The Face of Poverty Today: A Challenge for the Church
The Catholic University of America
Joseph Cardinal Bernardin
January 17, 1985
Let me begin by expressing my appreciation to Father Byron,
President of Catholic University, for the invitation to deliver this address on
the fact of poverty and the challenge it poses for the Church. Both the topic
and the place of the lecture have special relevance.
The bishops of the United States are engaged in a major effort to help the
Church in the U.S. in its analysis and response to the fact of poverty. The
first draft of the pastoral letter, "Catholic Social Teaching and the U.S.
Economy" is merely an initial step in an extended process. Its goal is to
engage every level of the Church in study, discussion and decisions about how
the Church can and must respond to the cry of the poor.
The opportunity for me to address an audience at Catholic University as part
of this process has both symbolic and substantive significance. The Church
always acts with a sense of its history and its tradition. The tradition of the
U.S. Church's social teaching on poverty has been profoundly influenced by this
University. To come to the intellectual home of Msgr. John A. Ryan and Bishop
Francis Haas, of Father Paul Hanley Furfey and Msgr. George Higgins is to
acknowledge the U.S. Church's debt to this University. It also recognizes that
the social tradition continues here, symbolized by Fr. Byron's own ministry and
by the work of so many of your faculty.
My purpose this evening is to analyze the relationship of the Church to the
fact of poverty in our time. I will examine where we stand as a Church, what we
can bring to the struggle against poverty, and how we should proceed in this
struggle precisely as the Church.
More specifically, I will address three questions: the nature of the problem
we face, the role of the Church, and one aspect of the policy debate on poverty.
The Nature of the Problem: The Fact and The Faces of Poverty
Let me begin with two assertions: (1) much of the poverty in the world is
hidden from us; (2) the poor usually live at the margin of society and too often
at the margin of awareness of those who are not poor. Yet, in the world of the
1980s, although many of the poor are hidden, it is also impossible for the rest
of us to hide from the poor.
The faces of poverty are all around us. Chicago and Washington are different
cities, but I have lived in both of them long enough to know that the only way
to hide from the poor is to stay in one's room or home. We cannot walk to work
or to the bus stop, we cannot run a noontime errand without seeing the faces of
poverty—on the heating grates, in the doorways, near the bus terminal and
huddled in the winter around the places which serve the cheapest cup of coffee.
After walking through the poverty of the city during the day, we are
confronted with the faces of poverty on a wider scale in the nightly news.
Ethiopia is an extreme case, but not as extreme as we might first think. The
fact of poverty is the dominant social reality for over 100 countries of the
world. Numbers can be numbing in their effect, but they can also crystallize a
The fact of global poverty means:
- 800 million people live in conditions of "absolute poverty," that is, "a
condition of life so limited by malnutrition, illiteracy, disease, high
infant mortality, and low life expectancy as to be beneath any rational
definition of human decency";
- 2.26 billion people—half of the world's population—live in countries with
a per capita income of less than $400 per year,
- 450 million people are malnourished.
Statistics illustrating the global reality of poverty could be given in much
greater detail, of course. But statistics do not tell us all we need to know.
The Gospel points out that these poor people are our brothers and sisters. The
first draft of the pastoral letter wisely devotes a substantial section to the
U.S. relationship with the rest of the world because the resources of this
nation and its role in the world constitute a serious responsibility in
responding to the absolute poverty of our 800 million brothers and sisters.
My specific concern this evening, however, is not the faces and figures of
global poverty, but poverty in the United States. The fact of world poverty is
so massive that it can overwhelm us. The fact of poverty in the United States is
a part of our national life, but it is not recognized as a dominant fact of our
existence. It can easily blend into a larger picture which stresses—not
poverty—but the power and productivity of the nation.
Poverty is surely present but, in the dominant national perspective— provided
by magazines, media and movies—it is not a significant feature. Poverty is
present but, when we plan for the future, the poor are not central to the
planning. Poverty is present but, in the policy debates of the nation, the poor
exercise little leverage.
