Catholic social work is rooted in a religious tradition that venerates justice.

The Political Church: Living Charity: Martina O’Sullivan believes in true compassion. Randy Tunnell

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Martina O’Sullivan, director of Catholic Charities for the Central Coast, says her work is not just about providing help to people in trouble. She begins to explain the agency’s mission: “It’s about taking care,” but then she catches herself. “Not taking care, so much as walking a journey with and forming a partnership with poor people.”

This is not some abstract platitude. O’Sullivan says there are families who have been working with the agency for 12, 14 years. They are getting help with immigration problems or getting counseling of one kind or another. And O’Sullivan is quick to point out that they are giving her something back.

“I learn so much from these people who are in some level of poverty,” she says. “They have taught me so much about love and caring and giving.”

Not all of her clients are Catholic. But O’Sullivan says her organization comes at the work from a point of view deeply rooted in Catholicism.

“It does come from our faith,” she says. “This doesn’t mean other religions don’t have similar ideas, but for me it comes directly out of the teachings of Christ.”

The work is also based on what the Church calls its “social justice teachings.” These ideas, which have evolved since they were introduced by Pope Leo XII on May 15, 1891, are based on the notion that human dignity is a God-given right.

Pope Leo XII, in a papal encyclical called the Rerum Novarum (“New Thing”), criticized the newly emerging industrial order that created “abounding wealth among a very small number and destitution among the masses.” He also criticized the various forms of socialism rising at the time to confront the new industrialists. But he ended by telling the world’s governments that taking care of their poor was job number one.

“Among the numerous and weighty duties of rulers who would serve their people well,” Pope Leo wrote, “this is first and foremost, namely, that they protect equitably each and every class of citizens, maintaining inviolate that justice especially which is called distributive.”

Pope John Paul II, famously anti-Communist, updated the Rerum Novarum in 1991, on the 100th anniversary of its writing. While it predictably attacked what was left of the Soviet empire, it also contained a full-throated diatribe against global corporate capitalism.

While most people are aware of Rome’s increasingly conservative stance on abortion, birth control, gay rights and the changing role of women, fewer realize that when it comes to taking sides with the poor, the Catholic Church can be one of the most progressive institutions in the world.

In many churches, every Sunday, Catholics are called upon to live Christ’s mission of service to the poor and otherwise needy.

“That’s what we’re supposed to be about,” O’Sullivan says.


In his World Religions class at Palma High School in Salinas, Willie Beesley teaches his students about the Catholic Church’s position on social justice. He tells them that helping people in trouble is something they should do for themselves.

“What I teach in my class is that it’s about the relationship Jesus had with the poor,” Beesley says. “He planted himself with the poor. He identified with the poor.

“It’s wonderful that people do altruistic things, but this is something more. It’s about being in relationship with people in need.”

Beesley recognizes that this idea clashes with an image of the Catholic Church that saturated the media over the past several weeks.

“When you look at the lavishness of St. Peter’s, you might think that is the Church. But the Church is alive in the world’s poor.”

For Beesley, this is primarily a spiritual issue. He wants the young men of Palma to see charitable works as a way from them to grow as individuals. He wants his students to avoid a trap he calls “the poverty of the rich.”

“It results in an elitism that cuts you off from humanity,” he says. “You can look at these people, and think, ‘Well at least I’m not like them.’ Once we realize that we’re human beings, and we need to live with one another, it changes everything.

“We live in a society that glamorizes youth and money. But Jesus is hidden in the people we tend to shun—in the incarcerated, in the prostitute, in the addict.”

Why, then, are so many American Catholics turning Republican? How is it that 52 percent of them voted against a fellow Catholic—John Kerry—to support an administration whose policies are widely seen as hurtful to the poor?

Beesley, passionately articulate until confronted with the question, is quiet for a moment.

“I don’t get involved in the politics of the country,” he finally says, and then pauses again. “It’s not that I’ve given up…for me it’s more about hands-on work, and transformation. But I guess we have a very limited view in this country of what it means to be Catholic.”


Martina O’Sullivan, though not a bit strident in her politics, is indeed involved. When we spoke last week, she was in Washington, DC, attending a conference of the national directors of Catholic Charities. The conference included a “legislative day,” during which she joined her colleagues on a trip to Capitol Hill.

They were there to protest a budget proposal that received a preliminary vote last Thursday night, which was set to cut billions of dollars from programs that serve the poor. When those government programs get cut—as they have been mercilessly for the past five years—Catholic Charities sees its caseload multiply.

O’Sullivan notes that she and her colleagues feel compelled to respond to events taking place in the national political realm.

“So much of what is being done by legislatures and by the Bush administration is all about take-aways from the people who are most in need and most vulnerable,” she says.

While the results of these cutbacks in social services create real problems in people’s lives, O’Sullivan sees a deeper problem—one that seems to trouble her more acutely.

“What it is is an intolerance for people who are poor,” she says.

Most of the 25,000 people served by Catholic Charities in the four-county Central Coast region are Spanish-speaking immigrants, the big majority of them women and children. The organization focuses its work on three core programs: emergency family services, mental health counseling and help with immigration and citizenship problems.

There are of course political components to all of these issues. To help address them, O’Sullivan—along with Father Mike Miller of the Sacred Heart Church in Salinas and a lay Catholic activist named Ken Smith, went to talk with Bishop Sylvester Ryan of the Diocese of Monterey. Together they began a three-year process that led to the creation of a inter-denominational group called the Community Organization for Relational Power and Action (COPA).

Key to the group’s efforts is the word “relational.” O’Sullivan says the concept is to invite participants to go into their own personal lives to find ways of connecting with people in need.

“What you do is talk about your own stories, and tie them to the community’s stories, and then to political stories.” She gives as an example a man in Pebble Beach who had lost his job when his company was downsized. He was able to see, she says, that his story was not all that unlike the story of an unemployed migrant worker.

COPA has brought together a community from various churches throughout Monterey and Santa Cruz counties to answer two questions: “What does it mean to be a faithful citizen? And what does it mean to lead a political life?”

On May 10, O’Sullivan will undertake another political effort when she helps launch the Catholic Coalition for Immigration Reform.


As we were ending our chat, I asked O’Sullivan how she feels about devoting herself to the work of a Church that would deny a woman like herself a position of official leadership.

“As an African-American woman, I have a different perspective on that,” she says. “My father went to a church where he was forced to sit in the back. But he still went to church, because he had faith. I have that kind of faith.

“I am going to work toward understanding more and responding more, and helping others to see that Christ is about all of us having the same dignity, and having the same needs, and having those needs responded to.” 

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