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Last updated: Monday, November 23, 1998
Bishops condemn gap between rich and poor
Originally seen in the Gazette Telegraph November 15, 1995.
WASHINGTON -- The country is failing its moral test to care for the poor, America's Catholic bishops declared Tuesday, blasting both Democrats and Republicans for creating a budget impasse they said puts politics ahead of needy children and families.
The National Conference of Catholic Bishops also elected a new president: Cleveland Bishop Anthony M. Pilla, who said after the vote that the church must be a political voice for the poor.
"Government seems to pile up debt, cut programs and feed public cynicism all at once. We seem a very long way from `economic justice for all,"' the bishops said in a pastoral message on the 10th anniversary of their groundbreaking critique of the U.S. economy.
In an appeal to Congress, leaders of the nation's largest church urged rejection of welfare proposals that would limit family benefits and reduce earned-income tax credits for low-income families -- part of the big budget "reconciliation bill."
"On this day, when our government is shut down, we stand up for vulnerable children and poor families," said Bishop John Ricard, chairman of the bishops' Domestic Policy Committee.
The "partisan games" in the budget showdown show neither party is focused on the concerns on the poor, he said.
Earlier Tuesday, Pilla, a soft-spoken moderate, won election to a three-year term as the chief spokesman for the 60 million-member Catholic Church in the United States. He received 170 of the 238 votes cast.
Pilla said the church must speak out for the needy, whether it fits the political climate in Washington.
"Someone has to imagine a world where there is no more poverty, where there is no more homelessness. Otherwise, we won't work to get there," Pilla said in an interview.
Continuing their preference for middle-of-the-road candidates with a strong social justice background, the bishops elected Bishop Joseph A. Fiorenza of the Diocese of Galveston-Houston to succeed Pilla as vice president.
Illustrating the growing geographic diversity of the church, Fiorenza now is in line to become the first president of the bishops conference from the South.
In revisiting the American economy 10 years after their first pastoral letter on the subject, the bishops found "too little economic growth distributed too inequitably."
For example, since the earlier letter, the number of Americans living in poverty has increased from 33 million to 37 million. In 1993, the bishops said, the incomes of the highest-earning 20 percent of households increased by an average of about $10,000 while the incomes of the lowest-earning 20 percent declined by $1,200.
"The power and productivity of the U.S. economy sometimes seems to be leading to three nations living side by side, one growing more prosperous and powerful, one squeezed by stagnant incomes and rising economic pressures and one left behind in increasing poverty, dependency and hopelessness," the bishops said.
Children and poor families "are the missing dimension of the debate on budget, welfare and taxes. They have the greatest needs, but the weakest voice and little influence," Ricard told the bishops on the second day of their annual four-day fall meeting. "Today we can become their voices."
Pilla, the new conference president, said the challenge facing the bishops is to make their voice heard on issues such as world poverty, abortion, euthanasia and welfare reform -- "not as adversaries, not as superiors, but as pastors."
Pilla, 63, has led the Cleveland diocese since 1980. He is a former treasurer of the bishops conference and has served as vice president since 1992.
In his diocese, he is known for being an outspoken advocate for cities and the environment. In a statement two years ago on "The Church in the City," Pilla called on government to allocate similar resources to the maintenance and redevelopment of cities as it does to promote suburban growth through home mortgage tax reductions, highway construction and other programs.
Further, he has sought to bring together parishioners from urban, suburban and rural parishes to make them better feel like a church family.
Pilla also was one of the first bishops in the country to write his own pastoral message on the environment, proclaiming that Christians have a moral responsibility to care for the Earth.
Only the second man below the archbishop level to be elected president of the conference, Pilla has gained respect from both liberal and conservative prelates as a consensus builder.
"He's somebody the bishops believe will listen to them before he runs off to do something," said the Rev. Thomas Reese, an analyst at the Woodstock Theological Center.
The Gazette Telegraph (http://www.gazette.com/) serves the area around Colorado Springs, Colorado, USA.