Catholics Living Economic Justice

Year Published
  • 2011
  • English

For the tenth anniversary of the U.S. Catholic bishops’ statement, Economic Justice for All, the bishops affirmed the Church’s commitment to economic justice in the world.  The anniversary edition of the statement included a synthesis of key principles, entitled, A Catholic Framework for Economic Life .  This framework serves as a touchstone (a) for understanding the Church’s teaching on economic justice, and (b) for ethical decision-making by individuals and groups on all economic matters.  

As noted in the Framework, the Church’s teaching on the economy has profound relevance for Catholics in the United States. 

“As followers of Jesus Christ and participants in a powerful economy, Catholics in the United States are called to work for greater economic justice in the face of persistent poverty, growing income gaps, and increasing discussion of economic issues in the United States and around the world.”

Below you will find stories of people and groups that exemplify the elements of the Framework.  Most are about groups funded by the Catholic Campaign for Human Development (CCHD).  For nearly 40 years, CCHD has supported the endeavors of empowered poor and low-income people to create decent employment and viable neighborhood businesses; improve access and quality of education, housing, transportation and health care; and create a safe living environment for the families and youth of their community.  Also included are examples of ways that the Framework is applied to concerns about global poverty.  

#Story 1 – The economy exists for the person, not the person for the economy.

Home Care Associates (HCA) is a worker-owned home health care company in Philadelphia that got a great start in 1993, as a CCHD economic development project through the generous contributions of Catholics to the CCHD parish collection.  Today, HCA is a self-sustaining organization that serves two vulnerable groups:  the low-income women who train to be home health aides and the disabled and infirm clients they help.   

Through the training program students learn the technical skills needed to be a home health aide.  They also work on soft skills, such as communicating with clients and supervisors, promoting empathy, dispelling stereotypes and minimizing conflict.  In one training exercise, pairs of trainees walk around Center City in Philadelphia.  One member of the pair either walks with marbles in her shoes or petroleum jelly on her sunglasses.  This helps the trainees experience what it’s like for clients who may not walk well or see well. 

About half of the HCA employees are worker-owners.  They elect board members and share in dividends if there are any profits at the end of the year.  HCA has opened career paths to people who started as home health aides, got off welfare, purchased a home, and moved into other areas of the business, such as case managers, human resource staff, schedulers and service representatives.  As the HCA model illustrates, a range of economic benefits can accrue for individuals, companies and the community when the dignity of the human person is a clear priority.

#Story 2 – Economic choices and institutions must be judged by how they protect or undermine the life and dignity of the human person, support the family, and serve the common good.

Interfaith Coalition for Action Reconciliation and Empowerment (ICARE ) is another CCHD-funded group in the Diocese of St. Augustine, Florida.  Since 1997, this group of 25 diverse congregations has mobilized community support to win significant improvements in education and healthcare in Jacksonville, a city of more than 700,000 people.

ICARE established justice ministry networks in each congregation.  The networks identify common issues through a process of listening and dialog, study how other communities addressed similar concerns and then urge government entities to make necessary changes. 

Using this approach helped ICARE improve Jacksonville’s education system for poor and low-income students.  First, ICARE members convinced the school board to adopt a reading curriculum with a proven track record for increasing student achievement.  ICARE then identified  a model for discipline and persuaded the school district to utilize it to address truancy and out-of-school suspensions.  To extend these benefits new teachers were instructed in the new model.  The result has been improved discipline, increased safety, and a 30% reduction in suspensions.  As the Bishop of St. Augustine, Most Rev. Victor Galeone, observed, “In its quest for justice, ICARE succeeds in being a voice for the most marginalized to the local authorities.”


Story 3 – A fundamental moral measure of any economy is how the poor and vulnerable are faring.

There’s nothing like a threatened mass eviction of 8,000 people to get a group of tenants to stand up for their rights.  That crisis was the beginning of the successful multi-ethnic group, Tenants and Workers United (TWU), which receives support from the Catholic Campaign for Human Development (CCHD).  TWU now claims 1,000 members in Alexandria, Virginia.  Back in 1986, the city was trying to encourage the redevelopment of the Arlandria-Chiralangua neighborhood.  The planned redevelopment would have eliminated thousands of existing apartments and did not include housing for the low-income residents of the neighborhood. 

The fledgling TWU organization pursued a two-pronged strategy of legal action and advocacy with the developer and city council.  Ultimately, a legal settlement slowed the eviction process and won housing rights and funds for the displaced.  With this victory, TWU gained momentum. 
Since then, TWU has expanded its efforts to include advocacy for workers’ rights and won a living wage ordinance for hotel and other service workers in Alexandria. They also have worked to provide access to health care, develop youth leadership opportunities, and extend other support to low-income families. 

