Social Justice that Transcend Ideologies

No one likes to be criticized, least of all me.  But there was one occasion when, because of the criticism, I knew I must have been doing something right.  During the run up to one of the Iraq wars I preached one Sunday mentioning Pope John Paul’s call for further dialogue and for peace. After Mass a man who was clearly angry came up to me and accused me of belonging to the Democratic National Committee.

Some weeks following this encounter I believe it was during October, Respect Life Month. I spoke in the homily about the terrible toll of abortion. Following Mass a person came up to me with something other than a smile on his face and accused me of belonging to the Republican National Committee. I didn’t say what I said because I belong to either Party, but because I am Catholic.

In our polarized country ideologies have replaced principles and too often the opportunity to make a political point has trumped the even the most basic demands of human compassion.

The response in Congress to the arrival of high numbers of refugees at our southern border made that abundantly clear to me. As many of you know in June this past summer I had the opportunity to testify before the House Judiciary Committee.  The Hearing was on the influx of unaccompanied children and of families that we were witnessing.  Now, one would imagine that the purpose of a hearing in Congress would be to learn about the issues that are being studied and to consider possible responses. The title of the Hearing put those presumptions into question. The hearing was entitled, “An Administration Made Disaster: The South Texas Border Surge of Unaccompanied Alien Minors”.

Another example came a little later in the summer.  We all heard the drumbeat in regard to those arriving at our border that they ought to follow the law. That was the case until it became apparent that the reason people fleeing to our border could not be immediately sent back was a law that had been passed in 2000.  The Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) was passed unanimously, signed by President Bush, and then reauthorized in March of 2013 under President Clinton.  It was seen at the time as a tremendous step forward for the sake of children and women that are so terribly abused. How quickly sentiment changed on the part of members from both sides of the aisle when protecting these victims of human trafficking became politically inconvenient.

But it is not as though this is a high stakes game played by only one political party.  What took place in the implementation of the Affordable Care Act I believe presents another clear example.  The Catholic Church in the United States has for decades supported national health insurance. We were very pleased when the Affordable Care Act passed.  Although it was far from perfect we felt it was an important step forward.

When regulations began to be published by the Department of Health and Human Services we were very disappointed to see that the Catholic Church was directly targeted through rules that seek to force Church institutions and Catholic individuals to pay for so-called services that are contrary to our teachings. Worse than this the regulations seek to employ a more narrow definition of what constitutes a church and is therefore protected under the First Amendment. It has been commented that under this definition Jesus and the Apostles might not qualify as a church. It means that our schools, our hospitals our charitable outreach would not be considered the work of the Church.  This definition will have repercussions far beyond the unpopular beliefs they target. All churches are being told that only as long as we keep our Faith within the Church walls we will have the liberty to practice it. That is not my understanding of what it is to be a church. What about you?

In the 1980’s when US political life was already heading in an ever more polarized direction and that polarization was also being seen in the Church, Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, the Archbishop of Chicago, of happy memory, sought to call us to a deeper and more coherent ethic, one that would not be driven by the changing winds of political exigency.  He referred to it as “the seamless garment”.

The Church’s Social Justice teaching is based upon our conviction about the value of all life, and the unique and immeasurable dignity of human life.  As Jesus told us in today’s Gospel, “Are not 5 sparrows sold for two small coins?  Yet not one of them has escaped the notice of God.  Even the hairs of your head have all been counted.  Do not be afraid.  You are worth more than many sparrows.” ( Lk. 12: 4-7)  For once we can accuse Jesus of understatement!

A close corollary to this fundamental truth is that human beings cannot be owned, they do not even own themselves.  Life is a gift that is on loan.  It is not a possession.  The father of Bill Cosby may have told him when he was acting up as a child, “I brought you into this world and I can take you out again!”  But I think we all know that this most certainly is not true.  Parents have a role in bringing a child into the world, but they themselves stand in awe at what emerges from their cooperation.

