The memorial of St. Valentine, AD 2000

Fr. Richard John Neuhaus

First Things, a Journal of Religion and Public Life

156 Fifth Avenue, Suite 400

New York, NY 10010.

Dear Fr. Neuhaus,

I have recently read your editorial commentary, "Against Neoliberalism" (First Things, August-September 1999). I disagree with your statements that Catholic Workers encourage class warfare, and that the Houston Catholic Worker is in opposition to the views of the Holy Father about the proper means to the end of eliminating poverty. I am also concerned about the comments you make about the Catholic Campaign for Human Development.

This is a personal, not an "official", response. The Zwick's do not need me to defend them, and there is no central hierarchy in the Catholic Worker movement to authorize or certify a response, "official" coupled with "Catholic Worker" would probably be considered by most people as an oxymoron. I hope I can bring some light, and not just more heat, to this situation.

As would be expected from a religious and social movement that reads Chesterton, Catholic Workers have always advocated expanding the productive assets of the poor, particularly in terms of land and ownership of means of production, which includes small businesses, farms, and cooperatives. Our "program emphasis" has always been on what poor people can do for themselves -- and how others can enable and empower this.

We advocate microenterprise, adequate safety nets, family/community-reliance, and sustainable and resilient economies, all of which can help the impoverished to better their economic circumstances on their own initiative, "from the grassroots up". Here's a few such Catholic Worker activities: starting a bakery (Los Angeles Catholic Workers), helping to set up direct buying relationships between farmers and urban consumers (Kansas City Catholic Workers), operating a day labor cooperative (Houston Catholic Workers), publishing a free cookbook and almanac of useful information for poor people (Oklahoma City Catholic Workers, plus we're "micro-enterprise incubator wannabees" and have a self-help/how-to library, a considerable amount of our cookbook and almanac is available online at There are several Catholic Worker farms.

Projects such as these assist people to "build their own bootstraps" by which they can pull themselves and their neighbors up. They also empower people to resist oppression and exploitation. As St. Therese of Lisieux said, "I reminded myself that charity wasn't a matter of fine sentiments, but rather of doing things." Doesn't this qualify as "expanding the circle of productivity and trade"? Or are our choices limited to statist "from the top down" strategies such as enterprise zones and corporate welfare?

The Casa Juan Diego folks in Houston walk the walk they talk. They are out there on the margins doing practical things to assist the poor. Besides the cooperative mentioned above and the works of mercy, they help people honor their contracts to the poor. In the Houston area, apparently some employers think they can hire non-citizens without green cards, work them all day, and then not pay them the agreed-upon wage. So somebody from Casa Juan Diego goes down to the job site and demands that they pay their workers what they promised.

Is it class warfare to ask that people honor their contracts to the poor? Shouldn't those who aren't poor be held accountable for their actions towards the impoverished? If personal accountability is good for the poor -- and it is -- isn't it also a blessing for the rich? The Catechism says that injustice to the wage earner is, like sodomy and abortion, one of the sins that cry to heaven for justice. It is a very serious sin.

The vices and structures of sin of the poor are not the only problem, the vices and structures of sin of those who aren't poor gravely harm the common good. When you live in solidarity with the poor, you can't help but notice that their problem includes what non-poor people do and don't do to them. Consider the Pope's comments on the subject of "superdevelopment", in section 28 of Sollicitudo. It seems likely to me he was talking about the United States:

"A disconcerting conclusion about the most recent period should serve to enlighten us: side-by-side with the miseries of underdevelopment, themselves unacceptable, we find ourselves up against a form of superdevelopment, equally inadmissible, because like the former it is contrary to what is good and to true happiness. This superdevelopment, which consists in an excessive availability of every kind of material goods for the benefit of certain social groups, easily makes people slaves of "possession" and of immediate gratification, with no other horizon than the multiplication or continual replacement of the things already owned with others still better. This is the so-called civilization of "consumption" or "consumerism", which involves so much "throwing-away" and "waste". An object already owned but now superseded by something better is discarded, with no thought of its possible lasting value in itself, nor of some other human being who is poorer."