The drafting of the pastoral letter on the economy is still in its early
stages. However, it has already accomplished something which commentators have
quickly noticed: The letter makes space in the policy debate for the fate of the
poor in a way which has not been evident for some years now.
We need to make space for the faces of the poor in our personal consciences
and in the public agenda because the facts tell us that poverty is not so
marginal in this nation as we might think. At the end of 1983, by official
government estimates, 35 million Americans were poor. That meant 15% of the
nation was defined as poor. The hidden poor were another 20-30 million who lived
just above the poverty line.
Who are the poor? They represent every race and religion in the nation. They
are both men and women, and, so very often, they are children. The poor are a
fluid population. People move in and out of poverty. With unemployment still
affecting at least 7-8 million people, the condition of poverty touches millions
for some part of their lives.
No group is immune from poverty, but not all share it equally. Some of the
statistics in the pastoral letter are striking: blacks are 12% of the American
population but 62% of those persistently poor; women who head households
constitute 19% of the family population, but 61% of persistently poor families.
The very old and the very young know the reality of poverty in
The causes of poverty are a subject of honest disagreement, but the fact of
poverty, even in a nation of our resources, cannot be disputed. It is the
Church's response to this fact which is my major concern this evening.
II. The Role of the Church
The role of the Church in this question or any other must be shaped by the
perspective of the Scriptures as these are read in the Catholic tradition. The
draft of the pastoral letter develops the Scriptural case in detail. Here I will
simply indicate the lines of an argument which is self-evident to anyone who
examines the biblical basis of our faith. The argument is quite simple: The poor
have a special place in the care of God, and they place specific demands on the
consciences of believers.
The biblical argument runs through both Testaments, as the draft of the
pastoral letter has shown. The prophets, in particular, specify the theme. In
spite of their different styles and personalities, the prophets converge on a
single message: the quality of Israel's faith will be tested by the character of
justice in Israel's life. For the prophets, the test cases for Israel are
specific: The way widows, orphans and resident aliens are treated measures the
link between faith and justice.
Jesus himself continues the prophetic tradition. He clearly identifies his
ministry with the preaching of the prophets as, for example, in the fourth
chapter of St. Luke's Gospel. He consciously finds those on the edge of
society—the "widows, orphans and resident aliens" of his time— and lifts up
their plight even as he responds to their needs. He identifies himself so
concretely with the poor that the first letter of St. John can say that love of
God is measured by love of neighbor.
The biblical mandate about the poor is richer and more powerful than I can
convey in this address. I recommend further study of the pastoral letter because
it concisely gathers these biblical themes in its first chapter. However, I can
synthesize the lesson the Church is trying to learn from the biblical
perspective. It is found in a phrase which runs throughout the letter: the
Church must have a "preferential option for the poor." This concept, rooted in
the Scriptures, developed with originality by the Church in Latin America and
now becoming a guide for ministry in the universal Church under the leadership
of Pope John Paul II, illustrates how the Church learns anew from the Scriptures
in every age.
The power of the phrase, "preferential option for the poor," is that it
summarizes several biblical themes. As the pastoral letter states, it calls the
Church to speak for the poor, to see the world from their perspective, and to
empty itself so it may experience the power of God in the midst of poverty and
This, in all honesty, is an extraordinarily demanding view of what we should
be as a Church. It is clear we have a distance to go in implementing this view
of the Church's mission and ministry. Nevertheless, we have begun by taking the
The option for the poor, I would suggest, will be realized in different ways
according to the situation of the Church in different societies and cultures.
Now we need to ask what the phrase means for the ministry of the Church in the
I do not have a blueprint for determining the specific meaning of the "option
for the poor" or integrating the concept into our ministry in this country.
However, one dimension of the task especially interests me—the role of the
Church as a social institution in our society. The Church as a social
institution has made two distinct responses to the fact of poverty. The first
has been to organize itself to carry out works of mercy. The fulfillment of the
command to feed the hungry, clothe the naked and care for the sick has found
direct and immediate expression in the Church from the apostolic age until
today. The methods of doing this work have varied, but all can be classified as
direct, social service to the poor.
