The Occupy Wall Street protests are bringing long-overdue attention to issues of economic injustice, including the unfair and irresponsible practices of the financial industry and the need for an economy that works for all of us. The essence of their message is echoed by diverse faith leaders, including most recently the Vatican, which released a note late last month calling for stricter regulation of global financial markets, a tax on financial transactions, and a global authority that can enforce these new rules.
Commentators such as E.J. Dionne remarked on the similarities between the Vatican’s message and that of the Occupy protests. Dionne wrote that the Vatican document “paralleled many of the criticisms of unchecked capitalism that are echoing through lower Manhattan and cities around the world.”
Thomas Reese, a Catholic priest and senior fellow at Georgetown University’s Woodstock Theological Center, wrote that the note “will be cheered by the folks occupying Wall Street.”
The Vatican even confirms a shared view. In response to a question about the Occupy movement, Cardinal Peter Turkson, president of the council that authored the Vatican’s note, said that the “basic sentiment” of the Occupy movement is in line with Catholic social teachings and the direction of the note.
Some conservative Catholic commentators are not as supportive, however. For instance, George Weigel of the National Review denies that the note carries Vatican authority, saying it speaks only for the council that authored it.
And Kishore Jayabalan of the conservative Catholic Acton Institute said that the note’s appeal to an international authority contradicts the church’s teaching that problems are best solved starting at local levels of authority, also known as the doctrine of subsidiarity.
What these conservatives are missing is that the note draws heavily from the tradition of Catholic social teachings on justice and respect for the inherent dignity of human life. This is where the Occupy movement finds an ally. According to the Vatican, our current crisis is “not only economic and financial but above all moral in nature.”
Protesters agree. Although the Occupy movement did not begin as a religious effort, at heart it is a moral enterprise, based on the premise that it is unjust for our national economic sacrifices and rewards to be so unfairly distributed. The richest 1 percent of Americans own 40 percent of our country’s wealth and take home nearly a quarter of national income—a higher percentage than at any time since the 1920s.
In Catholicism, talk of a moral economy is not limited to today’s global financial crisis. It echoes the general principle set forth 80 years ago by Pope Pius XI. In Quadragesimo Anno, issued in 1931, Pius wrote of the dangers of separating morality and economics entirely, saying that it is “an error to say that the economic and moral orders are so distinct from and alien to each other that the former depends in no way on the latter.”
Over the decades, a number of Catholic social justice groups translated these words into action. NETWORK, a Catholic advocacy group founded in 1971, is running a campaign that encourages people to “Mind the Gap,” referring to the wealth gap between the richest and poorest. By educating the electorate and lobbying political leaders, they aim to help shape policies that decrease poverty and build up the middle class. Other issues they work on include the social safety net, unemployment, and inadequate housing—all very much concerns addressed by the Vatican note.
Working for a more just economy is not limited to Catholicism, however. Interfaith organizations such as Interfaith Worker Justice and PICO focus on wage theft, globalization, workforce development, and low-income housing.
In light of the high rate of unemployment, IWJ has launched “Faith Advocates for Jobs,” a campaign to help the unemployed and underemployed by providing assistance in job training and searching, as well as in navigating the means for government aid.
A Christian group called the Circle of Protection also spoke up for the poor during critical budget negotiations, beginning their work during the debt ceiling crisis this summer and gaining an audience with President Barack Obama. They aim to shield programs that help the poor and hungry from drastic cuts, such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, Medicaid, and the Children’s Health Insurance Program.
An interfaith group called the Faithful Budget Campaign is also working to protect social safety net programs by lobbying members of the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction, also known as the “super committee.”
As the Occupy movement continues to amplify its message, it would be wise for them to look to faith groups already active on issues of joint concern. Indeed, as the Vatican note states, this global economic crisis “requires the concerted efforts of everyone, a thorough examination of every facet of the problem—social, economic, cultural, and spiritual.”
Faith organizations are not new to the debate on economics, and their progressive views on the creation of a just economy are invaluable to the conversation.
Jake Paysour is an intern with the Faith Initiative and a student at Wesley Theological Seminary.
For more on the Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative visit its project page.
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