Among other things, John Paul II is a messenger who can't be marginalized, at least as far as this discussion is concerned. If someone who wasn't the pope said this, these days he or she would be accused of encouraging envy, resentment, and class warfare, and some of the fingers that would be pointed would be Catholic. If the best you can do in answering the concerns Catholic Workers raise about the oppression of the poor by the rich -- which we learned from the Bible, the writings of the Catholic popes and our own experiences with the poor -- is to yell "Class Warfare", then truthfully, you haven't much of a position to defend.

The authentic Catholic response to these times includes listening to the poor and being in solidarity with them. This is not a "tired slogan of liberation theology," but rather as the Holy Father teaches, it is a matter of a practical lifestyle that is intentional about respecting the human dignity of the individual person, as well as being evangelical, prudent, and redeeming of the common good. Our daily actions have consequences for the poor, for good or for ill, and it takes a certain amount of conscious effort to refrain from doing any more harm to the impoverished. Here is what John Paul II says about the virtue and duty of solidarity in section 38 of Sollicitudo:

"It is above all a question of interdependence, sensed as a system determining relationships in the contemporary world, in its economic, cultural, political and religious elements, and accepted as a moral category. When interdependence becomes recognized in this way, the correlative response as a moral and social attitude, as a "virtue", is solidarity.

"This then is not a feeling of vague compassion or shallow distress at the misfortunes of so many people, both near and far. On the contrary, it is a firm and persevering determination to commit oneself to the common good; that is to say to the good of all and of each individual, because we are all really responsible for all. This determination is based on the solid conviction that what is hindering full development is that desire for profit and that thirst for power already mentioned.

"These attitudes and "structures of sin" are only conquered -- presupposing the help of divine grace -- by a diametrically opposed attitude: a commitment to the good of one's neighbor with the readiness, in the Gospel sense, to "lose oneself" for the sake of the other instead of exploiting him, and to "serve him" instead of oppressing him for one's own advantage (cf. Mt 10:40-42; 20: 25; Mk 10: 42-45; Lk 22: 25-27)."

This man who is a prophet to our own times echoes the words of the prophets of Israel, whose written word in the Hebrew Scriptures has more to say about the oppression of the poor by the rich than it does about adultery, fornication, lust, and idolatry. Strong's Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible lists 285 references to these issues, and 546 references to justice, oppression, poverty, widows, fatherless, and strangers. This suggests something about both God's concern for the poor and the extent of the problem throughout the history of salvation.

Do we think that we are so different from ancient Israel? We commit all of the other sins they were noted for -- we kill our children, are puffed up with pride, and would rather worship the creation rather than the Creator. John Paul II is in unity with the Second Vatican Council, the fathers and doctors of the Church, and a long line of popes and bishops when he condemns the tragic reality of the oppression of the poor by the rich and powerful in the modern world. Leo XIII was no liberation theologian, but in 1891 he knew that calling those who aren't poor to accountability for their sins against the common good was not preaching class warfare.

God loves the rich as well as the poor: both the poor and the Church have an evangelical duty to preach justice to the rich, so that they can repent of their sins and be converted and thus avoid hell. Oppression of the poor is a mortal sin (Catechism 1867), and even its near occasion should be avoided as a matter of prudence.

I'm sure you'll correct me if I'm wrong (and I honestly would be happy to be wrong about this), but the impression I get is that the sins of the poor are much more interesting to neo-conservatives than the sins of the rich. Fr. Sirico, for example, has a curious essay at the website of the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty, relating his experience as a seminarian working in a soup kitchen in an impoverished neighborhood. He wonders if he was doing these people a favor by serving them a free meal, questions their motivations and their morality for accepting the charitable offering, and speculates that charging one or more punitive sanctions would separate the wheat from the chaff. He finds it surprising that people would come to the soup kitchen for a meal and then go shopping. In charity, the best thing I can say about these comments is that his essay shows ignorance of what life in that neighborhood was like for the people who lived there. (See "Samaritan's Dilemma,"

His views are echoed by another organization, Capital Research (the major source of anti-Catholic Campaign for Human Development propaganda), whose commentariat says that the increase in soup kitchens and food giveaway programs is driving demand for those services. A common theme in the welfare reform debate has been that helping people subsidizes, and thus encourages, bad behaviors that produce poverty (an idea also implicit in Fr. Sirico's essay.) Note that neither the Acton Institute's nor Capital Research's sites have anything to say about corporate welfare, even though the economic distortions and environmental damage it causes are increasingly a matter of public commentary and discussion.

