As Congress debates various tax and spending plans, the United States Catholic Bishops are weighing in with a poweful message about the moral terms of the debate.
In a pair of letters to Senators and Representatives, the Most Reverend Stephen E. Blaire, Bishop of Stockton, California and Chairman of the USCCB Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development makes clear that the Bishops stand firmly against any plan that takes aim at the poor to protect the rich:
A just framework for future budgets cannot rely on disproportionate cuts in essential services to poor persons; 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.
In particular, Bishop Blaire identifies the importance of Earned Income Tax Credit and the refundable Child Tax Credit, which Republican lawmakers have singled out for elimination in order to pay for preserving tax cuts for the rich. He calls the tax credits “pro-work, pro-family, and some of the most effective antipoverty programs in our nation,” and specifically urges lawmakers to protect “improvements and extensions” to those credits, referring to the expansions made in the 2009 stimulus bill that helped more families weather the recession.
Catholic leaders have been busy cracking down on nuns and theologians while also keeping a vigilant eye on those wily Girl Scouts.The Catholic Diocese of Arlington, Va.,is pulling a card from the McCarthy-era playbook by requiring Sunday school teachers to sign loyalty oaths. David Gibson, a prominent Catholic writer, notes in a recent NPR segment that the Vatican is doing all it can to “bring a schismatic right-wing group that rejects the reforms of Vatican II back into the fold while at the same time, it’s censuring nuns and theologians who are actually following the spirit of Vatican II.”
So when will influential Catholic organizations and public figures feel the heat for ignoring church teaching when it comes to issues like poverty, economic justice and workers’ rights? Why the free pass for Catholic conservatives like Rev. Robert Sirico, president of the Acton Institute, who is making the rounds on Fox News defending the aggrieved richest 1 percent of Americans and preaching a gospel of free-market fundamentalism that is at odds with centuries of Catholic social teaching? Fr. Sirco’s public love letters to libertarianism, most recently in his new book – Defending the Free Market: The Moral Case for a Free Economy – surely put him in the good graces of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce or even the Romney campaign. But one would hope his bishop might at least raise an eyebrow.
A familiar presence on the op-ed pages of the Wall Street Journal, Rev. Sirico recently told the New York Times that the church’s historic defense of unions might not apply to labor fights at Catholic universities today. In a lengthy interview with the National Review he praised Ayn Rand and smugly disparaged those non-habit wearing Catholic nuns for having the audacity to challenge a House GOP budget that the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops described as failing a basic moral test. While the Ryan budget has no chance of passing its been endorsed by Mitt Romney and serves as an ideological blueprint for a conservative economic agenda that insists we must make a false choice between protecting the most vulnerable and being fiscally responsible. Fr. Sirico’s free-market theology and anti-government zeal often sounds more like Tea Party rhetoric than Pope Benedict XVI, who warns about the “scandal of glaring inequalities” between rich and poor, or the late Pope John Paul II who cautioned against an “idolatry of the market.” Vincent Miller, the chair of Catholic theology and culture at the University of Dayton, recently wrote in America magazine that Rev. Sirico’s “well financed defense of libertarian economics often rise to the level of self-parody.” Daniel Finn, a professor of theology and economics at the College of St. Benedict and St. John’s University, offered a detailed theological critique of Rev. Sirico in Commonweal magazine back in 2008.
Some conservatives have questioned the funding of progressive faith groups working to balance out a values debate that in recent decades has been dominated by the Religious Right. Much of this criticism is overheated conspiracy mongering from those who live in some imaginary world where religious liberals are more organized and well-funded than a politically powerful Christian conservative movement that has helped elect presidents and until recently ran circles around religious progressives in the media. But if we’re going to play the funding game let’s take a look at who has made it possible for a Catholic priest to build a national media profile churning out paeans to the free market and putting a moral gloss on corporate talking points. Not surprisingly, big business and wealthy Republicans are bullish on Rev. Sirico. The Acton Institute is backed by the DeVos family, prominent donors to the Republican Party and various conservative organizations that lobby lawmakers to slash government programs that help the most vulnerable, lower taxes on the rich and deregulate Wall Street. “Other than possibly the Koch brothers, few billionaires have a more established place in conservative America than the DeVos clan,” according to Forbes magazine. The billionaire Koch brothers, the most influential conservative donors in the country (they just hosted a lavish fundraiser for Mitt Romney in the Hamptons and plan to spend $200 million in this election) have also contributed to Rev. Sirico’s Acton Institute in the past, according to the corporate accountability and transparency group Source Watch.
