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Denver couple reflects on Pope Francis’ call to uplift the poor

Catholic philanthropists John and Carol Saeman say that helping the poor requires a “fundamental change” in how society responds to poverty–a change that, in their understanding of Catholic teaching, means a focus on limited government and free enterprise.

They noted that Catholic social teaching rests on the principles of human dignity, solidarity, and subsidiarity.

“Solidarity stipulates that society should join together in pursuit of the common good; subsidiarity requires that social ills be addressed at the most local level possible,” the Saemans wrote in a Nov. 28 opinion essay in the Washington Post.

“All three principles are actively under assault by the growth of government and the concentration of power in Washington,” they added.

The Saemans, parishioners of St. Vincent de Paul Parish in Denver, who support numerous charities in Colorado and around the world, noted Pope Francis’ statement that one of his duties is “to remind the rich to help the poor, to respect them, to promote them.”

The couple said that welfare policy itself can “undermine human dignity” if programs are “so poorly designed that they harm the poor, encouraging dependency where they should encourage upward mobility.”

“Some government assistance programs can be more lucrative than work,” they said. “This unfairly–but understandably–incentivizes some to stay out of the job market, abusing the social safety net designed to help those who truly need help. In so doing, it traps people in the poverty they’re trying to escape.”

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They contended that the federal government also rejects subsidiarity by addressing “complex social problems with one-size-fits-all solutions.”

An approach focused on subsidiarity “recognizes that private associations and local or state governments are better equipped to address most social issues” because they are closer to local problems.

A tendency to centralize programs also “saps the vitality of the wider economy” and leads to the “corrupt capitalism” that Pope Francis has condemned, the Saemans said. They charged that Latin American entrepreneurs often must ingratiate themselves to regulators and bureaucrats, and also face collusion between bureaucracy and politically favored companies–a phenomenon which conserves income inequality.

“This phenomenon isn’t found only in Third World dictatorships. It’s increasingly evident in Washington, where corruption, special interests and lobbyists are more prevalent and powerful than at any point in our lifetimes,” the Saemans charged. “The poor are an afterthought when there are hands to be shaken, subsidies to be grabbed and favors to be dispensed.”

They noted their own work in supporting Catholic organizations and charities. These include Catholic Charities’ efforts to support the homeless and a program called Seeds of Hope, which gives Catholic school scholarships to low-income students. The couple previously supported CNA, although they are not currently associated with the agency.

They have served on the board of the Papal Foundation, which supports the pope’s missionary work.

John Saeman has also served as a leader of the Daniels Fund, a major Colorado foundation dedicated to community investment in education, youth development, lessening the effects of aging and combating alcohol and substance abuse.

He is a former business executive in the telecommunications industry and has been active in the Catholic businessmen association Legatus.

The Saemans said most of their money and time is devoted to the Church and its charitable activities. However, they said their support for free enterprise and limited government have led them to support the nonprofit network of Charles and David Koch, which reflects “our shared conviction that limited government is most conducive to lifting people out of poverty.”

“For us, promoting limited government alongside the Kochs is an important part of heeding Pope Francis’s call to love and serve the poor,” the Saemans said.

“We support the Kochs’ efforts because they are fighting to replace this broken system with a limited, responsible government,” they added. “They oppose the cronyism and corporate welfare that prop up the rich at the expense of the poor. They encourage personal responsibility, ethical business practices and community engagement.”


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