A day after nearly 400 human beings were incinerated in a horrific prison fire in Honduras, the raging headlines in various U.S. news outlets right now are:
Should New Jersey really fly flags at half staff for Whitney Houston?
Is Mitt Romney “severely conservative?”
What’s going on at Stephen Colbert’s Comedy Central?
How did Jeremy Lin do that?
Was it right that Chris Brown got to do the Grammys?
Will it be Brad Pitt or George Clooney at the Oscars?
Ok, so each story has a following. Let Whitney rest in peace. Let Mitt use whatever adjectives he wants. Let Colbert be Colbert. Admire Lin’s talent and the excitement he brings to the Asian community. Chris Brown should slink away and those hunks are getting old.
But for a few shining moments, could we divert our attention from admiring ourselves on Twitter and Facebook to look out toward the larger world where so many of our brothers and sisters on this earth live truly miserable lives of poverty, violence and real oppression?
What happened in Honduras yesterday, and what has been happening, makes even the more serious domestic headlines seem trivial. Has the cultural and political climate in this country become so selfishly narcissistic that we can only focus on our own endless arguments with no concern for the conditions that our brothers and sisters ensure elsewhere on this planet?
Feeling a little discomforted yet? Here’s more: as you change your iPad screen from “Angry Birds” to CNN.com or the washingtonpost.com home page to read more about the Honduras situation, think about the millions of Chinese workers who are suffering horrendous labor conditions to make Apple the wealthiest corporation in the world. The New York Times has done a remarkable series on this issue. Read it on those iPads… (and most other techno gadgets are also produced by exploited labor in far away places — it’s more than Apple’s ethical challenge…)
Children are shot to death in Syria. In Afghanistan, girls as young as 8 years old are traded as payment for crimes committed by family elders. Meanwhile, children are freezing to death in Kabul refugee camps as a grave humanitarian crisis spreads.
Meanwhile, back in the wealthiest nation on earth, we are watching a One Billion Dollar presidential campaign unfold with apparently little concern that even half of that amount would be too much.
Morality is a popular theme of populist politics in this presidential election year, but only insofar as some moral questions seem ripe for exploitation — those that generate votes on one side or the other. So, matters of sex and gender (two very different topics) bring large voting blocks.
There is no voting block for poverty, no PAC for Afghanistan girls given into slavery, no massive ad campaign for Hondurans imprisoned without benefit of actual trials and convictions, held in subhuman conditions where the inevitability of mass tragedy has come home to roost once again.
Time it was that we could count on our religious leaders to mount the loudest pulpits and blaze the brightest trails to shame the world’s tragic record on human rights, relief of poverty, solidarity with exploited workers, prisoners suffering inhumane conditions. Catholic social justice teachings call us to be our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers in the world, to stand in solidarity with those in need, to take the option for the poor, to defend the rights of workers against corporate exploitation.
The bedrock of Catholic social teaching is respect for human life, and the Church’s teachings on abortion, birth control and sexual conduct emanate from this foundation. The dignity of human life, however, is much more than that important set of issues — the credibility and effectiveness of the Church’s work in those areas is significantly enhanced and strengthened when the Church is also an aggressive advocate for the full range of human life issues: civil and human rights, relief of poverty, freedom from torture and oppression, protection of children, the rights of workers, care for the sick and suffering.
The great ministries of the Church address exactly these issues in education, health care and social service. While voices from those many ministries often rise to proclaim the need for justice, we know there is no real substitute for the voices of powerful and prominent leaders reminding the world of the integral nature of all moral considerations across the span of human life. “Economic Justice for All” was once one of the most provocative, widely read and quoted of all documents issued by the Catholic bishops in the U.S.
Perhaps someone is already speaking out on Honduras and I’ve missed it. Maybe the plight of the children freezing in Afghanistan is the topic of the next pastoral letter. Maybe this Sunday I’ll hear a message about moral responses to the excessive waste of resources going into increasingly expensive political campaigns instead of the vast needs of the people who live at the margins in our own cities.
Let’s use that religious liberty we defend to its full potential. Lisa Miller wrote a great column in today’s Washington Post on this very idea.
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has a large social justice agenda and many action committees working in a range of issues, especially immigration reform, justice and peace, domestic social development. The work of the Church in these areas needs and deserves a lot more public attention.
But maybe we shouldn’t wait for others to speak out on these matters. Maybe the idea that “We are the Church” should call us to action and advocacy right now.
We are our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers.
Pray for the people of Honduras today who are suffering so much.
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