Kristen Hannum/Catholic Sentinel
Parishioners from St. Charles Borromeo and other Northeast Portland parishes testify with residents of Oak Leaf Mobile Home Park at a city budget committee hearing last May. The mobile home park, which houses some formerly homeless residents, was slated for sale. The parishioners’ activism reflects Catholic social teaching’s emphasis on a preferential option for the poor and economic justice.

Kristen Hannum/Catholic Sentinel

Parishioners from St. Charles Borromeo and other Northeast Portland parishes testify with residents of Oak Leaf Mobile Home Park at a city budget committee hearing last May. The mobile home park, which houses some formerly homeless residents, was slated for sale. The parishioners’ activism reflects Catholic social teaching’s emphasis on a preferential option for the poor and economic justice.

This is the third in a series on faithful citizenship. 

The man with a limp and a shopping cart piled high not with groceries but with everything he owns. A baby with a soiled diaper whose mother is rationing Pampers to make ends meet. 

Some kinds of poverty are visible, others are hidden. All of it demands our attention. 

Catholic social teaching, a central element of the church, requires a preferential option for the poor and efforts that support economic justice. A “preferential option for the poor” refers to the Gospel’s instructions that we give preferential respect to the poor and powerless. 

“We have to state, without mincing words, that there is an inseparable bond between our faith and the poor,” Pope Francis wrote in his 2013 apostolic exhortation, “Evangelii Gaudium” (“The Joy of the Gospel”).

But what are the most pressing poverty-related issues in our region and how does this mandate to care for the poor inform our actions at the ballot box this November? 

Deepening disparities 

One in 6 Oregonians live below the federal poverty level, according to an analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data by the Oregon Center for Public Policy. That’s roughly a percentage point higher than the national average. African-American children in Oregon are nearly three times more likely to live in poverty than whites; Latinos are about twice as likely. 

Catholic leaders in the Archdiocese of Portland agree that homelessness is one of the most acute problems in the region. It is also among the most visible manifestations of poverty.

The U.S. bishops — in their document for Catholic voters, “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship” — write that in “a society marred by deepening disparities between rich and poor, Sacred Scripture gives us the story of the Last Judgment and reminds us that we will be judged by our response to the least among us.” 

Matt Cato, director of the archdiocesan Office of Life, Justice and Peace, added that we need a preferential option for the poor “because the poor don’t have options.”

In “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship,” the bishops group poverty and economics together, acknowledging their fundamental link.

Economic justice, explained Cato, “is economic life that is not controlled by profits but by moral principles” that take into account the most vulnerable. 

Be engaged 

Terry McDonald, executive director of the St. Vincent de Paul Society of Lane County, suggests voters ask themselves: “What would be the effect of this law and who it would help, who would it hurt?” 

Holy Cross Father John Patrick Riley, pastor of St. André Bessette Parish in Portland, said voters should place issues such as poverty within the context of the full range of concerns underscored in church teaching.  “You can’t just vote pro-life or pro-family on an issue; your response has to be morally or ethically sound” within a larger framework, he said. 

Although church leaders don’t advocate for a particular candidate, Father Riley acknowledged there is “no perfect candidate this election.” 

When a voter doesn’t want to give his or her moral assent in an election, one “legitimate decision” is to vote third party or abstain from voting for either candidate, according to Father Riley. The latter is “not mainstream but it’s moral,” he said, pointing out that Dorothy Day — who was “involved in civil society and spent her life aiding the poor” — said she never voted.  

Whether or not you vote in a given circumstance, it is essential to “be engaged in civil discourse,” Father Riley said. 

Of the seven measures on the Oregon ballot this year, the three with greatest relevance to the poor and economic justice are Measure 96, which would devote a percentage of state lottery proceeds toward veterans’ services; 97, which raises corporate taxes on businesses with annual sales that exceed $25 million; and 98, requiring state funding for dropout-prevention in high schools.

The Oregon Catholic Conference, the official public policy voice of the Catholic Church in Oregon, has decided not to take a stance on any measures this election, said Todd Cooper, representative for the OCC. The OCC judiciously weighs in only if a national or local issue “has a clear moral dimension,” he said. 

The Committee on Pastoral Ministry and Labor Justice, composed of Oregon clergy and laity, took a stance on union-backed Measure 97. The committee states in a position sheet that “social justice teachings … fit directly with supporting raising taxes on large corporate interests.” 

But Father Riley said the tax on corporations is “not a guarantee that the money is not going to be spent on other things.” 

“Portland and Oregon have a terrible record of wasting money,” he said. 

Beyond the ballot box

Valerie Chapman, pastoral administrator of St. Francis Parish in Portland who supports Measure 97, said the issues surrounding poverty and economic justice are complex. 

She believes affordable housing, additional policing, improved schooling and access to mental health care must be considered in order to effectively address poverty and the homelessness crisis.

Tackling poverty is “a matter of money but also priorities,” she said. Chapman also noted that while “we like to simplify things … there are no quick fixes.” 

Eileen Sleva is a parishioner of Holy Trinity Parish in Beaverton who organizes parish campaigns for Bread for the World, a nonpartisan, Christian movement to end hunger. She suggests asking elected officials where they stand on issues related to poverty and economic justice and writing to developers or apartment owners asking them to make affordable housing a greater priority. 

Echoing McDonald of St. Vincent de Paul, Sleva added that before we step up to vote, we must consider, with prayer and courage, how our choices will affect “the least among us” in Oregon and beyond.