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By John Gehring
Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good
As financial reform legislation stalls in the Senate for the moment and embattled Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein testifies today before a congressional subcommittee, faith-based organizations and religious leaders are mobilizing for stronger regulation of Wall Street.
Faith, labor and community groups will march through San Francisco’s financial district today to attend Wells Fargo’s annual shareholder meeting. A delegation will address the bank’s top executives and demand changes to corporate practices that have bankrupted families while enriching a privileged few. Tomorrow, faith and labor leaders will gather at Bank of America’s shareholder meeting in Charlotte, N.C. and urge the bank’s leadership to do a better job helping distressed homeowners refinance troubled mortgages.
The Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility, a coalition of faith-based investors, recently challenged Citigroup to provide greater transparency about its derivatives trading. The Maryknoll Center on Global Concerns produced a You Tube video and web site – Stop Gambling on Hunger – that shines a spotlight on how Wall Street speculation and greed drove up food prices around the world. Catholic social justice leaders issued statements yesterday highlighting financial reform as an urgent moral issue, and called for prudent financial regulation that protects families from corporate abuse. PICO National Network, made up of faith-based community organizations in 150 cities and 17 states, has launched an Our Money, Our Values campaign with the online advocacy group Faithful America.
The faith community is not a newcomer to this fight. Catholic social teaching, in particular, has long addressed the need for sound economic principles that serve the common good. Amid the global economic collapse of 1931, Pope Pius XI affirmed a positive role for government that tempers the vagaries of the market and stressed the social obligation to pay workers a living wage. Last summer, Pope Benedict XVI issued a timely encyclical that called for a dramatic rethinking of global financial systems and urged “greater social responsibility” on the part of corporate leaders. As Time magazine noted last week, Catholic sisters have invested in Fortune 500 companies to influence shareholder resolutions that spur CEOs to conduct business more ethically. While Ronald Reagan made government the enemy back in the 1980s, U.S. Catholic bishops released Economic Justice for All, a provocative pastoral letter that challenged the Gospel of Free-Market Fundamentalism and ignited heated debate about the moral dimensions of capitalism.
More than 2,500 lobbyists are registered to represent the finance, insurance and real-estate sector dominated by banking interests. As the Washington Post reported on Sunday, many top Wall Street firms have ramped up campaign contributions to lawmakers who oppose financial reform with real teeth. The Business Roundtable has nearly doubled the pace of its lobbying this year compared with 2009, spending at the rate of $25,000 a day during the first quarter. Faith-based organizations and community groups don’t have gilded expense accounts for lobbyists. But they do have the power of the pulpit and a unique ability to inspire social justice movements that challenge conventional wisdom. In this case, an angry and disillusioned public is already on board. About two-thirds of Americans support imposing stricter regulations on the way banks and other financial institutions function, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll.
Last year, the chief executive of Goldman Sachs justified outrageous bonuses paid to his employees by noting to a reporter that banks are “doing God’s work.” I will leave it to that big CEO in the sky to judge whether deliberately profiting from the mortgage meltdown falls under that auspicious category. What I do know is the titans of Wall Street will be hearing from people of faith inspired by the Hebrew prophets, the radical justice of Jesus Christ and a God who sides with the poor and abandoned over kings sitting high on their thrones.
John Gehring is Director of Communications for Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good.