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Lazarus in California: Millions in Poverty Merit Discernment, Not Politicking

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Wednesday, December 3, 2014

There was a rich man who dressed in purple garments and fine linen and dined sumptuously each day. And lying at his door was a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who would gladly have eaten his fill of the scraps that fell from the rich man’s table. (Luke 16: 19-20)

U.S. Census data recently showed that 5.6 million people in the Golden State live below the poverty line – nearly one in seven Californians. Sadly, two million of them are children.

At the same time, Pope Francis has challenged the world to recognize the poor, who like Lazarus in the Gospel parable, are sitting at our gate (Luke 16). In fact, earlier this year, the Pope took a lot of heat when he tweeted that “Inequality is the root of social evil.”

Many people reacted to the headline, without examining the entirety of the Pope’s challenge to the world, says Bishop Robert McElroy, auxiliary bishop of San Francisco. The Bishop summarized that challenge in a simple way: how do we recognize and help the Lazarus’ of our day?

The “rich man” wasn’t necessarily a bad person, he just never noticed Lazarus. (Nevertheless, the parable doesn’t end well for him.)

As Bishop McElroy explains in an article and a follow-up podcast in America Magazine, the Pope consistently emphasizes the need to create pathways out of poverty:

The cry of the poor captured in “The Joy of the Gospel” is a challenge to the “individualistic, indifferent and self-centered mentality” so prevalent in the cultures of the world; it is a call to confront the evil of economic exclusion and begin a process of structural reform that will lead to inclusion rather than marginalization.

Unfortunately, in today’s world of extreme polarization, creating those structural pathways out of poverty is caught up in partisanship and extreme politicking.

Catholic social teaching urges a balance. It stresses the value of caring for the poor and the need to provide for ourselves and our families and a balance between dependence and independence.

With the Census showing that California’s poverty rate is now at 14.9 percent in 2013 – higher than the 12.2 percent, pre-Great Recession– it is incumbent upon Californians to examine and strengthen effective pathways out of poverty.

Catholic principals for that discernment are clear, but not rigid:

The lay faithful are called to identify steps that can be taken in concrete political situations in order to put into practice the principles and values proper to life in society. This calls for a method of discernment, at both the personal and community levels, structured around certain key elements: knowledge of the situations, analyzed with the help of the social sciences and other appropriate tools; systematic reflection on these realities in the light of the unchanging message of the Gospel and the Church's social teaching; identification of choices aimed at assuring that the situation will evolve positively. [Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church , 568]

Notice some of the nuances that are sadly lacking from political debate today. The responsibility is both communaland personal. Use the best information available. Times can change; we should constantly re-evaluate. And keep working toward the good.

Just a thought, but by bringing these principals to a public policy discussion instead of “debating” based on bumper stickers, political agendas, rhetorical slams and news headlines might just lead to results that are much more beneficial to all of us.