I was astounded when I read reports by numerous news outlets that during a panel discussion on poverty held at Georgetown University, President Obama admonished Catholic and Evangelical Christian leaders to focus more on poverty and spend less time worrying about abortion and same-sex marriage. Surely, someone who is a constitutional law scholar, as President Obama claims to be, would realize how inappropriate it is for the President of the United States to insert himself into the internal affairs of churches and proceed to direct their priorities. Certainly, President Obama must know that Christians in general and Catholics in particular offer more charitable aid to the poor than any other demographic. To make such a statement to Catholic and Evangelical Christian leaders requires an unimaginable level of hubris.
Therefore, I was concerned that the President’s words had been taken out of context. Rather than rely on media reports I went back and listened to a live recording of the entire ninety-minute panel discussion. I am sorry to say that the media reports were not an exaggeration. President Obama told the religious leaders in the audience that the only issues they seem to “go to the mat” for are opposition to abortion and same-sex marriage. He said that poverty seemed like an afterthought in their priorities. He suggested that they pay more attention to Pope Francis and focus on poverty.
Obviously, President Obama has not been paying close attention to Pope Francis. A constant theme of numerous addresses by Pope Francis has been the tragedy our “throwaway culture” as evidenced by abortion, euthanasia, and assisted suicide. Speaking to a meeting of Catholic physicians Pope Francis said:
Every child who, rather than being born, is condemned unjustly to being aborted, bears the face of Jesus Christ, bears the face of the Lord, who even before he was born, and then just after birth, experienced the world’s rejection. And every elderly person – I spoke of children: let us move to the elderly, another point! And every elderly person, even if he is ill or at the end of his days, bears the face of Christ. They cannot be discarded, as the “culture of waste” suggests! They cannot be thrown away!
Additionally, Pope Francis has dedicated every Wednesday general audience since January 28, 2015, to directly teaching about marriage and the family. He has explicitly focused on the complementarity of man and woman. He has emphasized the unique relationship of one man and one woman in marriage. He has extolled the virtue of being open to life within marriage and the blessings of having children. He has rejected the idea that gender is a fungible construct created by man.
Yes, Pope Francis has been very vocal about aid to the poor. But his advocacy for the poor is in addition to, not instead of, his advocacy for the right to life and the defense of traditional marriage.
It is interesting that President Obama would criticize advocacy for strong families at a conference concerned with poverty. Much of today’s poverty can be attributed to the breakdown of the traditional family structure. Approximately one third of families headed by a single mother fall below the poverty line, compared to only 6% of married couple families. A study in England found that following a divorce, 20% of women and children fall below the poverty line. Defending and strengthening marriage is addressing a significant cause of poverty.
It is also disingenuous for President Obama to accuse faith-based organizations of ignoring poverty in favor of addressing abortion and other reproductive issues. After all, it is the Obama administration that is happy to drive the Little Sisters of the Poor out of business because these holy women who generously care for the sick and dying elderly poor refuse to cover contraception and abortion-inducing drugs in their health insurance. It is the Obama Administration that is willing to deny aid from Catholic organizations to unaccompanied child refugees because these relief agencies will not offer the children abortions.
President Obama’s performance during this panel discussion belies his claim of wanting to develop a non-partisan approach to end poverty. He was dismissive and insulting to the extensive anti-poverty efforts of Catholics and Evangelical Christians. He tried to crease a false dichotomy between defending life and helping the poor. As Pope Francis said, it is precisely because we recognize the intrinsic dignity of every human life from conception to natural death that we must see the Face of Christ in the unborn, the elderly, the sick, and the poor. Whatsoever we do to these, we do to Christ.