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Remarks: Catholic Social Ministry Gathering

Location: Unknown


Thank you very much for inviting me to join you. The message that you have brought to Congress -- "'The Least of These' Cannot Be Left Behind" -- very simply states the moral obligation we have to our fellow man. Whatever our role in life, we can find ways to help those in need. We have an obligation to protect the most vulnerable members of our society -- the poor, the sick, the elderly, the unborn. And, we have an obligation to respect and to protect the sanctity of all human life.

This is something that transcends politics. It transcends partisanship. It transcends borders. It's about protecting humanity and giving a sense of hope and dignity to all.

Each of us is a product of our past. My wife of over 38 years, Fran, and I grew up together in Yellow Springs, Ohio. Our parish priests and the nuns who taught us Catechism certainly helped shape our moral conscience. Our village had a culture of social activism and involvement that was -- and still is -- unique.

We learned that each one of us has the chance to make a difference in this world -- an obligation to help our fellow man. And, I've learned throughout my career in public service that your faith matters -- that you cannot separate it from your work in the public arena. But, to truly make a difference, you have to act on that faith and on your moral obligations.

The biggest regrets in my life have been the times I did not act -- the times I was timid or just thought that someone else would step up and do something about an injustice or a social wrong. My friend and colleague, Congressman Henry Hyde, has expressed it very well. He spoke about the end of one's life and the final judgment. This is what he said:

"The sins of omission will be what weigh you down; not the things you have done wrong, the chances you've taken, but the things you have failed to do. The times you stepped back, the times you did not speak out."

Then he quotes St. Ambrose:

"Not only for every idle word, but for every idle silence must we all render an account...."

I think that when we look at the crisis of AIDS, or the crisis of poverty or young children literally starving to death in the world, or the crisis of children not getting adequate medical care or children who are stuck in abusive homes, it's our failure to act that really is the gravest sin.

As a United States Senator who tries to follow his faith, I have a unique opportunity -- and I have an obligation -- to stand up and speak out and find solutions to the problems we face -- whether it's getting food to the world's most hungry; or getting desperately needed, life-saving AIDS drugs to dying children in Africa and Haiti; or giving a voice to the unborn; or safeguarding children and families through better health care and safer roads. Over a decade ago, Fran and I took a Senate Intelligence Committee trip to Haiti. That trip -- our first of 15 visits to this desperate nation -- changed our lives forever. We saw unspeakable poverty, misery, and disease. We left Haiti knowing we had to do something. And so, we started looking for someone who was doing good work there -- someone whom we could help. After a few visits, we came across a man by the name of Father Tom Hagan, who has an organization called Hands Together.

Father Tom is a very humble man, a very ordinary man, but he's done some extraordinary things. Before moving to Haiti, he had a very comfortable life as the Chaplain at Princeton University. It was a good life -- a pleasant life in a pleasant environment. At some point, Father Tom traveled to Haiti, and it changed him. He saw terrible things there -- overwhelming things -- abject poverty, filth, squalor, disease -- a world very different from the idyllic campus at Princeton.

The amazing thing about Father Tom is that after he saw this unimaginable world of despair in Haiti, he didn't run and hide. He didn't choose the easy road. He said, "I have to help these suffering people -- I have to do something." So, he moved to Haiti and starting from scratch, he set up shop in the worst slum in Port-au-Prince. He built a school and a clinic and started a feeding program that provides thousands with a daily nutritious meal.

On one of our trips to Haiti, Father Tom told us a story about some mothers he came across one day. He said they were mixing mud with spices and putting these mud pies out into the sun and letting them bake. Then, they were feeding them to their children -- mud and spices. He went up to see what they were doing and realized that they were doing this because they had no other food to feed their children.

We came back to Haiti about six months later, and Father Tom said to Fran, "I want to show you something, Fran. See that place over there? That's where I found the moms making those mud pies. Now, there's a school." Father Tom had started another little school. And now, at that very same place, Father Tom gives these kids who were once eating mud -- he gives them one nutritious meal each day and he educates them.

Today, with all of the different programs he has in place, Father Tom feeds and educates at least 4,500 children. Yes, those kids still go home to absolute squalor and shanty-like homes made of concrete and cardboard. And yes, Father Tom knows that he can't solve the overwhelming poverty in Haiti. But, that doesn't stop him from trying -- and succeeding -- in improving the individual lives of so many.

Now, while Father Tom's story is indeed extraordinary, in order to make an impact -- in order to make a real difference -- we don't all have to move to Haiti! It is far simpler than that. Fran -- a very insightful woman (you have to be when you are the mother of eight children!) -- explained it once very well.

We were traveling back from one of our trips to Haiti. A member of my staff who came with us on the trip left Haiti feeling very troubled by what she had seen and feeling absolutely helpless because the problems in Haiti are so overwhelming and seemingly impossible to overcome. But, Fran took her aside and explained that it isn't about your ability or inability to solve everything or fix all of the problems of a desperate world. Rather, it is about doing what you can in your own way -- however big or small -- to help ease the suffering.

