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A Day of Hope at St. John’s University

Originally posted at Talk to Action.

On Saturday October 22, I attended The Seventh Biennial Chair Conference on Social Justice at Saint John’s University, in Queens, New York.

Presented by the Vincentian Order, the event was designed to “discuss ethical solutions to rising economic injustice…” After years of seemingly being one of very few of my faith to be openly at odds with Catholic Right it turned out to be one of the most exhilarating experiences of my life.

Saint John’s is a Catholic university located in Jamaica, Queens. Founded in 1870 by the Vincentian Order, the school sees its mission as a source of higher education for the Catholic immigrant and working class communities in and around New York City. The economic well-being of both the newly arrived and those seeking upward mobility to the middle-class has always been a concern for the faculty and staff. In retrospect, what made the school the perfect venue for this event.

Daniel Finn, Professor of Theology and the William E. and Virginia Clemens Chair in Economics and the Liberal Arts at St. John’s was the headliner. His presentation was titled, “The Values, Virtues and Principles for a Just and Sustainable Future for All.” As advertised, he focused “…on economic issues and the role of Catholic Social Thought as a moral framework for combating rising inequities.” Finn also discussed his book, The New Wealth of Nations in which he considers the possibility of a sustainable prosperity for all.

Following Finn came Scott J. Budde, a Managing Director with TIAA-CREF Asset Management who described the merits of ethical investing. Green investing is the trademark of this, the leading pension plan provider for people who work in academia. He discussed how investors can successfully push the companies they invest in away from anti-environmental practices. He explained how TIAA-CREF was able to do that with Coca-Cola with regard to wasteful water practices.

Other featured speakers included former New York State Assemblyman Michael Benjamin and Joan Rosenhauer, the Executive Vice President of U.S. Operations for Catholic Relief Services. We then broke down into six breakout sessions. I joined the one concerning The Evolving Nature of Work and Workers. This was followed by a plenary session where everyone reassembled to hear a summary of what each breakout panel discussed.

None of this will surprise those familiar with the Vincentians who describe themselves as “…made up of religious congregations and lay associations, that were either founded by St. Vincent de Paul or that follow his charism of service to the poor.”

The conference gave me several reasons for hope. The overall tone was progressive in nature. Many of the one hundred and fifty attendees were clearly not laissez-faire types.

Judging by the tone and content of the comments, there was a general understanding that our economic system was out of whack. The growing disparity of wealth and continuing marginalization of the working class is intolerable and must be corrected. The profound effects of the Occupy Wall Street movement was evident in our discourse. And while one or two in my session were concerned that the 99% versus 1% aspect OWS may unfairly create an “us versus them” mentality, the consensus was that it is important that we seize on the opportunities presented by this historic moment. Many, if not most of the other comments on the occupy movements touched how to translate this call to action into action itself.

There was no talk at all of culture war issues.

I was gratified when, during the breakout session, most of my fellow attendees seemed to agree with my point that if we are to be successful, we must win the media competition with Catholic Right laissez-faire types such as George Weigel, Michael Novak and Robert P. George.

When the event was over, Liturgy was held at the campus chapel. Father James Maher said the Mass. Beautifully done, he gave a powerful homily that was relevant to the economic times we now live in.

He began by telling us about his own father who had remarried after his mother’s death. For their honeymoon, they went to Ireland. He regaled us with a humorous anecdote about how when his dad was to leave Ireland he was trying to find the airport. In doing so, he came across a local who gave him directions in an idiom so hard to comprehend that he was left unsure how to get to the airport. The local concluded his confusing directions saying, “Good luck and I hope you make it.”

Father Maher then paused, became serious, and then asked us in the pews, “Isn’t that what the wealthy have been saying to the poor for the last thirty years? Good luck and I hope you make it.” He then continued into an eloquent but impassioned plea for doing more for the vulnerable members of our society.

At the end of the day, I felt a sense of hope. This was the Catholic Church I remember from my boyhood; one in which Bobby Kennedy and Cesar Chavez were held up as role models. And for the first time in a long time, this part of the Church felt resurgent, as if the Catholic Right’s opposition were coalescing a now finding its voice as well as its stride.

Hope is indeed a wonderful thing.

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Occupy Wall Street and the Movement to Occupy Faith Communities: Reflections

A number of days ago, theologian Tom Beaudoin posted commentary at the “In All Things” blog site of America magazine asking whether the Occupy Wall Street movement might be a moment for Catholics to consider occupying our own church.  Needless to say, Beaudoin’s question provoked lively commentary at this site, where a group of ultra-right wing Catholics have for some years now dogged the steps of the Jesuit editors of the journal, trying to force them to toe the religious and political line of the American right.  The Jesuits are a particular target of the American Catholic right, after one of their previous Superior Generals, Pedro Arrupe, made the preferential option for the poor a priority for this religious community. Continue reading