In 2001, TWU established a taxi cab cooperative, Alexandria Union Taxi, which is now the second largest in the city.  Many of the taxi cab owner-members are legal immigrants.  One unexpected benefit of this project is that while some members may not have associated with one another in their countries of origin, investing in a cooperative enterprise encouraged them to work together and support one another.  As an empowering, well-organized, multi-ethnic group, TWU’s impact on this low-income community is growing exponentially.

Story 4 – All people have a right to life and to secure the basic necessities of life (e.g., food, clothing, shelter, education, health care, safe environment, economic security). 

A grandmother in Portland, Oregon supports her extended family by working 30 hours a week in a grocery store meat department and earning additional income as a caregiver.  Six years ago, when she moved into low-income apartment housing, home ownership was an impossible dream.  But thanks to a remarkable new program, the Smart Growth Community Land Trust Homeownership Program, which is sponsored jointly by the Portland Community Land Trust (PCLT) and the Clackamas County Land Trust (CCLT), she recently purchased a 60 year old bungalow and converted the garage into two additional much needed bedrooms. 
The program preserves and renovates homes so that low- and moderate-income earners may realize the dream of affordable homeownership.  In addition, creating a land trust insures there will be a permanent pool of affordable housing.  This purchasing arrangement helps persons’ self-worth and helps stabilize the community.  Many groups that receive CCHD funding report that the support of the Catholic community is invaluable as it often attracts more support for empowerment projects that provide the basic necessities of life.  


Story 5 – All people have the right to economic initiative, to productive work, to just wages and benefits, to decent working conditions, as well as to organize and join unions or other associations.

The Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) in Southwest Florida has flourished like the proverbial mustard seed.  In a scant 15 years CIW has grown from a small group meeting under the auspices of the Southwest Florida Farmworker Project to a large, well-honed organization with national clout and international visibility.  The size and scope of the organization have multiplied, but CIW has kept its unwavering focus on defending the rights of farmworkers.

Through several years of  sustained effort and with the help of college students, consumers and funding from the Catholic Campaign for Human Development, CIW persuaded fast-food giants Taco Bell, McDonald’s and Burger King to pay their suppliers, who are owners of large produce farms, a few pennies more per pound for tomatoes.  This modest concession yielded a meaningful wage increase for low-wage farmworkers as well as better working conditions, improved housing and more humane treatment in the field for very low-wage workers.  Furthermore, this work has led CIW to collaborate with Federal authorities to expose cases of human trafficking and modern slavery that entrap some day laborers and farmworkers.      


Story 6 – All people, to the extent they are able, have a corresponding duty to work, provide for the needs of their families and contribute to the broader society.

In 2002, when a number of neighborhood residents in Dayton, Ohio grew increasing concerned about the continued impact of street criminals on their community, they organized themselves as PowerNet Dayton and began to act.  They identified a high rate of youth recidivism as particularly troublesome and decided to work directly with troubled youth and young adults.

  The result is a novel community development solution that today serves as a model re-entry program for ex-offenders, offering support, opportunity, and hope.  PowerNet’s GEM (Groups, Education and Mentoring) leadership development program, conducted at the Dayton Correctional Institute (DCI), utilizes volunteers with expertise in criminal justice and human behavior.  Their motto is, “It takes teamwork to make a dream work.”

PowerNet works with the community to implement a comprehensive and effective support system for the graduates and other ex-offenders.  The organization builds relationships with community-based service providers, together with education, training and employment organizations to provide opportunities for success.  Their focus is to break down the barriers that prevent ex-offenders from obtaining a place in the community.  The project has already helped over two dozen ex-offenders overcome obstacles to a positive return to society.   It is so successful that local, state and federal officials are encouraging its implementation in other Ohio correctional facilities.  PowerNet Dayton makes room ex-offenders who want and need to participate in and contribute to the life of the community.


Story 7 – In economic life, free markets have clear advantages and limits.  Government and voluntary groups have essential and irreplaceable roles, but cannot substitute for the proper working of the market and the just policies of the state

Rasmata Sawadogo is a rice farmer in Burkina Faso.  In developing countries like Burkina Faso, small farmers often teeter on the edge of survival, struggling to compete with much more efficient, highly subsidized, large-scale farmers in developed countries.