The fact is that we all have to help in our own ways because there is a whole lot of suffering in our world today:

-- 650 million children live in extreme poverty.

-- Over 10 million children under the age of 5 die each year from preventable and treatable diseases and ailments, including diarrhea, pneumonia, measles, and malnutrition.

-- Of the 130 million babies born every year, about 4 million die in the first 4 weeks of life -- that translates into 450 newborn children dying every hour!

-- Malnutrition contributes to 54% of all childhood deaths. Every four seconds, a child dies from starvation and related causes.

-- 2,000 children younger than 15 are inflicted with AIDS each day, and every ten seconds, someone in the world dies because of AIDS. In fact, by the time I will conclude my remarks, AIDS will have claimed at least 120 lives.

These are lives we can save -- lives we all have a moral obligation to save. Fran and I have held babies in our arms who are dying right in front of us from AIDS and other preventable diseases. We've played with orphaned children, who lost their parents to AIDS. And, we've talked to parents who've watched all of their children -- one by one -- succumb to this deadly scourge.

But, in witnessing all of this despair, we've also seen that there is hope. On one of our visits to Haiti a couple of years ago, we met a little 5 year-old boy named Francois. He was lying on a concrete floor of the Sisters of Charity orphanage. He had tubes stuck in what was left of his tiny veins. He weighed no more than 15 pounds. The very kind nuns and priests were doing all they could to comfort him, but he was within a day or two of dying of AIDS. You see, little Francois did not have the life-saving anti-retroviral drugs available to him that he needed so desperately to survive.

Fran and I returned to that same orphanage a year later. We met another little boy. His name was David. Like Francois, David has AIDS. And, though six months prior to our visit, David, too, lay dying on that same concrete floor, a miracle had happened. Anti-retroviral drugs were made available to David at that orphanage. And, they brought him back to life. David is a happy, healthy little boy, who laughed and played and followed us all around that orphanage.

David is our hope. And, we can save millions more children like David if we just get those drugs and those treatments to the people who need them most. You can't go to these AIDS-devastated countries and places where children are starving and dying because of a lack of clean water without coming back needing to do something. We owe it to Francois and the thousands and thousands and thousands of children just like him who never got the chance to live.

There are other children who have never gotten the chance to live. And what I am talking about are those children whose lives have been taken through abortions. I am very proud of my 100% pro-life voting record and the laws we've written to protect the unborn, like the Laci and Connor Peterson law. The President signed my bill into law almost two years ago now. This law is about justice -- it is about recognizing that when a pregnant mother is violently attacked, there are, in fact, two victims: the mother and her unborn child. Before it went into effect, there was no federal law that punished criminals for the assault or murder of an unborn child. Even though over half the states had such laws for criminals that committed such heinous acts, the federal government lagged way behind in protecting the innocent.

We took a stand and did something about it. We said that it was just plain wrong -- that it was morally reprehensible. People who violently attack unborn babies should be punished, and that when acts of violence against unborn victims fall within federal jurisdiction, we must have a penalty -- we must have justice.

Also, I fought for years in the Senate to ban the gruesome practice of partial-birth abortions. It was indeed an historic day when we saw the President sign that ban into law once and for all!

Other areas that we've worked on to protect life involve children's issues -- something I care passionately about. For example, we changed our Nation's adoption laws so that the safety of the child is always paramount. Because of those efforts, thousands of foster children are being adopted into safe, loving, stable homes and are being kept out of violent, turbulent settings.

We've also changed the law to encourage the use of newer, safer, more effective drugs for our children when they are sick. A few years ago, nearly 80% of the drugs on the market were never tested for use by children -- 80%! I was astonished and said that we have to do better than this. Together with Senator Chris Dodd, he and I wrote three different laws that have helped ensure that more drugs than ever are being tested today specifically for our kids. Because of those laws, over 100 new drugs -- ranging from pain relievers to asthma medication -- have been tested for children. Pediatricians tell me how this is absolutely revolutionizing children's health care.

And, I am also very pleased that we have been successful in making our roads and highways safer. Every year, over 40,000 Americans -- adults and children -- die on our highways. We need to protect our families when they are traveling, and I am proud of my legislative efforts to make school buses safer for kids, to reform our drunk-driving laws, to increase seat belt use, and to put safety information on vehicle sticker-prices, so that consumers can make informed decisions when they buy a car or truck. All of those efforts are saving lives.

Each of us, regardless of our vocations in life, has an obligation to deal with the crises of humanity -- whether it's the AIDS crisis or the crisis of young children starving to death around the world or dying of treatable, preventable diseases or because they simply don't have good, clean water. We have an obligation to bring this home to people so that they understand -- so that they can step up and speak out and do something to help the least among us. I'd like to conclude my remarks with the words of Isaiah (58:7-11):

"I want you to share your food with the hungry and bring into your own homes those who are helpless, poor, and destitute. Clothe those who are cold and don't hide from relatives who need your help.... Feed the hungry! Help those in trouble! Then your light will shine out from the darkness, and the darkness around you shall be as bright as day."

Thank you.

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