Here's the reality of food security and the poor: food is one of the few flexible items in an impoverished family's household budget. If there is an emergency -- such as sickness that requires medication, or car repairs, or something necessary for the kids at school -- often the only place to get that money is the grocery budget. Thus, soup kitchens and emergency food pantries and the nutritional support programs provide important safety net services to the poor that benefit the common good -- in addition to the essential wisdom, beauty, and goodness of helping the family itself. If the poor family knows that they will be able to get some free meals or groceries, then they can take care of their emergency and still eat at least 1 or 2 meals a day.

Are some people in the lines of soup kitchens because they squandered their money on drugs or alcohol? Certainly. If the soup kitchen closes down, will that encourage anybody to stop drinking? Not very likely. Alcoholism is not caused by hunger, but rather is rooted in an interior spiritual emptiness and alienation that is often aggravated and driven by external objective circumstances. Making someone even more miserable and alienated and hungry is likely to encourage a violent and criminal response, not redemption and sobriety.

The commentariat will talk about "structures," but when the discussion gets down to chapter and verse, the political message is: welfare, soup kitchens, and personal character defects are the structures that hurt the poor, the rich are not considered to be a problem to themselves or the impoverished. Systems that benefit the wealthy and the powerful but hurt the poor and cause grave harm to the common good are somehow not noticed.

To illustrate, I will discuss urban renewal, which is only one of many such structures (and not necessarily the most important). Others include regressive taxation, transportation policy, tax cuts coupled with deficit spending, interest on the national debt, abortion, corporate welfare, the "war on people who use drugs," drug addiction, depersonalization/marginalization, the glorification of violence, the preferential option for the rich, materialism and conspicuously wasteful consumption, cannibalistic economics and politics, and the criminalization of poverty, to name a few of the demons prowling about the world these days seeking the ruin of souls.


Urban renewal has devastated impoverished neighborhoods, often for private profit and special interest, typically to build playgrounds and shopping areas for the non-poor. Is urban renewal a classically liberal market process? No, it is a product of a politicized statist marketplace in which the poor have no voice and no participation -- unless, perhaps, along comes a community organizer funded by CCHD money, who was maybe trained in an IAF workshop.

Is it class warfare to note that as the housing of last resort for the poorest of the poor -- the Single Room Occupancy Hotel -- has been virtually eliminated, the homeless population has mushroomed everywhere? Should we close our eyes to the hypocrisy of politicians and commentariats disingenuously speculating about "where all these homeless people have come from", as if the answer was mysterious?

The popular madness and delusions of crowds about homelessness these days is that impoverished people suddenly became even more wicked and lazy and drug addicted and thus ended up on the streets. We close our eyes to the obvious: Our cities lack affordable housing because millions of low-rent units have been destroyed by politicians in league with rich and powerful development corporations, a series of venal crusades subsidized with tax dollars in part paid by the victims. So like the poor man's pet lamb that was taken by his wealthy neighbor to feed his privileged guests (the prophet Nathan's parable before King David, 2 Samuel 12), their property is stolen to benefit others.

It's all very legal, consummated by due process, eminent domain, and bulldozers, with the proper spin appropriately applied by commentariats and political campaigns. It's not a baby, it's a piece of tissue. It's not a racist pogrom destroying a neighborhood, it's urban renewal. If a rapist gave his victim some money after the attack, would this excuse his violation of her person? Suppose the rapist could get a majority of the people in a given political entity to agree that his attack wasn't a rape since the woman was paid afterwards, could this eminently domained due processed majority rule change the objectively evil nature of the act? No it can't, that's why we say it is "objectively evil" and this is something the urban renewal and Chamber of Commerce and highway department and city councils and planning commissars ought to contemplate. A just social contract would protect people in the security of their homes and neighborhoods against bandits who would dispossess households and destroy neighborhoods to benefit others.

