Sunday, October 16, 2005

Hurricane Katrina and Catholic Social Teaching

Note: An excerpt from the Statement of the Administrative Committee of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, September 14, 2005. All Rights Reserved.

A Way Forward: Catholic Social Teaching
Beyond the stunning outpouring of money, food and water, volunteers and welcome to thousands upon thousands of displaced persons, the Catholic community has something more to contribute to the ongoing response and recovery. This is a set of principles, a moral framework to assess what has happened and to guide what must be done. Along with others of every faith and background, we offer our Catholic tradition of teaching about the challenges we now must face together. These principles offer moral direction and guidance for continuing response, recovery and rebuilding:

The Life and Dignity of Every Human Person:
Human lives have been destroyed and human dignity has been assaulted. At times respect for life and dignity was lost in the midst of this disaster. Our faith and what we have seen call us to insist that every aspect of recovery, every plan for rebuilding should be measured by how it protects human life and how it threatens or enhances the dignity of all those touched by this catastrophe, especially the weakest and most vulnerable.

The Option for the Poor and Vulnerable:
Our faith insists that the poor and vulnerable should have first claim on our common efforts. They cannot be left behind once again. We should assess this disaster, the response, and the future recovery for how it touches the lives of the least among us (Mt. 25). In light of what we have seen and heard, this is a time for constructive dialogue to address how poverty and race divide our society and challenge our nation.

Katrina demonstrates the wisdom of this traditional principle, which specifies the appropriate responsibilities and limitations of institutions in their common duty to protect human life and dignity. It warns against larger institutions overwhelming smaller ones but calls on larger institutions to act when smaller ones are unable or unwilling. Where families cannot meet their own needs, the larger community is called to assist them. When community institutions cannot or will not act, local and state governments have obligations. Where they cannot respond adequately, the national government must act to safeguard human life, dignity and rights. The continuing and future response should reflect these realities so the challenges ahead do not once again overwhelm the institutions of our society.

Katrina is teaching us we are all members of one human family. “Loving our neighbor” has new meaning in the aftermath of Katrina. Wherever we live, what ever we have or don’t have, whatever our race or background, we are all God’s children and are worthy of respect and care.

Family, Community and Participation:
The storm has torn apart families and communities. The recovery and renewal must unite families and restore communities, not just as physical realities, but as fundamental moral building blocks for the future. “Participation” of those most affected must be at the center of the recovery and planning for the future.

Human Rights and Responsibilities:
Our social tradition begins with the right to life and extends to those rights which make life truly human – faith and family, work and education, housing and health care. Restoring institutions of faith, work, education and health care and providing shelter and decent housing are not just signs of generosity; they are required by justice.

Care for Creation:
The renewal and recovery which is to come must seek to acknowledge and repair the damage the storm and the floods have done to God’s creation along the Gulf Coast. The recovery efforts to come should seek to protect and safeguard that environment in the future.

Dignity of Works and Rights of Workers:
In the aftermath of the storm, people not only lost their homes, they lost their work and their ability to support their families. Recovery requires more than food, water, and a place to live, but also a chance to make a contribution, to have decent work, wages and working conditions.

Common Good:
The storm brought out the best and worst—heroic efforts of service and abandonment of duty, sacrifice for others and evil acts of opportunism. Renewal and recovery should not become a battle over blame, or a contest of interests, or an opportunity for the well connected to overwhelm the weak. After Katrina, we have all learned once again that we are in this together and a chain is only as strong as its weakest link.

For Christians, this is not just a work of humanitarian outreach. When we help those whom this storm has ripped from their homes and livelihoods, we are helping Jesus in our midst. We cannot be the Church of Jesus Christ unless we reach out in persistent and powerful ways to serve “the least of these.” (Matt. 25) Feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, bringing drink to the thirsty, welcoming the stranger are not simply acts of generosity, but acts of faith. These traditional works of mercy are not options, but obligations for each of us and the entire Catholic community.


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