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John Gehring
John Gehring, Faith in Public Life’s Catholic Program Director, joined FPL after three years at Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good. He blogs about Catholics in public life.

Will Bishops Fight for a Pro-Life Budget?

April 27, 2011, 11:28 am | By John Gehring

America magazine, an influential Catholic publication edited by Jesuit priests, has an important editorial up online and in the next print edition challenging Catholic bishops to show greater urgency in addressing budget debates in Washington.

Bishops have shown no reluctance to speak authoritatively on issues of abortion and same-sex marriage. Bishops and the whole Catholic community must speak with the same clarity and vigor about the budget and the direction it sets for the nation. The budget is an urgent moral matter that demands a consistent, unified message. Its line items are more than just quotidian allotments of monies; they are moral choices…The upcoming struggle will be a matter of life and death.

The editorial goes on to describe Paul Ryan’s budget proposals as “wrongheaded.” As I noted in my response to Msgr. Charles Pope of the Archdiocese of Washington, it’s not partisan to challenge Catholic lawmakers like Ryan who want to eviscerate New Deal social reforms that Catholic bishops helped lay the moral groundwork for as far back as 1919. Bishops have raised concerns about the direction of the budget debate in a letter to the House of Representatives. This is a good start. But Catholics also need to hear from bishops and pastors in parishes across the country about the moral dimensions of budget battles on Capitol Hill.

Church leaders have not been shy about entering the political fray on other issues. Catholic bishops have publicly criticized pro-choice Catholic lawmakers by name, and some have denied them Communion. The Catholic Church is directly involved in high-profile political fights over same-sex marriage. Archbishop John C. Nienstedt of St. Paul and Minneapolis was featured in a DVD video message last fall, developed by the state’s Catholic bishops, criticizing same- sex marriage and urging Minnesota voters to support a constitutional amendment defining marriage as between a man and a woman. Over 400,000 Catholics in the state received the DVDs, mailed just a few weeks before Minnesotans voted for a new governor. Shortly after the 2008 election, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops sponsored a national postcard campaign to stop the Freedom of Choice Act, legislation that had not even been introduced and had languished in Congress for two decades.

All of this drives media attention and shapes a narrative about faith and politics that influences voters heading into elections. I haven’t seen the same muscular advocacy on economic justice issues from the Catholic hierarchy. But the bishops now have a prime opportunity to speak authentically from Catholic social teaching and challenge resurgent “trickle down” economic theories, anti-government libertarianism and anti-Christian Randian ideas in similar ways that their 1986 pastoral, Economic Justice for All, rebuked Reagan-era adulation of unfettered capitalism.

As the America editorial sharply defines it, this budget debate is about life and death. The House Republican budget proposal fundamentally undermines a culture of life by tossing the poor, elderly and most vulnerable into the free-market tempest and wishing them good luck. Along with privatizing Medicare and Medicaid, Jonathan Cohn of the New Republic also details how Republican leaders hope to slash nutrition assistance programs at a time when a staggering number of Americans need help putting food on the table. It’s time for more pro-life Christian leaders, including Catholic bishops, to directly challenge Republicans who claim the “pro-life”, “pro-family mantle” only to undermine those principles in practice.

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Is Deficit Reduction Part of the Common Good?

April 17, 2011, 4:28 pm | By John Gehring

Over at the Daily Dish, Andrew Sullivan takes note of my post challenging Paul Ryan’s budget proposal as antithetical to Catholic teaching about the common good. Sullivan asks an important question that progressives should take seriously: “Isn’t deficit reduction part of the common good?” The Catholic intellectual tradition can help inform a response to this.

Catholic social teaching is suspicious of “either/or” formulations and instead embraces a “both/and” worldview that helps us reject false choices. For example, Catholic values honor the importance of personal responsibility and our collective obligation as a society to care for the most vulnerable. Individual rights must be balanced with responsibilities – to our families, neighbors, country and world. Government’s vital role in serving the common good is complemented by the principle of subsidiarity, which stresses decentralized solutions. Applying this framework to the deficit, we should demonstrate fiscal prudence without sacrificing values of basic fairness and solidarity.

Deficit reduction is part of protecting the common good, to answer Sullivan’s question more directly, but only if it’s done the right way. If we ask the poor, the elderly and an already-squeezed middle class to bear the greatest burdens while the richest among us get more tax breaks, that doesn’t pass the smell test morally. Paul Ryan and other Republicans want to drastically compromise investments in education, infrastructure and transportation that serve the common good. President Obama defined the contrast in stark terms earlier this week.