We ice this sinfully profitable cake of tragedy with laws and building codes that make it virtually illegal for the poor to build their own housing; there is no land for this anyway. And then we self-righteously preach that Section 8 housing vouchers encourage sloth, irresponsibility, and promiscuity, while we praise with approval the latest increase in funding for corporate welfare, made possible by snatching food stamps from the hands of the poorest of the poor.

As the prophet Isaiah asked many years ago, "What do you mean by crushing my people and grinding down the poor when they look to you?" (3, 15)


Someone please explain to me the problem that neo-conservatives have with neighborhood organizing. All of the neo-conservative commentariat arguments against the CCHD give prominent mention to the IAF, allegedly a most significant front of Bolshevism and an ever-present danger to the capitalist order. But frankly, specifics are typically lacking about the details of their allegedly nefarious activities. The name "Saul Alinsky" is conjured with as though it means something inherently wicked. This lack of detail lends credence to concerns that the significant driver of the anti-CCHD campaign is partisan politics, not Catholic morality.

It's not as if the Republican Party or the Conservative Political Action Committee don't read Saul Alinsky -- they obviously do. Effectively, this is a complaint about the powerless learning how to participate in local politics. I can understand that local corrupt ward bosses and development corporations and utilities and banks and slum lords and the other bottom-feeders that accrete around local governments wouldn't want impoverished people learning how to exercise their civil and political rights, but I can't understand anybody objecting to this on the grounds of the social teachings of the Catholic Church.

Here's an example of IAF work that I have personal experience with. In the early 1990s, the Kansas City (Missouri) Council slashed funding for basic city infrastructure (road maintenance, trash collection, street lighting, police, and etc.) so those public monies could finance a greatly expanded corporate welfare city-state. This "reverse Robin Hood" shifting of resources from the poor to the rich hastened an already serious deterioration in the quality of life in impoverished neighborhoods. Some people in that town made a lot of money on those deals, and they weren't the impoverished people. In fact, many poor people lost their homes, without much in the way of relocation assistance, as a result of the deadly combination of corporate welfare and urban renewal.

I experienced a taste of this while living in Kansas City, 1997-98. Here's a vignette: in November-December 1998, five houses on my block burned, four allegedly due to gang problems, one was owned by a slumlord who had 15 people (5 adults, 10 kids) in a 2 bedroom house with bad wiring. This was about 2 blocks from the St. Paul School of Theology (United Methodist), at Truman and Oakley, in Kansas City's "Old Northeast". We had door to door drug salesmen, as well as a number of entrepreneurs who seemed to have an endless supply of "Very Cheap Ten Dollar TV's", endless graffiti, and piles of trash everywhere. There was an illegal dump behind our house (one of several in the neighborhood) and we heard gunfire regularly, sometimes every day. In my neighborhood, code enforcement on slum lords was nearly non-existent -- unless you complained really, really loudly, obnoxiously, and persistently. (I know, I tried nicely asking and got zero results.)

One response to the tremendous accumulation of situations such as this was for churches and civic groups to work together to restore funding for basic city services. The Industrial Areas Foundation provided organizing assistance and training. This project receives funding from the CCHD and several Catholic parishes participate in the coalition. I invite you to explain to me why this isn't an authentic expression of the Church's social teaching. How do poorly maintained roads, dim or non-existent street lights, under-staffed police and fire departments, slum lords, acceptance of high crime, toleration of prostitution and drug dealing, destroying neighborhoods to build shopping centers, and bribing corporations to take jobs away from one area and bring them to another help the common good? Wouldn't organizing people to do something practical about these issues qualify as a proper application of Catholic social teaching?

Are you not aware that the CCHD also funds microenterprise programs that help poor people start their own entry-level businesses? Shouldn't neo-conservatives be the first to praise such initiatives -- and even to help organize and finance them? Isn't this part of the necessary task of expanding the circle of production and trade? Why do neo-conservatives continually attack the only national US Catholic effort in support of this kind of grassroots economic empowerment?