The manifestations of this dimension of ministry are well known in the United
States. They include Catholic Charities and social services in every diocese,
St. Vincent de Paul Societies in every parish, and institutions— such as
orphanages, hospitals and shelters for the homeless—established by communities
of men and women religious and others throughout the country.
This form of social ministry is well known, but it is not the only way the
Church addresses the fact of poverty. The second and complementary witness to
the option for the poor is the Church's role as advocate and actor in the public
life of society. The roots of this dimension of social ministry are found in the
prophets who teach us to ask questions about how we organize our life as a
society. The prophets asked questions in Israel about patterns of land ownership
and wages, about the rules and customs used to design the social life of the
nation. The prophets did not stop at formulating the norm that the quality of
faith is tested by the character of social justice. They pressed specific
questions about the social patterns in the life of Israel.
The conditions of twentieth-century industrial society are radically
different from eighth-century B.C. Israelite society. Nevertheless, the
prophets' style of social questioning has been taken up in the Church's social
teaching of this century. The purpose of this social teaching is to measure the
social and economic life of society by the standards of social justice and
The leadership of the popes in this century has, in turn, produced a body of
social teaching from the bishops. The best known example was probably drafted in
some faculty residence on this campus by John A. Ryan when he authored the 1919
pastoral letter of the U.S. Bishops. The first draft of the 1984 pastoral letter
on the economy stands in this tradition of social teaching.
These two dimensions of the Church's life—its ministry of direct social
service and its role as an advocate for the poor in society—remain the principal
channels for the Church's response to poverty. The challenge we face in making
an effective option for the poor is how these two aspects of social ministry are
integrated into the full life of the Church today.
In a large, complex, bureaucratic secular society like the United States, the
Church's social service role is more needed than ever. We should not try to
duplicate what society does well in supplying social services, but, in
particular, we should bring two dimensions to the system of social care. First,
the delivery of some social services is best done in a decentralized local
model. For many social services today, only the taxing power of the state can
raise sufficient funds to meet human needs. But the state is often not the best
agency to minister services to people in need. The Church and other voluntary
agencies can often deliver, in a humane and compassionate way, services that
only the state can fund.
Second, the Church's agencies of direct social service should be a source not
only of compassion but also creativity. Public bureaucracy is not known for
creative innovation. Its size and complexity often prevent it from acting in
anything but routine patterns. In every field from housing to health care to
hospices, there is room for new creative methods of public-private cooperation
to feed the hungry, shelter the homeless and heal the sick. We can do better
what we are already doing. With 35 million poor in our midst, we can reach
beyond what we are doing!
In saying this, I want to be correctly understood. I am aware that Catholic
Charities, the Catholic health care system and other diocesan and national
networks are already involved in significant efforts of creative and direct
service. It is the very success of these efforts which will give us courage to
extend our efforts.
There is another sense in which I want to be clearly understood. We cannot be
consistent with Catholic tradition unless we accept the principle of
subsidiarity. I fully support a pluralist social system in which the state is
not the center of everything.
Nevertheless, I do not want the principle of subsidiarity used in a way which
subverts Catholic teaching on the collective responsibility of society for its
poor. I am not endorsing a concept of decentralization or federalism which
absolves the government from fulfilling its social responsibilities.
Both the Catholic and American traditions urge a pattern of public--private
cooperation. This means the state has a positive social role, and we have social
responsibilities as religious organizations. The churches alone cannot meet the
social needs of this nation, and we should not try to do so. We should be
prepared to play a major role, but part of our role is to enter the public
debate and work for a compassionate, just, social policy.
This is the second challenge which confronts the Church today: how to fulfill
the role of advocate in the public debate. This is the role which the Bishops'
Conference is seeking to fulfill in its pastoral letters, first on peace and now
on social justice. It is the role Bishop Malone stressed in his presidential
address to the bishops last November. He argued that, on issues as diverse as
abortion, Central America, nuclear war and poverty, failure of the bishops to
speak would be a dereliction of civic responsibility and religious duty.
