Catholic News Service
Volunteers serve breakfast to the needy in 2011 at a shelter in Mount Clemens, Mich.
Catholic News Service
Volunteers serve breakfast to the needy in 2011 at a shelter in Mount Clemens, Mich.
Religion and economics have never played well together.

One speaks of higher realms, of God and angels. The other wallows in the nitty-gritty, daily dog-eat-dog business of making life work, and paying for it.

Many people maintain one just isn't connected -- has no relevance, no relationship -- to the other.

They're wrong, of course, because the everyday affairs of people are at the heart of both faith and economics. To separate them is to do an injustice to both.

The conflict between faith and economics shouldn't be surprising. The church has long had limited success in trying to convince detractors who believe that many issues on which the church has offered strong sentiments -- war and peace, life issues, immigration, marriage -- are dismissed by those who think they know better. "Stick to religion," preachers are often told when they comment on such testy issues.

Ah, but religion must indeed be about lower realms as well as higher ones. After all, that's where people live. And when economic policies fail, religion often seems to be there to help pick up the pieces.

These are still perilous economic times. True, there are signs that the economy is recovering. At least that's what the statistics say. People? Maybe not so quickly. Just ask someone volunteering at a parish food pantry.

A staggering number of Americans -- young, old, working, unemployed -- still suffer the effects of the Great Recession. It could even get worse for some: Fixing the economy may bring further hurt as various aid programs and even "entitlements" are trimmed.

Parishes, dioceses and church-connected agencies such as Catholic Charities are in the forefront of assisting those in need. But it's a struggle to keep food pantries stocked and homeless shelters operating.

In the mid-1980s when the U.S. bishops were preparing their landmark pastoral, "Economic Justice for All," I had the opportunity to participate in several "listening sessions" gathering real-life input on economic issues.

At the time, I was writing a Chicago Sun-Times column that dealt with people's problems. Most were economic-related: job loss, utility woes, governmental stumbles, hunger, irresponsible and predatory business practices and more.

Despite the newspaper's obvious secular mission, I found the column to be in many ways a helping ministry. Remember, even Jesus' parables spoke of economic and consumer issues.

When it was published in 1986, the pastoral recognized that connection: "Economic life is one of the chief areas where we live out our faith, love our neighbor, confront temptation, fulfill God's creative design and achieve our holiness. Our economic activity in factory, field, office or shop feeds our families -- or feeds our anxieties. It exercises our talents -- or wastes them. It raises our hopes -- or crushes them."

Nevertheless, some critics denigrated the bishops' concerns, insisting that business should be left to businesspeople, not clerics. Wrong then and wrong now. The pastoral correctly demonstrated the need for Gospel sensibilities in the world of economics.

With the economy still struggling after its current tailspin, the bishops tried again last year to renew their ideas on faith and finances. Despite support, the bishops determined that the effort needed more work to present a strong message.

It's a worthy and necessary goal. We all -- consumers, businesspeople and government officials -- need reminding that God dwells in all human endeavors. The faithful also have an obligation to challenge economic forces, to insist on a business and governmental climate that fosters fairness, justice and ethical behavior.

Predatory practices and unscrupulous behavior must be condemned as Jesus condemned the temple moneychangers.

Jesus said, "The poor you will always have with you." But he didn't say we should ignore them.

That's Gospel -- and economics.

The writer is a former editor of The Catholic New World, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Chicago and a deacon ordained for the Diocese of Joliet, Ill.