The Capital Research group's website materials about the CCHD indicate a basic lack of understanding about the works of justice and the works of mercy and charity; it presents them as being in opposition, when they are in reality two sides of the same coin, two aspects of the same call to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly before our God.

This is, for my money, the genius of the Catholic social teaching. Is a personalist and private charitable approach necessary? Absolutely -- but a structural and juridical approach is equally important. That's the teaching of the Roman popes. Focusing solely on personal issues and private charity -- or entirely on structural issues -- are both departures from the authentic teaching of the Church. Charity and justice are as indivisible as the Trinity. In terms of traditional American political categories, the Democrats and the Republicans are both dead wrong when it comes to social policy. One tilts too far on structure and de jure, the other too far on the personal and de facto. Rather than allowing what could be a healthy dialectic to produce a proper mean in social policy, the protagonists gridlock in partisanship and maneuver, a zero-sum game deadly to all who do not play it well.

The Word of God has this to say about political elites who oppress the poor and do not protect the common good:

"Hear, therefore, kings, and understand; learn, you magistrates of the earth's expanse! Hearken, you who are in power over the multitude and lord it over throngs of peoples! Because authority was given you by the Lord and sovereignty by the Most High, he will probe your works and scrutinize your counsels! Though you were ministers of the kingdom, you judged not rightly, and did not keep the law, nor walk according to the will of God, therefore terribly and swiftly shall He come against you. Judgment is stern for the exalted! The lowly may be pardoned out of mercy, but the mighty shall be mightily put to the test. For the Lord of all shows no partiality, nor does He fear greatness, because He himself made the great as well as the small, and He provides for all alike, but for those in power, a rigorous scrutiny looms. Wisdom 6:1-8

As the saying goes, "God said it, I believe it, that settles it."


You allege that the position of the Catholic Worker is "being in love with being in love with the poor and the suffering" and you counter this with a claim that the authentic Catholic approach is to do all you can to remedy the problem of poverty. Here you set up a straw man, and present it as an alleged contradiction to Catholic social teaching.

The vocation of being a Catholic Worker (as I understand and practice it, I am still learning, God is not finished with me yet) includes (1) being in love with the poor, (2) being in solidarity with their suffering, embracing non-violence, voluntary poverty, and simple living as evangelical counsels guiding one's practical lifestyle, (3) critiquing and changing the structures of sin which, as the Holy Father has noted, help keep impoverished people poor and marginalized, and which also encourage war and violence (he has specifically named the "overwhelming thirsts" for power and profit at any price as two of those structures), (4) helping the impoverished to better their circumstances, and (5) practicing the spiritual and corporal works of mercy.

I don't think this means helping people become mindless conspicuous consumers, but rather that all people become intentional participants in their own destiny and also in the life of the community in which they live and have their being, benefitting from and contributing to the common good, with confidence in a social contract which protects them from exploitation, injustice, and oppression and respects the essential dignity of every human person from the moment of conception to the time of natural death. Where did we ever get the idea that a cannibalistic ethos could bring peace, security, and prosperity to the poor?

The poor need evangelization, catechesis, and hospitality, but the rich are no less in need of conversion. Given the world context and the hierarchy of evil, the sins of the rich are much more damaging to the common good than the sins of the poor. (It's not an accident that abortion clinics cluster around impoverished neighborhoods.) But in the modern US political conversation, people who call the rich to moral accountability are accused of promoting the politics of resentment and envy. The tendency of the various commentariats to condemn the crack addict and community organizer while praising the usurer, abortionist, and weapons-maker reminds me of some biblical commentary about straining at gnats while swallowing camels.

If we are to follow the advice of the Holy Father and work effectively to end poverty, all must be called to holiness -- both in our personal acts and in the structures which we build by our actions. We replace structures of violence, arrogance, exploitation, alienation, oppression, greed, and death with structures of beauty, wisdom, goodness, love, mercy, prudence, and justice as we model these virtues in all aspects of our lives -- economics and politics are not exceptions to this.

