Jackie Sartoris

Jackie Sartoris

“How come the old ladies have doilies on their heads?” I shrugged, “How would I know?” my bewilderment equal to that of my non-Catholic schoolfriend. Catholic kids of my generation experienced a lot of change after Vatican II, as the church realigned itself in response to modernity. By the time I realized that the lace “doilies” were really “chapel veils” or “mantillas,” they’d all but disappeared, along with most clerical habits and corporal punishment.

The modern era worked its way into our songs, too, but the core teaching of the church remained: “Whatsoever you do, to the least of my people, that you do unto me.” Matthew’s gospel message is that Christians must see the face of God in the downtrodden, and act accordingly.

I witnessed those words in action through my aunt, a former nun and hospital director, diligently improving the experience for patients and the terminally ill. After college, volunteering in a program that fed and sheltered homeless men overnight in available church basements, I was startled to realize my family’s close friend, Father Murphy, founded it. I understood for the first time how his ministry was not simply about saying Mass and hearing the dwindling number of confessions of his parishioners. Serving the “least of these” in Matthew’s account meant the sick, the poor, the mentally ill. No one asked these exhausted, homeless guys, often ex-cons and veterans, what religion, if any, they practiced. All were served. They were the least of these.

So it’s genuinely puzzling to watch leaders who claim Catholic faith and Christian roots, such as Gov. Paul LePage and House Speaker Paul Ryan, justify policies whose effects are to leave more people in hunger, diminish access to health care, and increase poverty rates.

Gov. LePage’s administration keeps millions in federal funding from improving the lot of our state’s poorest. $2 billion turned away since 2011, including the Obamacare money our state refused, but also resources to feed children and help provide childcare to enable poor parents to work. There are only 10 states with hungrier children than Maine. Childhood poverty in Maine rose under LePage. We are the only state in the nation with increasing infant mortality rates.

Gov. LePage’s budget includes some generosity, in the form of large tax cuts for those with the highest household income.

Speaker Paul Ryan, a Catholic, whose healthcare overhaul went public less than 24 hours before he forced through a vote, provided no information about its costs in dollars or lives. He does not deny that millions would lose access to affordable healthcare insurance. He prefers to think of it, however, differently: “people, through their own free choice, if they’re not mandated to buy something that’s unaffordable, they’re not going to do it.” It’s not the choice of changing laws to make insurance unaffordable for millions of Americans that counts. It’s the “choice” of people not paying for something they simply can’t afford.

Ryan himself chooses a $600 billion tax cut, benefiting the wealthiest Americans.

Who are the least of these if not poor children, or the sick, whose healthcare insurance and thus access to medical treatment would be jeopardized? To whom are we responsible… for anything? One conservative Christian lawmaker in Arizona recently opined that compulsory education should be next on the chopping block, as children are showing up to school hungry, and are a “distraction to the kids who want to be there.”

How does their religious faith informs the policies of these folks? If they held a firm line between the practice of their own faith and their advocacy for government policy, as did Mario Cuomo or, more recently, Tim Kaine, for example, that question might seem inappropriate. Candidate John F. Kennedy once assured American voters that he would not take orders from the Vatican. But conservative politicians now point to their faith as the basis for political stances, like opposition to women’s reproductive freedoms and equality for gay Americans. Why not in their choices concerning the poor or the sick?

It seems some sophisticated conservative thinkers claim “the least of these” only includes those who are already loyal Christians. By this argument, a devout Christian doesn’t need to help “all,” merely other worthy Christians. It helps explain why one state lawmaker in Alabama could claim those with higher health costs should pay more, even at the cost of their insurance, while those “who lead good lives… who’ve done things the right way” deserve relief from higher health insurance rates.

If we can judge those in need as responsible for their need, while these who need little are proof that they are worthy of good fortune and more, then even shared investments go too far. Health care. Hunger. Schooling. Those investment will benefit the unworthy, too.

So who are the least of these? How should I know?

Jackie Sartoris is a former Brunswick Town Councilor.


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