These are the kind of cuts that tell us we can’t afford the America we believe in. And they paint a vision of our future that’s deeply pessimistic. It’s a vision that says if our roads crumble and our bridges collapse, we can’t afford to fix them. If there are bright young Americans who have the drive and the will but not the money to go to college, we can’t afford to send them. Go to China and you’ll see businesses opening research labs and solar facilities. South Korean children are outpacing our kids in math and science. Brazil is investing billions in new infrastructure and can run half their cars not on high-priced gasoline, but biofuels. And yet, we are presented with a vision that says the United States of America – the greatest nation on Earth – can’t afford any of this … Worst of all, this is a vision that says even though America can’t afford to invest in education or clean energy; even though we can’t afford to care for seniors and poor children, we can somehow afford more than $1 trillion in new tax breaks for the wealthy. Think about it. In the last decade, the average income of the bottom 90% of all working Americans actually declined. The top 1% saw their income rise by an average of more than a quarter of a million dollars each. And that’s who needs to pay less taxes? They want to give people like me a two hundred thousand dollar tax cut that’s paid for by asking thirty three seniors to each pay six thousand dollars more in health costs? That’s not right, and it’s not going to happen as long as I’m President.

I agree with Sullivan that any serious discussion of the common good must grapple with the real fiscal challenges facing our nation. This task will require the best minds of both parties. But these discussions can’t take place in a moral vacuum. Budget choices have real life consequences, and Republican proposals essentially glorify the radical individualism of Social Darwinism at the expense of a communitarian ethos that recognizes we are all in this together.

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Will Catholic Bishops Stand up to Paul Ryan?, Ctd.

April 14, 2011, 5:10 pm | By John Gehring

Monsignor Charles Pope of the Archdiocese of Washington has a retort to my last post urging Catholic bishops to speak out against Rep. Paul Ryan’s budget proposal that would effectively dismantle Medicare and Medicaid. While I appreciate him taking time to engage this issue, Pope dodges some key issues and dismisses my argument as “polemical” without addressing its substance.

Pope spends considerable time going into detail about the fiscal failures of Democrats in city government, specifically the District of Columbia, and references the Washington Convention Center, Wolf Trap and other examples that meander away from the matter at hand. None of this has anything to do with my question of whether Catholic bishops should weigh in when a prominent Catholic lawmaker proposes a budget that would hurt the most vulnerable and undermine Catholic teaching about the role of government and the common good. Instead, Pope writes that my “main purpose seems more to be anti-Republican than to be proactive in suggestion specific practical solutions or particular budget cuts that are more acceptable.”

Is it “anti-Republican” to evaluate the morality of our budget choices? A Catholic lawmaker is now proposing to eviscerate New Deal social reforms that Msgr. John Ryan and Catholic bishops helped make a reality. It seems reasonable to ask if Catholic bishops might have something to say about this. Instead, Pope accuses me of “baiting the bishops.” In fact, as I was writing this response, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops sent a letter to the House of Representatives that signals their concern over Republican budget proposals.

“A just framework for future budgets cannot rely on disproportionate cuts in essential services to poor persons,” the bishops wrote. “It requires shared sacrifice by all, including raising adequate revenues, eliminating unnecessary military and other spending, and addressing the long-term costs of health insurance and retirement programs fairly.”

Robert Greenstein, President of the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, knows a lot more about budgets than Pope or I do. His statement about the Ryan proposal shows why we should not accept a false choice between fiscal prudence and a commitment to the common good:

Chairman Ryan’s sweeping budget plan has been labeled “courageous,” but it’s a cowardly budget in a crucial respect. It proposes a dramatic reverse-Robin-Hood approach that gets the lion’s share of its budget cuts from programs for low-income Americans — the politically and economically weakest group in America and the politically safest group for Ryan to target– even as it bestows extremely large tax cuts on the wealthiest Americans. Taken together, its proposals would produce the largest redistribution of income from the bottom to the top in modern U.S. history, while increasing poverty and inequality more than any measure in recent times and possibly in the nation’s history… In 1990, 1993, and 1997, policymakers enacted major deficit reduction packages that reduced deficits without increasing poverty. Deficit reduction does not require the Gilded-Age, socially backward policies that the Ryan plan embodies. Those are choices that Chairman Ryan is making.

Catholics of good will can surely disagree over specific solutions to our nation’s fiscal challenges. But the debate over Rep. Ryan’s budget proposal is about fundamental questions. Will we continue to provide critical support to our most vulnerable neighbors or ask seniors and poor families to pay more for health care so we can give tax cuts to millionaires? Can we have a leaner, more effective government without abandoning core values and ideals that make our nation great? The Catholic social justice tradition offers a powerful compass to guide us during these challenging times. It’s good to see the bishops once again speaking up for the budget as a moral document.

