Panel urges synod to focus on financial threats to families

WASHINGTON — Coming hard on the heels of Pope Francis’ trip to the United States will be the Synod of Bishops on the family in October, at which themes raised during the U.S. visit may come to the fore.

A boy puts out chicken and rice soup for hungry children in this 2010 file photo at the Thomas P. Ryan Community Center in Rochester, N.Y. when the Synod of Bishops on the Family meets in October, they will explore economics and how they affect families. (CNS photo | Mike Crupi, Catholic Courier)

And, given recent events, maybe one of the key angles to consider is economic issues and how they affect families, said panelists at the latest dialogue organized by Georgetown University’s Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life.

When the Vatican Sept. 8 released papal documents revising the sections of canon law dealing with marriage annulments to make the process easier, cheaper and more of a pastoral ministry, that issue effectively was removed from the subject matter of the synod, said John Allen, associate editor of Crux and the Boston Globe’s religion section at a Sept. 9 forum at Georgetown University.

Allen, a longtime Vatican reporter, said that “prior to three days ago that debate over what reform (of marriage annulment procedures) would look like would dominate the synod. Now that’s a done deal. It’s unlikely to be the engine that drives the train.”

John Carr, director of the Georgetown Initiative, suggested a focus on the financial strains that affect families would be a worthy direction of attention by synod participants and assembled the panel of speakers to consider that.

The synod “needs to be looking at the ways poverty undermines families,” said Maryann Cusimano Love, associate professor of international relations at The Catholic University of America. For instance, she said, “healthy families need women who can support them,” yet women overwhelmingly make up some of the most poorly paid sectors of the U.S. economy, such as waiting tables, and serving as health aids. Globally, women hold only 1 percent of real property, she added.

Paying attention to such issues is “not just for women’s rights activists,” she said. “If you care about families, you should care about women.”

Tarshea Smith, an organizer for the UNITE HERE union, told her story of being a food service cashier at Georgetown when her son had an epileptic seizure and had to go to the hospital.

Although she had an unblemished record of being at work on time, when the hospital trip meant she missed work and couldn’t call in, her supervisor wrote her up for an unexcused absence. Smith said a Georgetown student, who noticed she was upset, asked her, “What are you going to do about it?” The student added, “If you stand up, I’ll stand with you.”

Smith said that helped her muster the courage to organize a food service workers union at Georgetown, which has helped other parents improve their families’ lives.

“I pray the pope addresses the right to organize” when he visits the United States, she said. “I believe the only way you can build power (for the poorest workers) is to allow workers to organize. I’m here today because someone believed in me.”

But the synod needs to pay attention to the struggles of people like her, Smith said. “Single mothers work two or three jobs, can’t afford healthy food, and have no time to bring their children up right.” Such parents simply can’t afford to be home with their kids, she added.

Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO, carried on the theme, noting that low-wage workers are more likely to be cheated of their wages and how minority workers and women still are disadvantaged in various ways.

“The first thing we have to get straight is the cause and effect relationship,” Trumka said, saying unemployment and poor wages block opportunities for families to succeed from one generation to the next.

Michael Strain, deputy director of economic policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, disagreed with Trumka that increasing the minimum wage is one tool to improve the lot of the poor.

He said forcing employers to pay higher wages has a ripple effect on prices that would disproportionately disadvantage the poorest consumers.

Strain said his recommendation to the synod would be to “have an expansive view of family life and what it takes” to raise one, and that the participants “not focus only on headline issues.” Economics is among the subject matters that are “deeply important,” he added.

Cusimano Love urged the synod participants to “get beyond the culture war issues,” and to focus on how families are undermined by economic issues.