What bothered me about the open letter to Boehner was its tone (smarmy), its assumptions about the one-to-one correspondence between the principles of Catholic social doctrine and the policy preferences of the Democratic Party, and its suggestion that anyone who challenges that linkage is in “dissent” from settled Catholic teaching. The 2012 election seems likely to be defined by a major national debate on the welfare state, government spending, and social responsibility. If libertarian minimalism of the sort espoused by Ron Paul sits poorly with the rich and complex tradition of Catholic social doctrine, so does reactionary liberalism of the sort espoused by the anti-Boehner pedagogues.
It’s convenient for Weigel to dismiss this authentic Catholic critique of Boehner as “reactionary liberalism.” Casting these theologians, scholars, clergy and women religious as knee-jerk proponents of big government is factually wrong, but it does shift attention away from draconian Republican budget proposals that are deeply hostile to Catholic teaching about government’s vital role in protecting the most vulnerable. Weigel’s harrumphing about the D word (dissent) is also laughable coming from someone who publicly championed the invasion of Iraq strongly opposed by Pope John Paul II and U.S bishops, and even had the chutzpah to argue that Pope Benedict XVI didn’t really want key sections about economic justice included in his latest encyclical. The tone of the scholars’ letter to Boehner was civil – “we write in the hope that this visit will reawaken your familiarity with the teachings of your Church….” – unlike the rhetorical bombshells the Catholic right hurled at Notre Dame President Rev. John Jenkins and President Obama in 2009. No one who signed this letter called for Catholic University to disinvite Boehner, threatened to boycott the ceremony or flew a plane with disturbing images over the university.
Weigel supports fellow Catholics Paul Ryan and John Boehner’s budget-cutting as reflecting the Catholic principle of subsidiarity, which recognizes that lower sectors of society (family, church, community organizations) serve as mediating institutions between the state and individual. But subsidiarity, as Vox Nova’s Morning’s Minion pointed out recently, is not a free pass for Republicans to gut government programs that save lives and can’t be understood apart from the Catholic principle of solidarity. If Weigel prefers that state governments knit together our nation’s fraying social programs for the most vulnerable, he should offer a solution to the structural problem of states now cutting assistance programs when they’re most needed. As the Wall Street Journal reported this week:
At least half the states have begun to rein in safety-net programs that swelled during the downturn, even as high unemployment and slow job growth persist. States offer a range of assistance programs such as tax credits for the working poor, unemployment benefits for the jobless and cash for low-income mothers and children. Governors from both parties have begun to make or propose cuts to these programs as they face another year of yawning budget gaps. The reductions come as the demand for social services remains high but the ability and willingness to pay for them reach their limits… Some 22 states curtailed their public-aid programs in 2010, according to a survey last year by the National Governors Association and the National Association of State Budget Officers. The survey this year showed that 11 states made further reductions midway through the 2011 budget year and 17 proposed cuts for the 2012 fiscal year.
These are the type of specific policy concerns the signers of the letter and Catholic bishops want political leaders to address, rather than straw-man arguments about big government that consume Weigel. With the health and welfare of so many vulnerable people at stake, Weigel’s partisan games are a frivolous distraction.
In an interview with the National Catholic Register, Congressman Chris Smith weighs in on a recent letter from over 70 Catholic scholars and theologians challenging House Speaker John Boehner’s dismal policy record when it comes to protecting the poor. Smith’s response is pretty remarkable. On Boehner:
Here’s the man who believes passionately in Catholic teaching and cares about the poor — he really does. So does Eric Cantor, our majority leader. But you have to have the funds to do it. It’s just like Bush. He never got credit for his PEPFAR [President's Emergency Plan For AIDS Relief], malaria and tuberculosis programs. Obama comes in, and he pushes the Bush initiatives into the Global Health Initiative, and people are acting like it’s brand new. Yet these are all Bush initiatives. Ask the same people at Catholic University about the humanitarian work that was transformational that George Bush did. He is loved in Uganda, Tanzania and all these other places because of the work he’s done. So I wish there was a balance there. And what specifically are they talking about? Housing hasn’t been cut. We have to slow the growth and make hard choices.
Smith’s last question proves that he needs to read the letter again, and take a closer look at the House budget he voted for. The letter specifically challenged Boehner’s vote for a GOP budget that cuts Medicare, Medicaid and “programs that serve families working to escape poverty, especially food and nutrition, child development and education, and affordable housing.” And the budget plan explicitly does call for cuts to housing assistance for low-income American (see page 41).
