Back before Easter the Washington Post published an article by Anthony Stevens-Arroyo entitled, Is a Balanced Budget a Moral Issue? I would like to consider the article as a kind of followup to a previous discussion we have had here on this blog. Since this issue of the Budget is going to be around for a while, and is likely to be a major issue in the coming 2012 elections, it seems opportune for us to take many opportunities to discuss this issue from a Catholic perspective. A good thing about this Post article is that there are a number of cross-references to, among other things, Catholic sources.
As is usual in these cases I provide excerpts of the article. The original text of the article is in bold, italics, black. My comments are plain text red. The full article is here: Is a Balanced Budget a Moral Issue?
Wrangling in Washington over the national debt has featured speeches and sound-bytes from right and left, from the president on down. The bitter stridency suggests that these are not merely political games about balancing the budget but a serious moral crisis about the national character….
Agreed, how we as individuals and as a nation choose to spend our money says a lot about our priorities, and our national character.
However, there tends to be a simplification of the positions so that those who favor a large government expenditure are “for the poor” and those who seek to limit and privatize it are “against the poor.”
Clearly, since at least the mid 1960s the approach has been to have a large and growing government involvement in the care for the poor. But it was not always this way. Marvin Olasky wrote a fascinating book some years ago on the history of the care for the poor in this nation, and how it has evolved. It is a worthy read if you are interested in an historical assessment of this topic. More on the book here: The Tragedy of American Compassion. Readers will note from the title that he writes from a conservative point of view but, whatever your view, the history he provides is very instructive.
In the end, I think it is important to presume some good faith on both sides of the argument about the amount and role of government care for the poor. What really is the best way to care for the poor? How do we afford increasing expenditures? How do we ameliorate the deleterious effects of the welfare system as currently structured?
I think conservatives have an additional burden in this argument since it is largely they who propose a significant change. If we want to step back government involvement in the care for the poor, what is the plan for the private sector to take up its role? Do we simply pull the plug on government spending in this? That hardly seems right or just. But then, what is the plan to transfer the responsibility for the poor back to the private sector? And how do we as a nation continue to meet our obligations to the poor (clearly spelled out in Scripture, the social doctrine of the Church, natural law, and simple humanitarian concern)? It is one thing to call for a change, one thing to critique an often poor system. But where is the plan, what is the reasonable alternative, from a conservative or libertarian point of view.
In the end this is a question of our National Character. If not the current way (big govt) as Conservatives and Libertarians suggest, then how, and who?
Bishop Stephen Blaire has clarified the USCCB Catholic teaching. The billions cut from affordable housing programs are “not justified,” says the bishop, “in light of the continuing housing crisis.” Cuts to job training programs are “unwarranted at a time of high unemployment and low job creation,” because says the bishop, “This will prolong the economic pain of those seeking adequate training to re-enter the job market.” Cuts to Title I, IDEA, Head Start, and Pell grants are “particularly disturbing and unwise.” The bishop puts it clearly on the line in his letter to the Senate: “Put poor and vulnerable people first as you consider how to spend limited federal resources.”
The premise of the Bishop’s declaration are rooted deeply in Scripture and the Social doctrine of the Church. From these sources, it is clear that we have very real obligations to the poor and these obligations flow not only from charity but from justice.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church spends significant time in addressing the care of the poor and needy in the section on the Seventh Commandment, You shall not steal. Why here? Because God has given all the goods of the earth to all the people of the earth. The Catechism refers to this principle as the Universal Destination of Goods (cf CCC # 2402). Hence, while private ownership is not excluded and must be respected as a general norm, hoarding, greed and refusing those in legitimate needs, when it is in my capacity to help, amounts to a form of theft.
There is an old saying, If I have two coats, one belongs to the poor. Hence the poor, from a biblical and Catholic point of view DO have legitimate claims on those of us who have more than we need. It thus wrong to speak, in an unqualified way, of legitimate taxation to care for the poor as “theft” or merely as “redistribution of wealth.” If we are to be true to Catholic teaching and to scripture, some of my excess belongs to the poor.
There are legitimate debates as to what tax rates are fair and if it should even be government that facilitates the rendering of our debt to the poor.But that we have a debt to them clearly taught by the Church and her Scriptures. The extent of this debt and how best to render it are debatable, but that the debt exists is taught. (cf CCC # 2404 inter al.) There are further legitimate concerns raised when some abuse the system and lay claim to assistance when they could legitimately care for themselves. These are matters that must be addressed on a case by case basis. But the fact is that many among are poor, for a variety of reasons and we have real obligations to them. I have written more on this topic here: The Forgotten Principle of Social Justice
In fairness to both sides, the Republicans argue that their plan will eventually produce the same or even better benefits to the public; and Democrats admit to the need for reducing the debt and restraining the rate of spending that is simply unsustainable. So if the partisan rants could ever be quieted, a substantial and focused debate might produce workable compromises.
