The Word from Lansing: A Poor Church for the Poor

In March 2013, Pope Francis expressed in his first papal audience the desire for a Catholic Church “which is poor and for the poor.” These strong words challenge Catholics to make a commitment to recognize the dignity of all people and to care for those on the margins of society. In Michigan and throughout the country, parishes and Catholic institutions live out the social mission of the church through charitable assistance and advocacy for social change for those most in need.

From February 2–5, 2014, representatives serving in Catholic social ministry around the United States came together for the Catholic Social Ministry Gathering in Washington, D.C. The event was sponsored by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) and 15 partner organizations, including Catholic Relief Services, Catholic Charities USA, and the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, and its theme was inspired by Pope Francis’s words about the poor.

Two representatives from Michigan Catholic Conference made the journey to the nation’s Capitol to participate in discussions about the scope of social ministry in the United States and to advocate for policies that protect the most vulnerable in society. While there, the MCC representatives held meetings with members of the Michigan congressional delegation, focusing specifically on issues such as comprehensive immigration reform, funding for programs that reintegrate those leaving prison back into their communities, and legislation addressing social and economic pressures that lead women in poverty to turn to abortion.

MCC Vice President for Public Policy Tom Hickson highlighted the benefit of meeting with congressional leaders during the Hill visit:

“It is important for our Michigan congressional delegation to hear from those they represent back home, especially those who are concerned with the common good and the vulnerable who often cannot speak for themselves. Having so many dedicated Catholics from around the country in Washington D.C. to talk about policies that both protect human life and dignity and also serve the poor sends a powerful message.”

Michigan Catholic Conference now turns its attention to state budget discussions, including monitoring the funding of health care services through the Department of Community Health as well as programs that assist the poor and most vulnerable through the Department of Human Services. Each year during the budget process, Michigan Catholic Conference staff attends hearings and meets with legislators and their staff to advocate for adequate funding for necessary programs. The Catholic Church teaches in the Compendium of the Social Doctrine that the State’s involvement in economics “must be neither invasive nor absent, but commensurate with society’s real needs” (no. 351). In an examination of the budget priorities, Michigan Catholic Conference weighs those concerns carefully before advocacy action.

During 2011 budget discussions, for example, elected officials considered deep cuts to a variety of policies, including the Earned Income Tax Credit and the Family Independence Program. In response, the bishops in the State of Michigan wrote a joint letter to the governor and leaders of the House of Representatives and State Senate calling for greater attention to the poor, unemployed, and vulnerable during the formulation of the state budget. The message of the bishops sought to ensure the cuts would not unfairly burden those already suffering, as the “basic moral test for our society is how we treat the most vulnerable in our midst” (Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship, no. 50).

Following the recognition of Poverty Awareness Month in January, Michigan Catholic Conference’s participation in the Social Ministry Gathering and the upcoming consideration of the State of Michigan’s budget provides a clear reminder of the challenges that face so many Michigan citizens. According to figures from the U.S. Census Bureau, Michigan had a 17.4 percent overall poverty rate, or approximately 1,685,178 million people below the poverty line in 2012 (American Community Surveys 2011 and 2012). It will take the cooperation of Catholic institutions and individuals across the state to compassionately care for the poor and continue to answer the call to serve others. Michigan Catholic Conference is committed to being a part of that solution.