The Participation of the Catholic Church in Faith Based Actions to Overcome Poverty by Thomas J. Allio, Jr., retired senior director of the Cleveland Diocesan Social Action Office
Like many Catholics in Northeast Ohio, I am very concerned that the Diocese of Cleveland was absent from the recent meeting to launch Greater Cleveland Congregations (GCC), which was attended by more than 2,000 interfaith leaders representing 40 congregations. As reported, Bishop Richard Lennon informed all pastors and parish administrators that he did not endorse this new organization. In fact, the Bishop prohibited any parish to participate. To date, there has been no public explanation regarding the lack of diocesan support.
At the risk of further alienation with the faith community, as well as many Catholics, Bishop Lennon should reconsider his position immediately. Minimally, it would be prudent to seek a dialogue with the founding leaders of GCC about any concerns he may have. After all, the stated issue agenda of GCC, education, jobs, health care, criminal justice and sustainable food, have been among the priorities of the United States Conference of Bishops for decades.
The stance by the Bishop is disconcerting on several fronts. It is a potential source of unnecessary division and confusion within the interfaith community; it sends a false message that the Catholic Church is willing and capable to “go it alone” when it comes to social action, and other important issues impacting the region; and it runs counter to the long and rich history of the diocese as a leader in convening and collaborating with people of other faiths to promote efforts to overcome poverty, human life and dignity, peace and human rights.
Since 1969, Catholic Social Action throughout the eight counties of the diocese, has been respected and recognized nationally for building broad based coalitions across faith, racial, ethnic, political and economic lines. These efforts have been inspired by the Gospel, teachings of the various Popes and Catholic Social Teaching. Working for the common good, those coalitions have been successful in achieving social and economic justice for the poor, homeless, unemployed, uninsured, new immigrants, seniors, the incarcerated, developmentally disabled, and many others. In addition, the Catholic Campaign for Human Development, a program of the U.S. Bishops, has provided seed money locally and nationally to thousands of grass roots organizations similar to Greater Cleveland Congregations. Among other things, these organizations have empowered low income people to prevent home foreclosures, improve neighborhoods, increase affordable housing, regulate payday lending, enhance the educational system, and create micro businesses. The investment from the Cleveland Diocese alone is in the millions of dollars. More than ever, Northeast Ohio needs this kind of collective, faith inspired action.For the better part of two decades, Bishop Anthony M. Pillaʼs Church in the City initiative built bridges among diverse people, organizations and the faith community throughout Northeast Ohio. Bishop Pilla invited all sectors to join him in efforts to combat urban sprawl, reduce poverty in the urban core, create housing, spur economic development, preserve farmland, and advance regional cooperation. During that period, the diocese worked with the public sector, interfaith leaders, non-profit agencies, lenders, environmentalists, corporate leaders, funders, preservationists, farmers and others to advance a common vision for the region.
As a Catholic who is extremely proud of the history of the diocese in these areas, I sincerely hope that Bishop Lennon accepts the invitation of Greater Cleveland Congregations and joins them in elevating the voice of the faith community on matters of social justice and human dignity. Admittedly, there are differences within the faith community, theological, as well as, political. When it comes to the poor, however, there is much we have in common.
It is imperative, however, that Catholics be at the table with those who do not completely embrace our principles or values on all issues. Acting together, we are much stronger than any one of us acting alone. Participation in interfaith efforts does not mean that one must compromise his/her belief set, theology or strongly held social teaching. That would be unacceptable. In fact, the public positions, policies and tactics taken by the coalition should not conflict with the moral and social teaching of any of its members. This requires leaders to be accountable to each other and respectful about areas in which they disagree. Such understanding and common ground is found in countless similar efforts across this nation.
The Catholic Churchʼs efforts to promote the common good, human life and dignity, to evangelize and to transform society become extremely limited if the Church isolates herself from other religious, civic, national, international and secular partners. I pray this does not happen.