Pope Benedict XVI clearly puts care for the poor at the heart of the Catholic Church. In his first encyclical, Deus Caritas Est (God is Love), he said three things make the Church the Church: Proclaiming the Gospel, celebrating the Sacraments and caring for the poor. This love of the poor is an essential and defining activity of the Church. Benedict declares, “Love for widows and orphans, prisoners, and the sick and needy of every kind is as essential to her [the Church] as the ministry of the sacraments and preaching of the Gospel. The church cannot neglect the service of charity anymore than she can neglect the sacraments and the word” (#22).
This emphatic call is an extension of the great commandment to love our neighbor. In fact, Pope Benedict insists: “Love of God and love of neighbor have become one: In the least of the brethren we find Jesus himself, and in Jesus we find God.” And, our neighbor is anyone who needs our help and whom we can help (#15). In this encyclical, the pope states that today loving our neighbor has global dimensions since we see and respond to people’s struggles and needs almost instantaneously .(#30).
Pope Benedict XVI expressed in Deus Caritas Est that this duty to love the poor should be expressed in generous responses to immediate and specific needs. The Holy Father also points out that “[C]harity must animate the entire lives of the lay faithful and therefore also their political activity, lived as social charity” (#29). Benedict said: “The Church cannot and must not take upon herself the political battle to bring about the most just society possible. She cannot and must not replace the State. Yet, at the same time she cannot and must not remain on the sidelines in the fight for justice” (#29). The Church contributes to the search for justice through offering her moral principles “through rational argument and…the spiritual energy without which justice… cannot prevail and proper” (#28).
Pope Benedict comes to a Catholic Church in the United States that takes seriously the challenge of practicing charity and seeking justice– and acts on it everyday and in countless ways. Most of this is carried out in individual acts never noticed or counted. This call is lived out in Catholic Charities across our nation, in health care for the poor in 700 Catholic hospitals, and in the empowering work of the Catholic Campaign for Human Development (CCHD). Last year, CCHD provided $12 million to help low-income families lift themselves out of poverty. We shelter the homeless, feed the hungry, care for the sick, and welcome the stranger every day. Catholic Charities USA has launched an impressive Campaign to End Poverty. Catholic Relief Services is in 100 countries serving the poorest people on earth in our name.
The Church brings together moral principles taught by the Pope, our everyday experience, our structures, our leaders and many people to stand with the poor and work for greater charity and justice in our nation and around the world. The bishops’ conference advocates for poor children, families and low-wage workers in economic policy; the federal budget; climate change legislation; affordable housing legislation; HIV/AIDS relief; and, the Farm bill. We believe how the “least of these” are treated is a moral measure of our society.
Kathy Saile is the Director of the USCCB Office of Domestic Social Development