Wealthy conservatives have every right to lobby for a return of trickle-down economics, but popes and bishops for centuries have rejected the blind faith in unfettered markets and radical individualism promoted by groups like the Acton Institute. Last fall, the Vatican released a timely document that calls for more robust global financial reform and offered a sharp moral critique of the kind of laissez-faire economics Rev. Sirico preaches.
The Catholic Church has plenty of room for liberals, moderates and conservatives. We need a spirited debate over how to properly apply Catholic social teaching to public policy challenges in a pluralistic society. But I worry about the message that is sent when nuns, theologians and progressive Catholics are demonized by church officials even as prominent conservative Catholics appear on national television to peddle ideologies that are at odds with bedrock Catholic values.
For a second time, Bishop Robert Morlino of Madison, Wisconsin has expressed praise of Rep. Paul Ryan, the GOP Congressman beleagured by persistent Catholic criticism of his radical budget proposal and his poor theological justifications for it.
As before, Morlino made the comments in an interview with EWTN’s Raymond Arroyo. While claiming that he doesn’t have to “approve” of the particulars Ryan’s budget, Bishop Morlino praised the Congressman’s “approach” as responsible and “in accordance with Catholic principles.” He also threw in some harsh words for the Nuns on a Bus tour while he’s at it:
MORLINO: Congressman Ryan has made his prudential judgment about how best to serve the long-term needs of the poor. He has done that in accord with Catholic principles. I don’t have to approve his decision or his budget or anything else. What I do approve of is that he is a responsible Catholic layman who understands his mission and carries it out very responsibly. I feel very strongly about that. The details of his solution are not mine to approve or disapprove, that’s not my field.
I would think that the religious sisters though should concentrate on giving that witness of holiness of all the wonderful works that they do, rather than busing around for political issues…There are many Catholics who feel that way about the sisters, they really don’t like this. Their expectation from the sisters is really not this kind of leadership.
While Bishop Morlino might not think judging the actual budget proposal is his field, his fellow bishops on the USCCB Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development (whose job is to do just that) already have, and they found it severely misguided.
Committee Chairmen Blaire and Pates have pointed out that Ryan’s basic approach is to make deep cuts in programs that protect the most vulnerable while protecting all military programs and spending even more money on tax breaks for the wealthiest Americans.
It’s this fundamental imbalance that has led them to describe Ryan’s budget as failing “a basic moral test.” Since that characterization applies to the budget on a broad principled level, not even the guise of “prudential judgment” can excuse Ryan’s approach as responsible.
Morlino’s comments, then, put him at direct odds with the USCCB’s own leaders on this issue, spokesmen whom the conference have specifically reiterated “do represent all the U.S. bishops.”
Today on the Iowa conservative radio show “Mickelson in the Morning,” host Jan Mickelson had on Rep. Tom Latham (R-IA) to talk about the Nuns on the Bus tour and the Ryan budget. Objecting to the tour, Mickelson asked Latham whether he had any power to pull over the bus and “pistol whip” the nuns:
MICKELSON: There’s a bus full of nuns headed towards Washington to lobby against the Ryan plan. Do you guys, do you have any power to pull the Nuns on the Bus over and pistol whip them?
LATHAM: It’s always fun to be on your show [Laughs]
While Congressman Latham doesn’t express outright support for Mickelson’s statement, he seems unfazed by the suggestion and happy to laugh off this grotesque call for violence on women religious. It’s unacceptable for anyone, let alone an elected representative, to tacitly condone suggestions of violence. Rep. Latham should apologize and clarify that he would never support “pistol whipping” religious sisters.
As Simone Campbell explained in an interview this week, one of the purposes of the Nuns on the Bus tour is to respond to Catholic conservatives such as House GOP budget author Paul Ryan, who falsely argued that his radical plan to gut the safety net and slash taxes for millionaires is consistent with Catholic social teaching (and tried to dismiss the bishops when they rebuked him).
But Paul Ryan wasn’t the only Catholic who supported the bill — 58 other Catholic House members voted in favor of it this year, and the nuns are hoping to talk to a few of them. One of those members is Rep. Joe Walsh of Illinois, at whose office the bus tour stopped yesterday. Unlike Congressman Ryan, Walsh didn’t try to argue that the budget upholds Catholic teaching — he just admitted he thinks the Church is wrong:
My Catholic teaching tells me that it’s my responsibility to take care of my fellow man,” he said. “That’s not the government’s responsibility. It’s mine. … Oftentimes, the Catholic Church can be misguided on economy and government.
Coming to different conclusions than Church leadership about how to put Catholic moral teachings into practice isn’t unusual for Catholic politicians. Conservative commentators just like to pretend only Democrats do it. It’s refreshing to hear a Catholic Republican acknowledge the disagreement.