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.
As Michael Sean Winters points out over at Distinctly Catholic, one of the most important things about the pointed letter Catholic University faculty and theologians across the country sent John Boehner is how it challenges the Catholic Speaker of the House on what’s often described as the “life issues.” The full spectrum of Catholic social teaching about the sanctity of life does not end with abortion. As the letter details, the House budget that Boehner helped pass is anything but pro-life when evaluated by its impact on pregnant women, the elderly and those who live in poverty. Laurie Goodstein of the New York Times takes particular note of how the Catholic scholars broaden the pro-life frame in her story today.
The letter writers go on to criticize Mr. Boehner’s support for a budget that cut support for Medicare, Medicaid and the Women, Infants and Children nutrition program, while granting tax cuts to the wealthy and corporations. They call such policies “anti-life,” a particularly biting reference because the phrase is usually applied to politicians and others who support the right to abortion.
Conservative Catholic activists, bloggers and intellectuals have frequently defined the terms of debate over Catholic values in public life. The Catholic right aggressively mobilizes to pressure Catholic politicians, universities, and even bishops (see the vitriol Cardinal O’Malley faced in Boston during the funeral of Sen. Edward Kennedy) it views as “unorthodox.” This earns headlines and scores political points, but in the process it creates a distorted narrative about Catholic issues in the press. This is why it’s heartening to see scholars and theologians at the finest Catholic universities in the country pushing back in a respectful, high-profile manner that articulates authentic values at the heart of our Catholic tradition and offers a more nuanced picture of Catholicism in the media. Bill Donohue take note!
Speaker Boehner’s reaction to the letter is disappointing. His spokesman responded to reporters by saying Rep. Boehner will “be delivering a personal, non-political message.” When President Obama, who isn’t Catholic, gave the commencement address at the University of Notre Dame he faced considerable pressure from Catholic bishops, but he had enough respect for the Catholic intellectual tradition to discuss how his views both diverged from and reflected Catholic teaching on a range of issues. Mr. Boehner, a practicing Catholic and a graduate of a Jesuit university, should be held to the same standard. This provocative and timely letter should offer the Speaker good food for thought. Mr. Boehner still has a few days to keep working on his speech.
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I’ve got a special invitation for Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin and other union-busting governors who are Christian: join me at The Catholic University of America in Washington next Monday for a two-day conference that will highlight the Catholic Church’s long history of supporting unions since, well, 1891. Pope Leo XIII released the landmark papal encyclical Rerum Novarum that year, and in unambiguous language stood up for the dignity of workers and the vital role of unions at a time when powerful industrialists were getting very rich at the expense of the working masses. (Wall Street titans of today might understand something about this.)
The conference, sponsored by the university’s Institute for Policy Research & Catholic Studies, will feature major addresses by Cardinal Peter Turkson, President of the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, and John Sweeney, former President of the AFL-CIO. Other panels will include E.J. Dionne of the Washington Post, John Carr, the Executive Director of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Justice, Peace and Human Development office, and Bishop Stephen Blaire of the Diocese of Stockton.
Gov. Walker and others can register here.
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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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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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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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