The recent global food crisis has exacerbated Rasmata s bleak situation.  Although the increased food prices allow farmers to sell rice at a higher price, the cost of fertilizer and other farming inputs has also increased.  Because Burkina is landlocked, the country must import many of its goods.  The high cost of trucking these goods from ports in Ivory Coast, Togo and Benin is passed on to people like Rasmata.  There have been riots over the high cost of food and fuel.  Catholic Relief Services (CRS), the development agency of the U.S. Catholic Church, has seen firsthand, through its many development programs, the damaging impact of the crisis on the poorest people.  Families eat fewer meals, even skipping days, and children stop going to school to save on education fees to pay for food.

The situation of people like Rasmata is one reason why the U.S. Catholic bishops have urged preferential treatment for products from developing countries through trade preference programs.  Such trade preferences can allow their goods to be more competitive on the global market and give people like Rasmata an opportunity to support her family.  Equipping Rasmata with better skills and equipment to increase her agricultural output goes hand in hand with allowing access to her products in U.S. and other developed-country markets.


Story 8 – Society has a moral obligation, including governmental action where necessary, to assure opportunity, meet basic human needs, and pursue justice in economic life.

For 15 years, the Pima County Interfaith Council (PCIC) in Tucson, Arizona, has addressed issues that impact families.  With assistance from the Catholic Campaign for Human Development, PCIC tries to keep the needs of families at the forefront of local public policy discussions. 

Several years ago, PCIC saw many of its hard-earned gains for working families and low-income students jeopardized by changing governmental priorities.  So, following the example of the Old Testament prophet Nehemiah, PCIC studied the situation and decided to rebuild its community, one project at a time.  They proposed that the city budget be amended to include an additional 1% in spending devoted exclusively to the needs of children and youth.  At the time, Arizona ranked 49th in state educational investment per pupil.  The One Percent for Children and Youth campaign added $1.3 million to the city budget for after-school programs, job training and jobs for students at risk of dropping out of school.  


Story 9 – Workers, owners, managers, stockholders, and consumers are moral agents in economic life.  By our choices, initiative, creativity, and investment, we enhance or diminish economic opportunity, community life, and social justice.

Haley House Bakery Café Cooks Up Opportunity – Ten years ago, a group of regular guests at Haley House’s popular soup kitchen in Boston’s gentrifying South End asked their hosts to teach them a trade.  Haley House, which receives grant support from CCHD, responded by offering training in bakery skills after each day’s last meal was served in the soup kitchen. 

The novice bakers proudly served their goods at the front door, advertising only with the mouthwatering smells their craft generated.  The demand for both the training and the baked goods grew rapidly.  Haley House opened a storefront bakery and later expanded the three-month course on breads and sweets to a six-month program that now includes preparation of soups, salads, and sandwiches along with instruction in customer relations and basic business principles.  More than 70 trainees have completed the program and found work in the Boston area.  According to Haley House’s Executive Director, the bakery profession typically pays a living wage and is one of the few industries open to people who may have a criminal record. ”    

Story 10 – The global economy has moral dimensions and human consequences.  Decisions on investment, trade, aid, and development should protect human life and promote human rights,  especially for those most in need wherever they might live on the globe. 

Meet Aurelie Nyapeye, who lives in a forest community in Cameroon.  Cameroon suffers a high rate of underdevelopment, despite the presence of rich natural resources.  Forests like those surrounding Aurelie s community have historically been exploited by logging companies and other large industries with little compensation for local communities.

In 2006, funds that were saved through the forgiveness of Cameroon s debt were approved to be redirected into a new community forest management program run by Catholic Relief Services.  This poverty reduction program now helps communities like Aurelie s improve their quality of life by managing, harvesting and selling valuable forest products such as wood, bark, leaves and seeds.

Aurelie Nyapeye is now a community forest manager and due to debt forgiveness and the work of CRS, he has been able to see a real improvement in the quality of life in his community.          

Resources for confronting Global Poverty are available at

Questions for Reflection
  1. How would you describe Catholic teaching on economic life? How does it relate to Catholic teaching about the God-given dignity of every person?

  1. What does Catholic teaching say about the rights and responsibilities of workers? In your part of the country what kind of work do you think could provide decent wages, good benefits and opportunities for advancement for those who are unemployed or under-employed? 

  2. What does Catholic teaching say about basic rights to those things needed to support one’s self and one’s family? Is there an education, health care, affordable housing or other reform proposal in your community that with public support would have good potential for success with individuals and families in low-income communities?  What can you do to promote that proposal?

  3. Why does Catholic teaching on economic life focus in a particular way on those who are poor? What program does your parish engage in that helps poor and low-income people help themselves?  Are there steps that could be taken to move from direct service toward empowerment through social action?

  4. Do you pay attention to news reports and public service messages about workers’ concerns for justice?  What kinds of spending choices will you make with economic justice in mind?

  5. How will you stay informed about economic justice issues at home and abroad that concern you?