There is an interesting set of articles in the Our Sunday Visitor by two Catholics on the Budget problem. One, Congressman Paul Ryan, is a Republican. The other is Stephen Schneck, a Democrat and teacher at the Catholic University of America. These articles show how very different Catholics can be among each other when it comes to what is often termed the Social doctrine of the Church. Both men write well and with passion. Both quote Popes encyclicals and bishops. Both claim that the care of the poor is paramount. Yet both have a very different way of understanding these principles in terms of the Federal Budget. Consider their articles with a few comments by me in red.
Catholic social doctrine is indispensable for officeholders, but there’s a right way and a wrong way to understand it. The wrong way is to treat it like a party platform or a utopian plan to solve all of society’s problems. Social teaching is not the monopoly of one political party, nor is it a moral command that confuses the preferential option for the poor with a preferential option for bigger government.
I think this is fair not only from the position he states it but also from the experience of the Church in terms of politicians. In a sense we in the Church have to state that we have no permanent friends or enemies. No politician has a 100% perfect voting record in terms of Catholic teaching or the positions articulated by the bishops. A certain politician may be with us on abortion but in opposition to us on immigration with us on social policy in regard to the poor but against us on gay “marriage.” The Catholic view doesn’t easily fit into one party of the the other despite what our opponents on a particular issue may insist.
…..The judgments of equally well-intentioned citizens may differ. Usually, there isn’t just one morally valid policy. Instead, there are better and worse ones calling for respectful dialogue and thoughtful judgment. The moral principles are dogmatic; the political responses are prudential.
Yes I have often stated that on these pages. We are often too quick to treat prudential judgments as doctrinal positions. hence some one might hold that because a certain bishop makes a prudential judgment not to discipline a pro-abortion politician then he (the bishop) is soft on abortion. It may simply be that he thinks such a move unwise. Likewise if someone has concerns about big government involvement in care for the poor they “don’t really care about the poor.” But these are not doctrinal stances, they are prudential judgments wherein one tries to apply the doctrine to a given situation. One is free to dispute the prudential judgements of others and whether they best reflect the doctrine, but sweeping judgements ought to be avoided in critiquing prudential judgments. This requires the kind of sophistication that many modern discussions lack. Thus they pretty quickly devolve into name-calling and demagoguery.
…When income and credit dry up, the best will in the world cannot prevent cuts in expenses, including staff layoffs and wage reductions. Governments face choices, but their budgets also shape the economic future. A budget with low taxes, spending restraint and less borrowing can help restart the economy, create jobs and increase resources for investment, charity and assistance for the needy.
Granted, but Mr Ryan could say more about how cuts are prioritized. For, as we shall see, his opponent(s) argue that the poor suffer disproportionately under his budget. It is a worthy goal to restart the economy, but the poor may not be able to wait for this to trickle down to them. Hence his opponents argue that care for the poor should be a higher priority that it is.
Asked about rising government debt, Pope Benedict XVI has said: “[W]e are living at the expense of future generations … in untruth. We live on the basis of appearances, and the huge debts are meanwhile treated as something that we are simply entitled to.” It is immoral for governments to make promises they cannot fulfill.
Budgetary discipline is a moral imperative. In Greece and other European nations, retired pensioners and vulnerable citizens are suffering from harsh benefit cuts as a result of politicians’ empty promises. Preferences for the poor, solidarity, subsidiarity, the common good and human dignity are disregarded when governments default and bankrupt economies stop producing. Economic well-being is a foundation stone of an enduring “civilization of love.” Granted, if the economy goes down every one suffers, the poor first and most.
In his encyclical “Caritas in Veritate,” Pope Benedict warned that solidarity without subsidiarity “gives way to paternalist social assistance that is demeaning to those in need.” Our budget gives more power over federal anti-poverty dollars to the states, directed by governors and state lawmakers who are closer to the problem…..The dignity of the human person, said Blessed Pope John Paul II, is compromised when bureaucratic ways of thinking — which he dubbed the “welfare state” or “social assistance state” — dominate our lives with heartless regulations and impersonal rationing.
