As the debate about Speaker Boehner’s budget priorities and the values of his Catholic faith heats up, Rep. Paul Ryan, the chief architect of the GOP budget, is also facing pressure from Catholic and evangelical leaders to justify his proposal to end Medicare as we know it and gut Medicaid, leaving pregnant women and children, seniors and struggling families without healthcare. Father Thomas Kelly, a Catholic priest and constituent of Rep. Ryan’s, appears in a new radio ad calling out his budget for abandoning pro-life values, which will air across Ryan’s district this weekend. Fr. Kelly states, “I’m pro-life because God calls us to protect life at all stages. Congressman Paul Ryan says he’s pro-life too, but his federal budget plan abandons pro-life values.”
You can listen to the ad, which is cosponsored by NETWORK and the New Evangelical Partnership for the Common Good, here:
In releasing the ad, Sr. Simone Campbell, executive director of NETWORK, said:
“Representative Ryan’s plan to decimate pro-life programs that help parents provide food and other necessities for their children is an outrage. He says the budget is a moral issue, but it’s immoral to make vulnerable people suffer in order to guarantee tax breaks for wealthy corporations and individuals. Representative Ryan’s budget proposal is the antithesis of the Gospel call for compassion and fairness.”
Richard Cizik, President of the New Evangelical Partnership for the Common Good, added:
“We need a responsible, fair approach to cutting the deficit that reflects consistent pro-life values. Rep. Ryan’s Republican budget, which makes devastating cuts that directly harm the most vulnerable among us, falls far short. Being consistently pro-life requires more than caring for the unborn, it requires following the Biblical call to care for the poor and the downtrodden. People of faith are embracing this full definition of what it means to be pro-life. If our leaders ignore the needs of the poor or favor the rich at their expense, they reject pro-life values. It’s that simple.”
As Father Kelly succinctly puts it, “Saying you’re pro-life isn’t enough. Congressman Ryan, actions speak louder than words.”
Responding to Fr. Sirico’s allegation that there is a tiered distinction between the dogmatic stance of the Church on abortion and marriage and the “prudential and debatable give and take” of Catholic social teaching about the poor, MM recalls the last time these arguments featured prominently and how the roles were reversed. Prudential judgment, he points out:
…holds true for abortion just as much as economic policy. Does the Affordable Care Act lead to a greater moral proximity between taxpayers and abortion? This was the great question of last year, and an incredibly complex issue. I believe it does not. Others disagree. But people like Sirico would argue that Catholics must adopt a maximalist position here, simply because it relates to abortion. But on other matters, they propose a minimalist position, in effect, creating no constraints whatsoever. Because of uncertainties, Catholics are free to believe anything they want.
So calling “prudential judgment” is really like playing the “get out of jail free” card in Catholic moral teaching. But it only works for a certain, and incoherent, subset of issues. Those issues happen to be the issues of the Republican party and the modern American movement of economic liberalism, an individualist anthropology condemned consistently by Catholic social teaching. This is not only flawed, but incredibly cynical, and even has a hint of nihilism about it.
Of course, even under Sirico’s own standards, Boehner still falls short. Though the academics’ letter focused only on economics, MM points out another glaring mark on the speaker’s record that Catholics can’t ignore:
John Boehner also supports torture. He supports actions that the international community has long considered torture – not just waterboarding, but severe stress positions, prolonged isolation, sensory deprivation, and cold cells. He supports a list of techniques that overlap almost completely with the gestapo’s preferred techniques. The Church is quite clear on this – the prohibition on torture cannot be contravened in any circumstances, even if you think it saves lives. This is a clear, “non-negotiable” teaching pertaining to an intrinsically evil act. But the defenders of Boehner don’t mention this…probably because both Lopez and Sirico are both notorious defenders of torture.
So long as this contradiction stands, it’s hard to take Lopez and Sirico’s objections as principled rather than partisan.
Catholic League President Bill Donohue rushed to John Boehner’s defense today in response to the letter from Catholic scholars to the Speaker concerning his support for policies that harm the poor. Unfortunately, Donohue’s response is as weak as Boehner’s record. While the letter to Boehner – which was thoroughly respectful — described in extensive detail numerous ways in which his policies harm the poor, Donohue’s defense of the Speaker’s record cited his support for D.C. school vouchers…and nothing else. But in a skillful use of the causation/correlation fallacy, Donohue laid the plight of the poor at President Obama’s feet:
After most Catholics revolted against the Democrats last fall for their disastrous economic record, Schneck wrote that the vote “dealt a blow” to the Church’s concerns for the poor. His conclusion is curious: under the Obama administration, no segment of the population has been punished more than the poor (the poverty rate climbed to 14.3 percent in 2009, the highest since 1994).
Perhaps Donohue is unaware that the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, which President Obama championed and then-Minority Leader Boehner opposed, created 1-2 million jobs in the fourth quarter of 2009. True to form, Donohue focused more on going after Catholic University professor Steve Schneck than sticking up for the Speaker. Donohue’s statement even spent more words attacking Kathleen Sebelius’s record than defending Boehner’s. Seriously, I counted. This is vintage Donohue: when you can’t rebut the message, go after the messenger, and be sure to bring up late-term abortion. His signature brand of illogical, divisive hyper-aggression stands in stark contrast to the civil, reasoned words of the Catholic scholars and leaders he attacks.
Presumably their criticisms aren’t rooted in objections to Catholics voicing their opinions about commencement speakers. Both Lopez and Sirico made very vocal their disagreement with Notre Dame President Jenkins’s decision to host President Obama two years ago, which Sirico called “dangerous for Notre Dame, for the Church, for this country, and frankly Father [Jenkins], for your own soul.”
No, their true objections boil down to a simple problem: they think the House Republican budget Boehner helped pass is entirely defensible.
Of course, the needs of the poor are not always best served by an overreaching, hydra of a bureaucracy. Certainly not at a time when that hydra is unsustainable. Many of John Boehner’s and Republican attempts to reign in government spending and encourage job growth might be considered morally responsible.
The specifics of the 2012 Budget proposed by the Speaker and his colleagues are, the letter’s authors contend, the result of either ignorance or “dissent.” I think they are neither; they simply reflect a different, and in many people’s estimation, more accurate and economically-informed [sic] way, of proposing how we achieve worthy goals. Indeed, it could be said that what these Catholic academicians are proposing is not a “preferential option for the poor,” but rather a preferential option for the State. They make the unfortunately common error of assuming that concern for the economically weak and marginalized must somehow translate into (yet another) government program.
Sirico is half-right. Catholic Social Teaching has long maintained a healthy balance between markets and government, emphasizing that neither is an end in itself or a panacea. Catholics can disagree in good faith about the proper mechanism for protecting the weak and vulnerable. The problem with the House budget, however, is that it offers no mechanism at all.
Boehner’s endorsement of a plan that funds tax cuts for the rich that do not trickle down by dismantling Medicare, gutting food support for vulnerable women and children, and eliminating life-saving global aid without offering viable alternative solutions to the problems these programs address can’t be hidden under the dodge of “prudential judgment.”
(For a more in depth look at how Catholics should approach this budget, see John’s post from last month)
I’m not the only one who disagrees with Lopez and Sirico on this issue. Leading Catholic bishops have already weighed in on this one, coming down in support of the government taking an active role in protecting the most vulnerable.
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.