Catholic San Francisco


(Photo by Jose Luis Aguirre/Catholic San Francsico)

Occupy San Francisco protesters are pictured on Market Street Dec. 2. The marchers included clergy members and members of a national Filipino organization.

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March participants say Occupy movement’s concerns aligned with Catholic social teaching
December 14th, 2011
By Dana Perrigan

Wearing the garments of their respective faiths, a rabbi, two Protestant ministers and a Franciscan friar set aside theological differences on a December afternoon to lead a march – sponsored by a broad coalition of community and labor groups – down Market Street in San Francisco to the Occupy San Francisco encampment at Justin Herman Plaza.

They were united in support of the Occupy Wall Street movement’s main rallying cry against inequality, recession, high unemployment and unaffordable health care.

These conditions and the economic system behind them, they say, are in opposition to the Gospel and Catholic social teaching.

“If you look at the life and teachings of Jesus and how the early Christian community was laid out,” said Franciscan Father Louis Vitale, “you see that they lived so that nobody was in need and nobody had an abundance. It was all done in community.”

Joined by Rabbi Jane Litman, Rev. Carol Been and Rev. Israel Alvaran, Father Vitale marched along Market Street holding a banner that read, “People of faith for a moral economy.” They followed four marchers bearing a litter carrying the statue of a golden calf. A sign attached to the litter read, “Stop worshipping money.”

“When Moses went up to the mountain,” said Rabbi Litman, “the people were building a golden calf. God told Moses to hurry down and stop them from worshipping gold. That’s what we’re doing here.”

Father Vitale has been studying – and participating in – social movements since the ‘60s. Like the civil rights and antiwar movements of that era, he said, the Occupy movement is rooted in the principles of Catholic social teaching: the dignity of the human person, the common good, a preferential option for the poor, global solidarity, stewardship of God’s creation and economic justice.

“All those resonate clearly with the Occupy movement,” said James Salt, executive director of Washington, D.C.-based Catholics United.

Pope Leo XIII is credited with beginning the modern era of Catholic social teaching with his 1891 encyclical criticizing a “savage capitalism” that exploited workers. When the “trickle-down” economic theory was in vogue during the Reagan presidency, Pope John Paul II warned of an “idolatry of the market.” In 2008, Pope Benedict XVI, in his encyclical “Caritas in Veritate,” saw a “scandal of glaring inequalities” in the U.S. economy.

In October, the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, in the document “Toward Reforming the International Financial and Monetary Systems in the Context of Global Public Authority,” proposed the idea of independent oversight of the world banking system. Setting up such a body would be a complex and delicate process and would require realistic goals and gradual change, the council said.

Those at the rally marched to protest these inequities and praised the Occupy movement for bringing them to light.

“I think Occupy is laying bare the basic problems and injustices in our society,” said Rev. Glenda Hope. “It’s prophetic witness.”

As the founder of Safe Haven, a sanctuary in San Francisco for women seeking to leave prostitution, the 75-year-old Presbyterian minister said the signs of a disintegrating economy are everywhere.

“I see more women in the streets than I ever have before,” she said. “Our nation is losing its soul – we can’t just sit by.”

“There is a broad coalition of folks here who are concerned about the morality of our budget, and what we’re doing with our money,” said Rev. Been, an organizer with Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice. “And I don’t think people are happy with either the Democrats or the Republicans as having a handle on what needs to be done.”

Clergy at the rally said they were encouraged by all the young people across the nation who have taken part in a movement calling for social change.

“They’re leading the way,” said Rev. Hope.

For some, the message of the Occupy movement has been difficult to discern and obscured by media images of scruffy, arrogant youths thumbing their noses at authority by camping illegally in public places.

“I think for a lot of people the true message of the Occupy movement has been influenced by the camping and the behavior of some of them,” said Karl Robillard, senior manager of communications and outreach at the St. Anthony Foundation. “Unfortunately, for Occupy, their message is being lost.”

George Wesolek, director of the Office of Public Policy and Social Concerns at the Archdiocese of San Francisco, agreed.

“I have had difficulty understanding what the focus of their agenda is,” he said. “It seems ambiguous. What I do relate to is how bad things are right now – the huge disparity between the rich and the poor.”

That disparity is growing. A recent study revealed that the 400 Americans at the top of the income scale possessed more wealth than the 150 million at the bottom.

Barry Stenger, director of development and communications the St. Anthony Foundation, said those in the Occupy movement are “asking for a realignment so that our economic and political systems are put at the service of the people. That’s fundamental to Catholic social justice teaching.”

Unfortunately, said Stenger, many Catholics are not familiar with those teachings. “It’s always been called the best-kept secret in our church. And I think that’s true.”

The average Catholic, said Jeff Bialik, executive director of Catholic Charities CYO in the archdiocese, is generous when it comes to putting money in the collection plate.

“But I think we’re not always cognizant that we are challenged to be a moral voice in the community, that we need to advocate about injustice in society,” said Bialik. “That’s an area in which we sometimes have trouble connecting the dots.”

“We’re not saying you have to be socialist, he said, “just that you have to look out for your neighbor. We are, in fact, our brother’s keeper. I think we know that. We just need to be reminded of that.”

Lorraine Moriarty, executive director of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul of San Mateo County, hopes that the Occupy movement may turn out to be “the leaven in the dough” that motivates more people to work toward the creation of a better world.


From December 16, 2011 issue of Catholic San Francisco.



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