The National Catholic Review
Sep 25 2013 - 11:42am | Meghan J. Clark
The pope's radical call to community

When Pope Francis decided to live at Santa Marta, the Vatican guesthouse, instead of the traditional papal apartment in the Apostolic Palace, many lauded him for his simplicity and rejection of perceived luxury. While he is indeed a humble man, Francis gives another reason for his decision to remain at Santa Marta: his yearning for a strong sense of community. “I cannot live without people. I need to live my life with others.

Francis bears testimony to this interpersonal spirituality not only in his words but in his visits around Italy. In his interview, we find more evidence that this is simply authentic Francis; in his openness he offers an invitation to respond to the Gospel and to be more fully human. Earlier this month, Pope Francis visited the Jesuit Refugee Center in Rome. Standing with the refugees, many of them fleeing horrific violence, he stated, “To serve means to work alongside the neediest, first of all to establish a close human relationship with them, based on solidarity. Solidarity, this word elicits fear in the developed world. They try not to say it. It’s almost a dirty word for them. But it’s our word!” Our Word—The Holy Father reminds us in many of his speeches that solidarity is our word, but he is also continuously pushing us beyond the comforts of our religious boundaries to encounter the one human family.

Reflecting on the need to “think with the church,” Francis beautifully situates the community that is the people of God: “In this history of salvation, God has saved a people. There is no full identity without belonging to a people. No one is saved alone, as isolated individual, but God attracts us looking at the complex web of relationships that take place in the human community. God enters into this dynamic, this participation in the web of human relationships.” This reminder that we are one human family and we are called into relationship with God and neighbor is very much needed in our time. A radical element of Catholicism, as Thomas Aquinas noted, is that we are called by God for union with God, for friendship with God, and that friendship with God requires loving our neighbor.

This interview is not out of character for Pope Francis, who has shown a remarkable degree of openness and intimacy since he was elected. His recognition that my humanity is bound up with his and with those suffering in poverty is the pastoral message America needs most today. We have a crisis of community, evidenced by the fact that the House of Representatives recently voted to cut $4 billion from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. Can we really say solidarity is “our word” when our country is so individualistic that we do not feel a moral responsibility to feed the hungry?  The Gospel and Pope Francis remind us that Christ entered into our community by becoming vulnerable and going to the margins.

Meghan J. Clark is an assistant professor of moral theology at St. John’s University and a displaced resident of Long Beach, N.Y.


Christian McNamara | 9/25/2013 - 9:56pm

You had me until the final paragraph. Where you go wrong in my view is in assuming that a desire to shrink the size of programs like SNAP represents a rejection of the moral responsibility to feed the hungry. There are those of us who feel this moral responsibility quite acutely who nonetheless question whether a gargantuan federal program is the appropriate vehicle for fulfilling this responsibility. I think it is incumbent on the defenders of such programs to make the case for why they are the appropriate vehicles. So what is that case?

I also find it somewhat jarring to see a defense of SNAP amidst a call to community. In my experience, programs like SNAP can be destructive to community because they suggest a transfer of the responsibility for caring for those in need from local communities to distant government agencies. I think of this when I read the Aims and Means of the Catholic Worker and its emphasis on "taking personal responsibility for changing conditions, rather than looking to the state or other institutions to provide impersonal 'charity'." And yet for many Catholics of a certain political bent, the measure of one's commitment to one's fellow man is support for the welfare state. Who offers a more attractive vision of community - Dorothy Day or the United States Department of Agriculture?

Cody Serra | 9/26/2013 - 1:14pm

She brought up the subject of SNAP., she opened up the conversation on politics, Agree.
But I was wondering, leaving aside for a moment political labels, how do we understand and apply "solidarity" as called by the Pope, among us as a nation of brothers and sisters? There are countless church programs (of all denominations) that are already providing good help to the needy. These entities openly confessed they would not be able to feed millions of families/individuals who are being cut off from the government program. Isn't the government, to whom we all pay taxes, responsible to "contribute" to the plea of the needy citizens, many times working part-time and full-time working people in a difficult economic time for so many?
Ideological political labels are not useful in a discussion of sharing resources available in this rich nation. We cannot make of money our god, said Francis recently. The "person" has priority.

Meghan Clark | 9/26/2013 - 1:04pm

According to bread for the world, 93% of "feeding hungry" people in the US is done through 3 governed programs: SNAP, WIC, and school lunch program. The injustice of hunger is structural and requires, according to subsidiarity an appropriate level response. I have great respect for the catholic worker movement and Dorothy day but no they cannot accomplish what is necessarily coordinated right now through the dept of agriculture on these 3 programs.

As I have written extensively, snap is effective social and economic policy. It is an automatic stabilizer program and grows/shrinks depending On need- shrinking to shrink by taking food from hungry people in the name of "smaller government" is profoundly unjust- as the usccb, catholic charities and bread for the world have strongly argued.