It is this role which puts the bishops in the midst of public controversy.
Controversy is the companion of participation in public policy debate. That is
why it should not be surprising that contributions of the scope and range of our
two pastoral letters cause controversies.
At the same time, it is important to understand the purpose of the bishops'
interventions. In the pastoral letters—and in many other documents, such as
congressional testimonies, speeches and letters of individual bishops—we speak
at the level of both moral principles and the applications of these principles
to particular policies. We regularly assert that we understand and want others
to understand that the moral principles we present have a different authority
than our particular conclusions. We invite debate and discussion of our policy
conclusions. We know they must be tested in the public arena, in the academic
community and in the professional community. We have been using the process of
successive drafts to stimulate this discussion.
Since I was so directly involved in the pastoral letter on war and peace, I
believe there is specific merit in joining principles and policy proposals in
the same document. Its purpose is not to foreclose debate, but to foster it. The
policy conclusions give a sense of how the moral principles take shape in the
concrete situations our society faces. I think we would be mistaken as bishops
if we did not distinguish principles from policy judgments. But I think we would
fail to stimulate the public argument if we withdrew from the arena of policy
Our role is not to design or legislate programs but to help shape the
questions our society asks and to help set the right terms of debate on public
We have an excellent example in the issue confronting the Administration, the
Congress, and the general public as we begin 1985—the deficit debate. It is the
kind of highly technical and complex question which a modern state must face.
The way the question is decided will shape the life of our society. The fact is
that the deficit must be cut. The choices facing the Administration and the
Congress are how to cut spending to reduce the deficit.
The technical details are admittedly immense, but the general policy question
is not purely technical. At the core of the deficit debate is the trade-off
between military spending and social spending. How that tradeoff is adjudicated
requires moral discernment as well as economic competence.
In the 1980s virtually every program for the poor has been cut
- more than 2 million poor children lost health care benefits
- half a million disabled adults lost cash and medical assistance; and
- one million poor families lost food stamp benefits.
In general, spending for the poor is less than 1% of the federal budget, but
it has sustained 33% of all budget cuts.
These cuts in social spending have been accompanied by significant, steady
increases in military spending. It is the responsibility of the federal
government to provide for the common defense and to promote the general welfare.
Military spending will justifiably be part of the budget. But the deficit forces
us as a nation to ask who will bear the burden of the deficit. Military spending
should not be insulated when plans for reducing the deficit are formulated.
I have no misconceptions about bishops being competent to write a national
budget. But it is not beyond our competence or role to say that the burden of
reducing the deficit should not be borne by the most vulnerable among us.
Programs for the poor have been cut enough! The burden must be shared by all
sectors of the economy. The specifics of how to do it fall beyond my
responsibility, but shaping the question of how we face the deficit is clearly
part of what the Church should do as advocate in the social system.
III. The Poor and the Policy Debate - One Issue
In the deficit debate, the fate of many of the poor is at stake. This evening
I would like to focus attention on a particular group by addressing a specific
dimension of poverty: the feminization of poverty. This phrase has been coined
by Dr. Diana Pierce, a Catholic University faculty member who has made a
significant contribution to the study of poverty. She has focused her research
on the plight of women who are divorced, widowed or unmarried. She has surfaced
data which have special relevance for the Church in the policy debate about
Dr. Pierce's pioneering work has helped many begin to understand the severe
economic consequences of motherhood and sex discrimination in this country. Of
course, men, especially minorities and youths, also suffer from unemployment and
poverty, and millions of intact families have inadequate income. However,
poverty is growing fastest among women and children.
As we look at this issue, it will be helpful to remember that nearly all
(94%) women marry and nearly all of them (95%) have children. Reducing the
economic price of motherhood should be a priority for our society. This
disproportionate burden of poverty on women and children is appalling. Current
statistics reflect some of this grim picture:
- two out of three poor adults are women;
- three out of four poor elderly are women;
- almost half of all poor families are headed by women, and half of the
women raising children alone are poor;
- one in four children under six is poor;
- one in three black children under six is poor.
