As Catholic Charities NY’s executive director, I go to a fair number of benefit dinner events. Last night I was at the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Center Ripple of Hope Award Dinner. Over the years, this event has celebrated leaders such as Bill and Hillary Clinton, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Bono and Vice President Al Gore for their demonstrated commitment to social change.
While making small talk, a few people asked me why I was there and what my connection was. The answer is easy. Catholic Charities is all about social change; our mission is to build a more just and compassionate society.
The just part has to do with human rights. So does the compassionate part. A few years ago, I was asked to write a chapter in a book (in the era when bound books were still popular) for the hundred-year anniversary of Catholic Charities USA. As part of that I drew the connection between the work of Catholic Charities and the human rights tradition, both civil and Church. As reference points, I wrote about the founding documents of the United States, the French Revolution and the United Nations Charter of Human Rights. I also discussed Pope John XXIII’s plea in his letter, Pacem in Terris (Peace on Earth) that “all governments not to remain deaf to this cry of humanity.”
Catholic Charities has always listened and responded to this cry. Catholic Charities is based on the conviction that everyone is equal in the eyes of God. Everyone, therefore, from orphans to immigrants and from the disabled to the homeless and families in crisis, is entitled to basic human rights.
Our services give the highest priority to promoting policies and ensuring that basic human rights can be exercised, meaning food, shelter, love and support of a family, safety and education. When the downtrodden are deprived of these basic rights we provide them to alleviate their suffering and pain. Facts bear this out. Catholic Charities and our affiliates provided the hungry with nearly six million meals last year alone. We kept 6,500 families from becoming homeless. We answered more than 22,000 phone calls from immigrants seeking help.
There has developed, with some exceptions, a general consensus on what basic human rights are. (Certain contemporary attempts to expand this list can be problematic for various reasons. But I’ll save that consideration for a possible future post. ) The work of Catholic Charities is fundamentally connected with human rights and needs to be even more intentionally so.
So that’s the main reason I went. There were also personal reasons. On the night of my high school graduation the body of Robert F. Kennedy lay in state in St. Patrick’s Cathedral. Earlier that day a few classmates and I had waited in line to pay our respects. The tragedy’s impact was even greater because only a few months before the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King had been assassinated. So when I was invited to attend a human rights event named after Robert F. Kennedy, I decided to go. I’m glad I did.
As with many events with multiple speakers, there were a few comments I questioned. But overall it was very good to have a chance once again to think and speak about the connection between Catholic Charities and the Church as we work to ensure basic human rights for all and affirm the dignity of the human person as made in the image of God.