Last weekend, more than 100 students gathered at St. Clement Parish in the Lincoln Park neighborhood of Chicago. Representing Catholic campus ministry centers from colleges and universities throughout the United States — Catholic, private, and public — these students were wrapping up a year of leadership training and faith formation as participants in ESTEEM (Engaging Students to Enliven the Ecclesial Mission), a project of the National Leadership Roundtable on Church Management and the St. Thomas More Catholic Center at Yale University.
The students spend their ESTEEM year attending workshops, small group sessions, retreats, and engaged in service opportunities. They read church documents on a range of subjects in order to become familiar with how the church operates, from the structure of the Vatican, to how bishops run dioceses, to the role of parish councils. The idea is that when students graduate and leave their vibrant campus ministry centers, they should feel empowered to take on leadership positions in their parishes. As Kerry Robinson, my colleague at the Leadership Roundtable, says, students should feel ready to be the church they want to see.
When students were given the opportunity to share, again and again they mentioned that they didn’t feel comfortable talking about their faith lives in a public setting, away from the safety of church walls. Students who held traditional views on church and social issues said this, which wasn’t surprising given how far wide the gap between church teaching and societal values on social issues has grown in the last decade or so.
What raised an eyebrow for me, though, was that even those students whose views on contraception, same-sex marriage, and other social issues more closely align with the Democratic Party than the Catholic bishops, voiced this concern, too.
Publicly identifying as Catholic sometimes connotes a certain political persuasion or party affiliation, so young progressives who are Catholic might be reluctant to discuss their faith. The antidote to this discomfort is being able to draw on church teaching and witness that address the great challenges facing society today.
Take immigration, for example.
For progressives, there are many economic theories about how a robust immigration program spurs creativity, bolsters economies, and expands opportunity. For Catholic progressives, there’s also a moral argument to be made for enacting fair and just immigration laws. All families deserve to stay intact, individuals have basic rights to food and shelter, and our current system unfairly targets the poor.
If progressive Catholics want to point to a powerful image of what unfair immigration policies do to communities, they could highlight this week’s Mass on the U.S.-Mexico border, concelebrated by Cardinal Seán O’Malley and eight other bishops at the 20-foot security fence. John Allen writes in the Boston Globe:
They came together at the emotional crest of the service, with communion wafers passed through the fence to the eager hands reaching north — the direction of hope and, for far too many immigrant border crossers, O’Malley said, danger and death.
“The desert is lined with the unmarked graves of thousands,’’ O’Malley said during the service Tuesday morning. Summoning the memory of the estimated 6,000 people who have perished trying to make the crossing during the last 15 years, he called it long past time for comprehensive immigration reform.
“We are here today to say they are not forgotten,” O’Malley told the gathering.
O’Malley went on to describe immigration reform as a “pro-life” issue, giving a nod to Pope Francis, who wants to move the church beyond the single-issue focus it’s developed in recent years.
Young Catholics trying to escape the pigeonhole society has created for people of faith could use this tactic, too. Being pro-life, they might say, doesn’t mean only talking about abortion politics. It means a wide range of issues, including immigration. And even economic justice.
I recently had the opportunity to contribute to a project called In This Together, a resource for college students that highlights the church’s position on a number of economic justice issues.
The project covers a range of topics all related to the pope’s call that “today we also have to say ‘thou shalt not’ to an economy of exclusion and inequality. Such an economy kills.”
Take an increase in the minimum wage, for example. Again, the economic arguments are abundant. An increase to $10.10 per hour, what President Obama wants, would lift millions out of poverty. This, in turn, would reduce the need for government supplements, and even help the rich by increasing the buying power of millions of Americans.
But there’s also a moral case to make.
Catholic bishops have been unequivocal that all people have the right to employment, and that employment should provide enough income to provide for food and shelter for families. At the current minimum wage, full-time workers are still poor. Adjusted for inflation, minimum wage in 1968 was more than three dollars per hour higher than today.
Way back in 1919, Msgr. John Ryan wrote that all workers are entitled to a fair minimum wage, with his ideas helping to shape FDR’s New Deal legislation.
More recently, Miami’s Archbishop Thomas Wenski wrote an op-ed in a Florida newspaper saying, “Those who toil to harvest our produce, to cook and serve our food, and to clean our buildings, are our brothers and sisters — and they deserve to enjoy the same dignity in work that others enjoy.”
Families that can’t afford the basic necessities of life are suffering because of an economy that isn’t pro-life. Pope Francis, and other bishops here at home, are challenging Catholics to lend a moral voice to these debates.
Those of us in our 20s and 30s who believe the Catholic Church has a valuable role to play in helping to alleviate the challenges facing so many in our society must be willing to be a bit uncomfortable when we participate in the conversation. And we’ve got to educate ourselves about the long tradition of the Church’s standing at the forefront of progressive reform movements. Pope Francis is reminding us this is possible. It’s up to us to say, yes, it is.