The Conservative Backlash Against Catholic Bishops
Washington Post columnist Marc Thiessen, a former George W. Bush speechwriter who has defended torture as justifiable in Catholic teaching, is now taking a few swipes at Catholic bishops challenging Rep. Paul Ryan’s GOP budget proposal as deeply immoral.
Thiessen’s argument is such partisan boilerplate that it’s almost hard to respond without laughing out loud. It seems that Thiessen thinks the bishop who leads the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ domestic justice committee is in the bag politically for Barack Obama and should just stop picking on poor Paul Ryan, whose budget bullies the poor by slashing food stamps and other vital protections so the wealthiest few can have more tax cuts. He writes:
Using Obama’s campaign rhetoric, Bishop Stephen Blaire, chairman of the bishops’ Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development, recently wrote to Congress declaring that Ryan’s budget “fails to meet [the Church’s] moral criteria” because it does not require “shared sacrifice,” which Blaire [like Obama] defines as tax increases and cuts to “unnecessary” defense spending. Some of the proposed spending cuts in Ryan’s budget, Blaire said, are “unjust and wrong.” Blaire has it backward. What is “unjust and wrong” is this bishop’s attack on a good Catholic layman. Put aside for a moment the fact that “shared sacrifice” appears nowhere in the catechism of the Catholic Church. It is a reelection slogan for the Democratic Party.
By directly challenging Bishop Blaire, Thiessen adopts Ryan’s latest desperate strategy of seeking to divide Catholic bishops and fuels the perception that only a few lone voices in the hierarchy have problems with the GOP budget. This is absurd. Bishop Blaire was elected by his brother bishops (over 200 of them) at a national meeting. As The Hill newspaper confirmed in a call to the U.S. bishops’ conference, he speaks for the bishops on these matters.
Thiessen’s lazy armchair theology is just as bad. He notes that “shared sacrifice” appears nowhere in the Catechism. It’s interesting that Theiessen of all people now fancies himself an expert on the Catechism given the swift blowback he received from both Catholic across the political spectrum several years ago when he argued that torture was just nifty according to Catholic teaching. Is he now arguing that he can interpret Catholic social teaching better than bishops can? “Shared sacrifice” is simply shorthand for centuries of Catholic teaching that puts the common good before ideology and narrow partisan agendas.
Catholic apologists for trickle-down economics and anti-government zealotry are poor students of history. At least since Pope Leo XIII’s 1891 encyclical Rerum Novarum, the Catholic social tradition has advocated for just tax policies, union rights, a positive role for government and a healthy suspicion of free markets – all fundamental principles of Church teaching that give conservatives heartburn but can’t simply be wished away.
In fact, if Thiessen really wants to get into it, the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, published under that leftist papacy of John Paul II, talks about a far more radical concept that would make the most liberal Democrats in Congress blush. Catholic teaching on the “universal destination of goods” reminds us that public policies should contribute to the welfare of all even if that challenges notions of private wealth and ownership. You’re not about to hear this at the next Religious Right pep rally for Republicans:
Christian tradition has never recognized the right to private property as absolute and untouchable. On the contrary it has always understood this right within the broader context of the right common to all to use the goods of the whole of creation: the right to private property is subordinated to the right to common use, to the fact that goods are meant for everyone.
It’s refreshing to watch Catholic conservatives in Congress and the punditocracy trip all over themselves to rationalize Darwinian economic policies that are an affront to Christian moral teaching. After years of getting away with reducing faith in politics to abortion and same-sex marriage, a real values debate is finally upon us.