Some argue that the States are receiving unfunded mandates and that shifting the burden to states without also shifting the money is tantamount to canceling the care for the poor. Mr. Ryan is not clear that the money is going to states in the same amount. Subsidiarity is surely a Catholic principle but there has to be actual action for there to be subsidiarity. And without the money there can be no action hence no subsidiarity. I am not claiming that there is no money going to the states, I am just not sure, from what he says.
Our budget helps the poor, first and foremost, by promoting urgently needed economic growth and job creation. Our reforms to save Medicare from bankruptcy….our budget repeals the new health care law with its taxpayer funding of abortions, government control over the health care sector and panel of bureaucrats empowered to ration Medicare.
Catholic social thought’s paramount interest is the moral character of society, which takes primacy over dollars and cents….
Congressman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., is chairman of the U.S. House Budget Committee. These are excerpts. The full article is here: Congressman Paul Ryan on Budget
Stephen Schneck replies:
At the beginning of life, Medicaid pays for about one-third of all births in America. Maybe you know a scared young mom who needed such help. If you are pro-life, like me you realize what support for these births can mean. I wonder why the number is this high?
Or maybe, like I do, you have a friend who lost his job and, despite best efforts, hasn’t found work. Unable to stretch unemployment insurance enough to make ends meet, he was embarrassed to need help, but at least he was able to feed his kids with food stamps….
Rep. Paul Ryan, the GOP’s 2012 budget strategist, would cut all these programs and many others like them just when folks are struggling to stay afloat. Instead of trying to balance the budget in a way that protects the most vulnerable — as both parties did in past hard times — Ryan would cut food stamps by 20 percent, would turn away as many as 450,000 poor women and infants from WIC nutrition assistance, and reduce Maternal and Child Health Grants by one-third. Over the next decade he would cut $1.5 trillion from federal Medicaid payments. Some debate if there are actual cuts or as extreme as is claimed. As a novice to these details, I am bewildered by all the numbers and claims back and forth.
Rep. Ryan would gut these critical, life-supporting pro- grams at the same time that his budget would give almost $3 trillion in new tax cuts that overwhelmingly benefit millionaires and corporations. On the face of it, this is egregious. But I suspect that Mr Ryan et al would claim that these cuts are actually incentives to get business to risk expansion and new hiring.
Catholic teachings tell us that public officials must put the vulnerable foremost in their policy decisions. Sure, our Church encourages personal charity; it also promotes local help, and it understands its own call to serve the vulnerable. But, important as such subsidiary efforts are, our Church also insists that national governments cannot shirk responsibility for those needing a helping hand. Every social encyclical since Pope Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum in 1891 has insisted that this is a fundamental duty for any government.… Yes, Catholic social teaching does indicate that we, individually and collectively have obligations to to the poor and that we owe this to them, not just in charity but also in justice. The poor do have some legitimate claim to our excess wealth.
Like Rep. Ryan, I, too, believe that we must address the national debt. But it’s wrong — it’s immoral — to do this by shredding already stretched safety nets that save lives and give a bit of dignity to those in need. Maybe the rich can forgo more tax breaks? Maybe we can reduce some giveaways to Wall Street? Maybe we can trim weapon systems that the military does not even want? Before we cut Medicaid funds for our elderly and needy, or take food stamps away from hungry kids or slash programs for at-risk moms and babies, let’s pray that those in power — especially Catholics such as Ryan — reflect humbly on the Church’s ancient teachings and consider if there is not some other way.
I wish he hadn’t used the word immoral. I honestly think that we can try and debate this matter, wherein reasonable people will differ as to the details, and assume good will rather than immorality. That said, we need to be very careful not to underestimate the impact that sudden shifts may have on the poor. Rather than all the “class envy” stuff he offers, perhaps we could just ask the tough questions about the real impact to the poor.
My biggest concern about Conservative calls for subsidiarity (a view I largely share) is that, while the calls are made, there is very little detail about how we get there from here. What is the conservative plan to care for the poor? If it is not the government, then who? The Church? Fine. But we don’t have the money or resources to do it now. Where do we get them? How do we make the transition from big Government to more subsidiarity? Though sympathetic to calls for subsidiarity, I do not have simple answers to these questions. The subsidiarity view seems to me to be long on vision but short on details, especially in how we get there from here.
Stephen Schneck is director of the Institute for Policy Research & Catholic Studies at The Catholic University of America. These are excerpts. The full article is here: A Catholic Democrat’s Take
What do you think?