Even if poverty did not weigh so disproportionately on women, the growth of
both the number and percentage of the poor would be cause for alarm and action.
For those of us in the Church, this situation is profoundly disturbing. The fact
that poverty is so concentrated among women and children should galvanize our
energies and focus our attention on the conditions that create the situation.
A closer look at poverty among women reveals that it is strongly linked to
two sets of factors: (1) job and wage discrimination and (2) responsibility for
the support and care of children.
Job and wage discrimination leave women concentrated in the lowest paying
jobs, with more problems finding full-time year-round work. But, even when women
overcome these obstacles, they still earn substantially less than men. Dr.
Pierce's data indicate that women college graduates working full-time and
year-round still make less than male high school dropouts! Of course, most women
workers are not college graduates, and so the disparity in incomes is even
greater for those in the lowest paying jobs.
While this discrimination affects most women, those whose husbands are
employed are partially insulated, at least temporarily, from its worst effects.
For women raising children alone, of course, the situation is much worse because
they are often financially responsible for most or all of their children's
support. Despite some well-reported exceptions, child care and support fall
mainly on women. The increased rates of divorce and out-of-wedlock births have
left more women than ever solely responsible for the support of children.
Increasingly, it appears that it now takes the earnings of two adults to
support a family in the United States. A single parent—widowed, divorced or
unmarried—finds it difficult to stay above the poverty line. When that parent
faces additional obstacles, such as the cost of day care (which can easily take
more than a fourth of an average woman's salary) and sex discrimination in
employment, the cards are overwhelmingly stacked against her.
The job market often offers little hope to a single mother trying to escape
poverty. Unfortunately, other potential sources of supplemental income are also
very limited. Child support is paid regularly to only a very small proportion of
eligible mothers. Welfare benefits are so low that, in most states, the combined
value of Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) and food stamps doesn't
even approach the poverty line. For the fifty States and the District of
Columbia, the median benefit is 74% of the poverty threshold.
I cite these statistics and the case of women in poverty not because it is
the only issue we must face as a Church in the policy debate but because it is
one we should face with special emphasis. I am also aware that there are more
fundamental remedies needed to address the feminization of poverty than the
programs I have just mentioned. But I wanted to raise up these specific programs
because they are so often criticized.
I have argued the case for a consistent ethic of life as the specific
contribution which the Church can and should make in this nation's public
debate. Central to a consistent ethic is the imperative that the Church stand
for the protection and promotion of life from conception to death—that it stand
against the drift toward nuclear war which has been so evident in recent
years—and that it stand against the trend to have the most vulnerable among us
carry the costs of our national indebtedness.
To stand for life is to stand for the needs of women and children who
epitomize the sacredness of life. Standing for their rights is not merely a
rhetorical task! The Church has its own specifically designed social services to
protect and promote life. Through them we must counsel, support and sustain
women seeking to raise families alone and to provide their children with the
basic necessities—necessities which the most well endowed society in history
surely should be able to muster.
But the Church cannot simply address the problem of the feminization of
poverty through its own resources. It must also stand in the public debate for
such programs as child care, food stamps, and aid to families with children. I
do not contend that existing programs are without fault or should be immune from
review. My point is that something like them is a fundamental requirement of a
Whenever I speak about the consistent ethic, I am always forced by time
limitations to omit or neglect crucial themes. In the past, I have stressed that
our concern for life cannot stop at birth, that it cannot consist of a single
issue—war or abortion or anything else. I have always considered that a
substantial commitment to the poor is part of a consistent ethic and a concern
for women in poverty a particularly pertinent aspect of this "seamless garment."
This evening I am grateful for the opportunity to spell out why and how the
Church should stand on these issues.
Ultimately, the pastoral letter on peace and the letter on the economy should
help us as a Church develop the specific features of a consistent ethic. In the
end, every social institution is known by what it stands for. I hope that the
Catholic Church in this country will be known as a community which committed
itself to the protection and promotion of life— that it helped this society
fulfill these two tasks more adequately.
Teachings of the
Magisterium on Abortion