More shocking is Smith’s decision to bring up PEPFAR as a shield against criticism, as the budget resolution Boehner and Smith voted for earlier this year cut $23.2 million dollars from PEPFAR.
It’s one thing for Smith to deflect attention from the fact that he and the Speaker prioritize tax cuts for millionaires over vital programs that help the most vulnerable. But touting their support for life-saving aid programs as they vote to undermine them is stunning hypocrisy.
The Religious Right gathered this weekend in DC for the Faith and Freedom Coalition’s conference, led by former Christian Coalition Executive Director Ralph Reed. While this latest incarnation has a different name, their focus is still on pushing an extreme social agenda and using faith as a political weapon to sow division. As the economy dominates the political debate, Reed’s group seeks to mobilize Christians around irresponsible economic policies. In response, mainsream faith leaders spoke out to present an alternative vision and rebuke the Religious Right’s adherence to cruel free-market ideology and culture of selfishness over the common good.
Rev. Jennifer Butler, Faith in Public Life’s executive Director, started off the event by noting the radical ideology being pushed by the conference speakers:
The Religious Right’s agenda of punishing hard-hit families with drastic, irresponsible budget cuts while giving trillions in tax cuts to millionaires and billionaires is immoral, and people recognize that. The radical economic agenda religious right political operatives are pushing has a lot more in common with the teachings of Ayn Rand than the teachings of Jesus Christ.”
Jim Wallis, president and CEO of Sojourners, reminded everyone that Christian faith transcends political ideology, but politicians of both parties must remember the biblical imperative to care for the poor and vulnerable, saying:
“The real faith and values voters in this next election will be heeding God’s call to protect the poor and vulnerable, children and the elderly, and not just serve the interests of campaign donors and corporations. They will uphold the principle that a budget is a moral document. While some people who gather here this weekend still seem confused, the faith community has now recognized that God is not a Republican or a Democrat.”
Rev. Derrick Harkins, pastor of Nineteenth St Baptist Church in, called for politicians to put away the partisan rhetoric and seek common ground:
“In this political season, when people of faith speak, divisive rhetoric and partisan ideology should never take the place of genuine compassion and caring for all people. Instead of statements that simply echo right-wing talking points that show concern for the wealthy and powerful, I would hope that Ralph Reed and those gathered with him would engage in the real and important work of seeking solutions that work for all Americans.”
Finally, Father Clete Kiley, director for immigration policy at UNITE-HERE, spoke about the relationship between budget priorities and the teachings of the Catholic Church :
“Leaders in the House have given us a budget inspired by Ayn Rand, and now presidential primary contenders are lining up in support. For us Catholics, the ethics of Ayn Rand and the teachings of our faith are completely incompatible. We urge our political leaders to drop Ayn Rand’s books and pick up their sacred texts. We need leaders with a moral compass that promotes the common good and creates a better society – a better nation – for everyone.”
Rep. Paul Ryan spoke this morning at the Faith and Freedom Coalition Conference; afterwards James Salt of Catholics United caught up with the Congressman to offer him a Bible on behalf of Faithful America, which is running a campaign encouraging Ryan to put down Ayn Rand and pick up the Bible. James also asked Ryan a pointed question about Ryan’s radical federal budget plan, which reflects Ayn Rand’s love of greed and contempt for the weak by giving huge tax breaks to millionaires while making deep and harmful cuts to programs that protect seniors, struggling families and the middle class:
“Why did you choose to model your budget off the extreme ideology of Ayn Rand rather than values of basic economic justice in the Bible?”
In his great story on Rep. Paul Ryan and Ayn Rand, Daniel Burke at Religion News Service manages to elicit a semi-answer from Ryan’s staff to the question of how Ryan reconciles his faith with his support for Rand:
Ryan’s spokesman, Kevin Seifert, said the congressman “does not find his Catholic faith to be incompatible with his feelings for Ayn Rand’s literary works. … Rand is one of many figures and authors that Congressman Ryan has cited as influencing his thinking during his formative years.”
But the question wasn’t about Ryan’s admiration for Rand’s prose or narrative structure, but rather his explicitly stated support for her extremist political ideology.
The more Ryan dodges the fundamental question of how he reconciles Rand’s ideology of selfishness with the Bible’s call to work for the common good, the more clear it becomes that he doesn’t have a good answer.