Such a movement towards personal and social holiness begins with a strict examination of personal and corporate consciences. This can become a threshold of hope opening onto a Jubilee vista of personal and social metanoia. The Holy Father put it this way in Sollicitudo:

"We are therefore faced with a serious problem of unequal distribution of the means of subsistence originally meant for everybody, and thus also an unequal distribution of the benefits deriving from them. And this happens, not through the fault of the needy people, and even less through a sort of inevitability dependent on natural conditions or circumstances as a whole. . . Therefore political leaders, and citizens of rich countries considered as individuals, especially if they are Christian, have the moral obligation, according to the degree of each one's responsibility, to take into consideration, in personal decisions and decisions of government, this relationship of universality, this interdependence which exists between their conduct and the poverty and underdevelopment of so many millions of people." (From section 9)

These structures of sin that the Pope is warning us about are created and maintained by the individual acts of those who participate in the economic and cultural glorification of the seven deadly sins, finding profit, pleasure, and convenience in the oppression of the poor. Naming those demons is the first step to their exorcism. To call people's attention to their sin -- as many suggest we do with the poor -- is a spiritual work of mercy. The rich and prosperous -- who are often caught up in a hopeless and vicious cycle of greed, conspicuous consumption, and exploitation animated by a soulless materialistic ethos that denies human dignity and harms the common good -- also deserve this work of grace. We want them to join in the communion of saints and the Beatific Vision too. The fields are indeed ready, pray that the Lord of the Harvest will send forth workers.

To find such redemption, we must look within and without, lifting up our eyes to the hills even as we focus upon our neighborhoods to see the naked, hungry, and homeless Jesus who is among us. He is the source of all help and reconciliation; by his Truth and our obedience to it we shall be made free of injustice, oppression, poverty, and despair. The world will be saved by Beauty, which is a quote from Dostoevsky much loved by Dorothy Day.

That, my brother in the Lord Jesus Christ, is the position of the Catholic Worker, at least as we are trying to practice it here in Oklahoma City. (If we keep practicing, we expect that eventually we will get good at it.) We fail all the time. Even if we had an unlimited budget and an army of social workers possessing magical powers, there would be needs unmet, problems unresolved, tragedies to heal, structures to redeem, lessons to learn and be taught. So we do what we can, with what we have, where we are. We encourage others to do likewise. And we have faith that however much this is, it will somehow by the Grace of God be enough. "Do not be conquered by evil, but overcome evil with good." (Romans 12, 21)

I fear I go on to the point of tediousness (sigh, of all people I am most in need of an editor, and I frequently lack temperance and prudence when I write, as you've already noticed I'm sure). The issues are important and complex. My impression is that communication is very poor these days, so I prefer to err on the side of more rather than less conversation, as the signs of the times suggest to me that the need for understanding is very grave.

I will close with the "Works of Justice and Peace," which I wrote on Memorial Day two years ago, and which constitute a statement of the mission, means, and purpose of the Oscar Romero Catholic Worker House in Oklahoma City:


The memorial of St. Mary MacKillop, 1998

+ Live simply and justly in solidarity with the poor and marginalized and be a good neighbor. Make no war on them, rather, be one with them in spirit, truth, and love.

+ Hear the truth when it is spoken to you. Discern the signs of the times and speak truth -- to power, to the people, and to the Church.

+ Make injustice visible -- witness, remember, teach, proclaim, tell. Light candles, do not curse the darkness.

+ Protect the poor and powerless-- listen, learn, educate, organize, empower participation, and respect life from the moment of conception to the time of natural death.

+Work for reconciliation with truth, evangelism, catechesis, orthopraxis.

+ Celebrate life, goodness, beauty, virtue, responsibility, and joy. Practice peace, non-violence, servant leadership, harmony, community, voluntary cooperation, and the proper stewardship of God's creation. Pray without ceasing.

+ Ensure fair distribution, subsidiarity, economic opportunity, justice, and food security for everyone everywhere.

Your brother in the Faith,


Robert Waldrop


Archbishop Oscar Romero Catholic Worker House

1524 NW 21st Street

Oklahoma City, OK 73106

405-557-0436 to Catholic Social Teachings)