Far from attacking community, snap helps build community by engaging and empowering poor persons to purchase, cook and choose their own food- as well as participate in local economies such as farmers markets
For a few of these Please see:

Christian McNamara | 9/26/2013 - 5:26pm

Would I be correct in summarizing your argument as follows:

1. We have a moral responsibility to feed the hungry.

2. Federal programs such as SNAP effectively allocate the resources necessary to feed the hungry.

3. No other approach would be as effective in allocating the resources necessary to feed the hungry.

4. Therefore, we have a moral responsibility to support programs like SNAP.

If so, I agree with #1, think #2 is probably correct, could imagine that #3 is correct but think it must be demonstrated not assumed and don't know that #4 necessarily follows from #1 - #3. So then on the last two points:

#3 - how do we know that no other approach would be as effective in allocating the resources necessary to feed the hungry?

#4 (the more important question in my view) - is the fact that a program like SNAP is the most effective way (or even perhaps the only really effective way) to allocate the resources necessary to feed the hungry the only consideration in determining whether we have a moral responsibility to support the program? Must other factors be considered? What effect the program has on recipients beyond meeting their immediate need for food (e.g., fostering dependence, etc.)? How the existence of the program affects those who must support it whether they would chose to do so or not (e.g., what the tax burden associated with the program is)? The fact that there is no individual choice in whether or not to support the program?

If I haven't accurately captured your argument in #1 - #4 above, I'd be interested in how you would express it.

Meghan Clark | 9/26/2013 - 11:45pm

Mr. McNamara,
With all due respect, did you read the links I posted? they offer ample data and arguments.

as to 3 - it is not that there is no other possible configuration but cutting snap or private charities/churches increasing their aid are not viable options. That cannot and will not work - as the evidence shows quite clearly. There is no alternative that is morally acceptable being put forward within US politics. Furthermore, as to 4 -yes, there is ample evidence that SNAP is the most effective way to deliver this aid.

For even more information than that which I cite in my blogs see the following data from Center for Budget Policies and Priorities:

There is not verifiable evidence of SNAP causing a dependency problem - to quote a colleague "the plural of anecdote is not data" - one or two examples of individuals who misuse the program does not create evidence of dependency -especially when a large percentage of beneficiaries are children. If you want to talk about tax burdens - fine we can talk about massive economic injustice in a system --- but if you're talking about "bang for your buck" as I detailed with the numbers in my blog links above -- -this is a program which creates economic growth. For every dollar spent of tax money it CREATES $1.70 of economic activity in the real economy. This is not a tax burden it is effective and just social policy. If we deal with unemployment, the SNAP budget will shrink. that is how automatic stabilizers work. This one cannot be artificially shrunk when the established need has not lessened without quite literally being taking food from the mouths of hungry people. When you take a long look at the actual evidence of the program and the economics of it - it is not only cost-effective, it adds growth to the economy. There maybe alternative ways to be thought of - but they will all be systemic, because it is a structural systemic injustice that we are dealing with.

I am perplexed by your "programs like" I was quite specific in my post - we're not just talking about "programs like" this is an evidence based moral and theological argument about 1 concrete specific program - which works. And against which there are not evidence based arguments to the contrary - there are ideological arguments about the SNAP budget - there are not evidence based ones based upon the data. So yes, as a moral theologian who has been following this and arguing about this in many public arenas --- yes I am saying that we have a moral responsibility to support SNAP (a moral judgment echoed by the USCCB, Bread for the WOrld, Sojourners, Catholic Charities, and others...and I'm quite confident, if he had been asked that in the interview - Pope Franics).

Christian McNamara | 9/27/2013 - 4:20pm

Dr. Clark,

With all due respect, did you read my post (turnabout is fair play, right)?

I did not assert that SNAP was not the most effective way to feed the hungry. I conceded that it very likely is in how I framed my question about #4 in my post. See, e.g. "is the fact that a program like SNAP is the most effective way (or even perhaps the only really effective way) to allocate the resources necessary to feed the hungry the only consideration in determining whether we have a moral responsibility to support the program?".

Per my question on #3, I do think this unique effectiveness must be demonstrated rather than assumed. I'll confess to only having skimmed certain of the links you have provided, but I don't know that I've seen anything definitive on this question. Unless I'm misreading your most recent post, you yourself seem to acknowledge that there are other possible configurations (although you then note that no morally acceptable alternative is currently being put forward in U.S. politics).

But again, I'll concede that SNAP is the most effective way of feeding the hungry for purposes of what I indicated was the more important question - is that fact sufficient BY ITSELF to make support for SNAP a moral responsibility? I did not assert that SNAP causes dependency. I did not assert that SNAP has an unjustly high tax burden. I merely asked if those are the types of questions we must consider before determining if we have a moral responsibility to support the program.

In your most recent post, you've offered responses to these questions (that there is no data on dependency and that SNAP results in economic growth). Does the fact that you're answering these questions mean that you agree that they must be considered before we decide if supporting SNAP is a moral obligation? If so, great...let's talk about these questions. I agree that the plural of anecdote is not data and would want to see some actual evidence before I bought dependence as a valid argument for shrinking SNAP. I disagree with your analysis of the tax burden question (that tax revenue is used to support a program that produces net economic benefits does not by itself fully address the tax burden question).

But if you believe that all that matters is that SNAP is the most effective way to feed the hungry (as I think your original piece could be read to imply), then I disagree and I suppose there's not much more to discuss.