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Will Catholic Bishops Stand up to Paul Ryan?

April 11, 2011, 4:17 pm | By John Gehring

johnaryan.jpgRep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, the intellectual darling of the Republican Party, has proposed a 2012 budget plan that would end Medicare and Medicaid as we know it. Ryan frames his dismantling of bedrock social safety nets as a “moral imperative” to save us from spiraling debt. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, pushing the plan this weekend, callously argues that “we have a safety net in place in this country for people who frankly don’t need one.”

Simply put, seniors and vulnerable families are being used as pawns in an ideological agenda whose end game is nothing less than wiping away the New Deal. Given that Ryan, a Catholic, has claimed the moral high ground, I’m challenging Catholic bishops to revive the legacy of another Ryan and speak out against this draconian proposal.

In 1919, the U.S. Catholic bishops recruited Monsignor John Ryan, a Catholic priest whose thinking on labor and social inequality were widely read in the decades following World War I, to write their Program for Social Reconstruction – a bold plan for what at the time were visionary social reforms: minimum wages, public housing for workers, labor participation in management decisions, and insurance for the elderly, disabled and unemployed. The bishops’ proposal and Ryan’s rising star in Washington laid the groundwork for New Deal legislation proposed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in the following decades. Time magazine described the “Right Rev. New Dealer” as “U.S. Catholicism’s most potent social reformer.” Where is this Catholic voice today?

Bishops were influential (and controversial) actors during recent legislative battles over health care reform. They clearly have the stomach for tough political fights. Will they now take on Paul Ryan and a Republican Party pursuing a radical agenda that is antithetical to a Catholic vision of the common good?

Photo credit to the John A. Ryan Institute at the University of St. Thomas

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War on the Working Poor

April 4, 2011, 2:31 pm | By John Gehring

Conservatives are often quick to accuse progressives of engaging in “class warfare” for supposedly promoting policies that “redistribute wealth.” The charge, of course, is rich with hypocrisy. Economic inequality has reached the worst level since the Great Depression. The 400 richest Americans now have more wealth than half of all Americans combined. The number of people relying on food stamps is at a record high. If there’s class warfare, it’s the working poor and the middle class who are the casualties of an increasingly radical conservative economic agenda.

In Nevada, the Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce is pushing to repeal the state’s minimum wage. Representative Darrell Issa, a California Republican, has proposed a bill that would effectively cut the minimum wage in states where it was higher than the federal threshold by allowing employers to count health benefits toward wages. A flurry of state legislatures are weighing cuts to the Earned Income Tax Credit, which primarily benefits the working poor. Some Republicans in Congress even want to deny food stamps to families of striking workers. Meanwhile, the New York Times had this sobering headline on Friday: “Many Low-Wage Jobs Seen as Failing to Meet Basic Needs.”

Steve Benen over at the Washington Monthly nails it today:

The agenda appears to have been pulled from a Dickens novel. Congressional Republicans, filled with self-righteous certainty about public attitudes, envisions an ambitious agenda, including the privatization of Medicare, gutting Medicaid, taking away health coverage for millions of struggling Americans, and lavishing tax breaks on millionaires and billionaires.

The GOP’s immodest goals, in other words, are to turn back the clock — not to the Bush or Reagan eras, but to a time before the Great Society and the New Deal. Republicans are working under the assumption that working families and the middle class have had it too good for too long.

When hardworking Americans who play by the rules can’t provide basic security for their families, that’s a moral issue. Religious leaders and faith communities must continue speaking out against cruel and misguided plans to gut workers’ rights and budget cuts that hurt working families and the most vulnerable. A HuffPo commentary today from Alexander Mikulich of the Jesuit Social Research Institute at Loyola University in New Orleans shows why political leaders will be hearing from people of faith:

Tough times call for shared sacrifice and prudent use of resources. But the working poor and public servants who teach our children and keep our communities safe did not create the budget crisis, and hurting them with drastic cuts won’t solve our fiscal problems. Wall Street recklessness, irresponsible tax cuts for the rich and a culture that celebrates excessive materialism all contribute to a crisis that will require more than political grandstanding to solve. In response to this urgent challenge, religious and civil rights leaders are once again standing up for workers, just as Martin Luther King did. Interfaith Worker Justice and the NAACP will host rallies, vigils and teach-ins this week in Ohio, Alabama, New Jersey, Florida, Washington, D.C. and other cities to mark the anniversary of King’s assassination and renew his tireless call for economic justice. It’s no surprise that religious leaders are again at the forefront of the struggle for economic fairness. For centuries, diverse faith traditions have emphasized the vital role of unions and the dignity of work.

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