We today are coming to see more clearly than ever that the baby and the young child have rights that society must protect.  Parents have a responsibility to care for a child, but they do not have the autonomous authority to beat the child, abuse or mistreat the child, sell the child.  We even have restrictions on child labor.

The inalienable rights upon which our nation has been built are not of our making.  They are not ceded to us by a government or anyone else.  Was this not the point of the Declaration of Independence it says that “we are endowed by our Creator with certain inalienable rights and among these are life liberty and the pursuit of happiness”?

And if I have rights then so does the other.  We are not autonomous.  We did not bring ourselves into the world and we do not have the right to take ourselves out of the world.  The act of suicide is not only destructive to the individual and to those who love him or her, but also to society itself because it denies the inalienable right to life.  We belong to one another and we are called to care for one another.  We are called to care for every human person without distinction from the moment they come to be until they are called home by God.

Without this foundation it is hard to see how a nation can long endure.  Without this basis for the common good we are just a chaotic mass of individuals striving for their own self-interest.  And God help you if you are weak or in the minority.

Yes, we are pluralistic society, but we must find common ground around these fundamental principles.  Most people of faith and even some who do not have faith will be able to find agreement around these basic foundations. It is our special responsibility in the world to enlighten others with these basic truths of the dignity of the human person, not only for the sake of their eternal salvation, but for the sake of our nation and the world.

One of the points that give this ethic of life a great persuasive power is its consistency.  We do not pick and choose from the continuum of life’s moments.  We are not left to weigh relative values of life at a given stage.  We do not place a price tag upon this life as opposed to another’s life. The value of a person at life’s most remote beginning is the same immeasurable value of the child, the youth, the adult, the aged.  If we were to in some way place a higher value on one it would only be insofar as we make a special option for the poorest and the weakest because this will be the measure of a truly just society.

We certainly can speak of a right to self-defense against an unjust aggressor but that is based upon our own special responsibility to protect the life God has placed directly in our care and, in fact, we may only respond with sufficient force to protect ourselves and our neighbors.

Over time Cardinal Bernardin spoke less of the ‘seamless garment’ and more of a ‘consistent ethic of life’ because people were misapplying his point.

One misunderstanding was that he was not trying to say that every issue of injustice has the same moral weight.  The failure to pay a just wage (although it can have terrible consequences) is not the same as the direct taking of an innocent human life by abortion or euthanasia or by targeting civilians in war. A second common misunderstanding was that this required that everyone be involved in every issue.  On this matter Cardinal Bernardin had this to say: “Does this mean that everyone must do everything?  No!  There are limits, time, energy and competency.  There is a shape to every individual vocation.  People must specialize, groups must focus their energies.” (Address, Seattle U., 3/2/86)

Looking at the ways his challenge to consistency was being misused he had this to say, “The concept itself is a complex and challenging one.  It requires us to broaden, substantively and creatively, our ways of thinking, our attitudes, our pastoral response.  Many are not accustomed to thinking about all the life-threatening and life-diminishing issues with such a consistency.  The result is that they remain somewhat selective in their response.  Although some of those who oppose the concept seem not to have understood it, I sometimes suspect that many who oppose it recognize its challenge. Quite frankly, I sometimes wonder whether those who embrace it quickly and whole-heartedly truly understand all its implications.” (ibid.)

In our work on behalf of the poor and to build a world that is truly just let us then put aside anything that would smack of narrow partisan ideology which defines itself simply in terms of opposition to the position of the other.  Particularly we in the Church have received a rich heritage calling us to build a true culture of life.  We recognize the rich dignity of every person and we therefore treat every person, even our enemies, with love and respect.  Anyone working for the cause of social justice should find solidarity with us, especially when they are our brothers and sisters in the Church.

This consistent ethic of life is not reserved though to those of us who share Catholic Faith.  It is a gift to the world to which our Faith gives even greater clarity and power.  May God make us bold in this proclamation because our nation and the nations of the world will be lost and without a true foundation until they rediscover the true dignity of the human person and a coherent, consistent ethic of life.

Most Rev. Mark J. Seitz, DD

El Paso

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