Well said. It is wrong to simply assume bad faith in this debate, as though some care for the poor and others do not. That said, it still remains for conservatives and libertarians to demonstrate a viable alternative to render our debt to the poor. I am sympathetic with those who want smaller, less expensive government. Further I fear the intrusive and punitive effects of expansive government and the erosion of our liberties.That said, I do not have a simple alternative to suggest.
It is clear, our current level of spending cannot be maintained. Many argue it is immoral to go on spending money we don’t really have.
So what to cut? It seems clear that, as the Bishop says, we should not start with the poor. I would rather start with transfer payments to things that currently seem rather extravagant such as the funding of the arts, and building and subsidizing of expensive sports centers. There are many forms of what some call “corporate welfare” that need attention. There also seem to be rather heavy agricultural subsides, bizarre things like an ethanol program and even stranger practices like paying farmers not to plant. I am even open to a look at defense spending, especially in areas where there is demonstrable waste and duplication of effort.
Some will argue that all these areas benefit the poor indirectly and also stimulate economic development. Perhaps. I am no economic genius. But I still suspect that the economy is best left to the private sector. If arts centers and sports arenas are to be built, let the marketplace decide if it is really “worth it.” If companies need to fail, perhaps that is best and then more efficient businesses will arise to fill the gap. I realize there are ten thousand facts that complicate all this. But somewhere deep down I think if cuts need to happen we ought to begin by getting the government out of subsidizing our economy in intrusive and complicated ways. Perhaps we can start here before talking about programs that target the poor. But have at me you astute readers! I am no economist. Just a poor priest trying to apply Catholic Social teaching to an imploding budget.
….[There is] a religious worldview that sees charity towards the needy is unavailing and even harmful. The power of religious faith, in other words, has been transferred to the politics of rugged individualism.
We have seen what Catholic Social Doctrine has to say about our obligations to the poor. This is the religious worldview of the Church. I am not sure if it is a religious worldview that seems charity as harmful, or if is political, or if it is a combination of both.
That said, it is not wrong to ask if some of our welfare programs have not in fact had many unintended but negative consequences, and what we can do about that. It is demonstrable that some of the poor are locked into a system that goes back generations in their family. The current system does a less than stellar job of breaking the cycle of poverty. This does not mean it all has to go, but the question remains as to how we can better help the poor to break free.
…The bishops have told us we need to put people before profits. The crisis of the budget issue has stripped Catholics of excuses for dismissing the problem as “politics as usual.” In fact, Jesus told us (Mt. 25) if we don’t make the right decision about social needs, we could go to hell.
Yes, indeed. Too many Catholics have dismissed the notion of mortal sin. But the Lord couldn’t be clearer that the neglect of the poor, when it is in our means to help them, is a damnable sin. We need to be sober our choices, both personal and communal.
In addition to the parable of the sheep and goats cited by our author, Jesus also tells of a poor man named Lazarus who lived outside the gates of a rich man’s house. The rich man died and went to hell. And what was his sin? Simply this, he neglected Lazarus when it was in his means to help him.
Whatever our political persuasion, we must not forget that God is passionate about how we treat the poor. Almost every prophet of the Old Testament manifested God’s rage over the injustice the poor suffered, and the lack of care. There is just simply no way to read, even a small slice of scripture, and come away without the conviction that God is very serious about how we treat the poor, very serious.
“The spending choices of Congress have clear moral and human dimensions; they reflect our values as a people,” said Bishop Stephen Blaire of Stockton, California, chairman of the USCCB Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development, in a March 4 letter to the U.S. Senate. “Some current proposals call for substantial reductions, particularly in those programs that serve the poorest and most vulnerable people in our nation. In a time of economic crisis, poor and vulnerable people are in greater need of assistance, not less.”
Please comment. And realize, I am not merely here to pontificate (even though my name is Pope 🙂 ). This is a discussion and you are encouraged to make distinctions, issue rebuttals, and qualify. I would ask you though to remember that this is not a political blog, but a Catholic one. And thus, I might encourage you to couch your remarks in Catholic language and strive as best you can to articulate a response based on Catholic Principles. I can anticipate a number of remarks on subsidiarity, a principle well grounded in Catholic Social teaching. But I would be especially interested in how you might actually apply the principle to the current situation. I understand that many will argue that much of our modern welfare system lacks this principle. But how do we get there? What are the steps by which we walk back the current big government solution. Others of you may argue that we already have subsidiarity and that the Federal Government is the lowest possible place to handle this. If so, are there any ways you think we can improve government welfare to remove some of its deleterious effects?
At any rate I encourage whatever comments you would like to make. This is a discussion and its your turn.