Early in May the United States Catholic Conference of Bishops wrote a letter to Congress expressing their concern with regards to the budget debate. In this letter they offered a creative and moral challenge to congress to design “a budget that reduces future deficits, protects poor and vulnerable people, advances the common good, and promotes human life and dignity.” The budget debate is currently being argued as a struggle between deficit reduction and the protection of traditional social services. With this statement one wonders if the moral voice of the Catholic Church is out of touch with this struggle by offering a challenge that does not seem to recognize this dichotomy. I suggest that the Church’s moral challenge is actually very realistic and that this dichotomy is nothing more than a political farce that is trying to force the American public to swallow an immoral pill that is quite unnecessary. The budget must reduce deficit spending and it must protect the
basic services of the poor and vulnerable. It must do these things, and it can.
The recent blogs that Fr. Sebastian and I wrote offered the Catholic social tradition’s perspective on economic justice. Going beyond any economic ideology the moral perspective of the Catholic faith has always opted for a creative harmony between values and principles that exist in tension. Catholic social teaching seeks a balance between freedom and equality, between solidarity and subsidiarity. These are values whose tension will keep us on the balancing beam of social justice. Our recent blog post also demonstrate how creative solutions do exists that can help us strike this balance. What is required is an atmosphere of cooperation and civility in being open to the possibility of achieving this challenge. But instead the political forces on the right have developed this debate into an all or nothing argument forcing the American public to make a fabricated choice between deficit reductions or protecting social service programs to the poor and vulnerable.
Before addressing the details of the budget issue itself let us quickly consider the importance of the issue that the Bishops are addressing and which a group of Catholic theologians also recently raised to the Speaker of the House John Boehner on the occasion of his commencement address at the Catholic University of America. The “Preferential Option for the Poor” is a principle of cherished principle of Catholic social teaching not least because it is a principle that consistently demonstrates a value that Jesus expressed in his own life of embracing the poor and marginalized. Scripture tells us how Jesus lived with the poor, taught the poor and ministered to their needs throughout his public ministry. The “option for the poor” is a lens that the Church uses as a moral measure for social or economic policies. When the Church considers the moral measure of any policy it reflects on the impact that such policies will have on those members of society that are most vulnerable. Based on this reflection the Church sees itself as an advocate for the interest of those who are poor and vulnerable.
There is another principle however that has been accepted as the foremost principle of Catholic social teaching and that is the “Right to Life.” Our belief in the dignity of all humanity forces us to always appeal to the sanctity of life in all policies. Our position against abortion and the death penalty flows from this principle. What some may not know is that the issue of poverty is also considered by the Church as a Right to Life” issue.
And how can we fail to consider the violence against life done to millions of human beings, especially children, who are forced into poverty, malnutrition and hunger because of an unjust distribution of resources between peoples and between social classes? (Evangelium Vitae #10)
It is out of this moral vision that the Church expresses its grave concern for the poor and vulnerable within this budget debate.
The budget that is proposed by Chairman Ryan and endorsed by members of the Republican Party violate the “Right to Life” by eliminating or severely limiting services essential to the poor and vulnerable while protecting the financial security of the wealthiest members of our society. This is a grave violation to the dignity of life. Nearly two-thirds of the huge budget cuts that are being proposed come directly from programs for lower-income Americans. The chart provided by the Center on budget and Policy Priorities indicate the programs that Chairman Ryan intends to cut. These cuts are done with the argument that the primary responsibility of government is to reduce the deficit, a responsibility that we dare not pass on to another generation. Deficit reduction is indeed an important issue and the Bishops and Catholic theologians agree that a responsible budget must address this priority. However what makes the Republican budget immoral is that while it claims to make service cuts with the purpose of reducing the deficit the proposed personal and corporate tax cuts that they propose almost completely undermine deficit reduction. This report by James Horney who was the Deputy Democratic staff director at the Senate Budget Committee offers this report through an analysis of the Congressional Budget Office study on Ryan’s budget. This report demonstrates that the Ryan plan will cut services to the poor and vulnerable in order to provide further tax reductions to the wealthy five percent of Americans. This is what makes Chairman Ryan’s budget proposal an immoral policy.
Economic equity and the fair distribution of wealth is not only a component of Catholic social teaching (Compendium #328) it is also a principle grounded in scripture and our Catholic tradition. Chapter 15 in the book of Deuteronomy offers instruction to the performance of wealth distribution through its application of the jubilee social obligation whereby the wealthy periodically redistribute back to those who they have taken from.
The Prophetic tradition has always backed this position of economic justice. With the early Christian community in Corinth St. Paul the Apostle finds himself defending this biblical economic policy to a gentile community that seems to find this obligation a bit hard to swallow.
I do not mean that there should be relief for others and pressure on you, but it is a question of fair balance between your present abundance and their need, so that their abundance may be for your need, in order that there may be a fair balance. As it is written, “The one who had much did not have too much, and the one who had little did not have too little.” (2 Cor. 8: 13-15)
The Catholic Church recognizes that it is the moral obligation of the State to ensure that “tax revenues and public spending… is directed to the common good” (Compendium #355). The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church also offers the following principles that the State must observe in ensuring the common good:
- “The payment of taxes as part of the duty of solidarity”
- “A reasonable and fair application of taxes”
- “Precision and integrity in administrating and distributing public resources”
The Church participates in offering the State moral guidance through the wisdom of scripture and tradition. If we believe that our faith has a deep moral value then we must allow ourselves to see how the wisdom of our moral tradition can inform this debate. A budget is a moral document. Our public spending is the moral measure of our nations’ values and priorities. In the next blog post related to the budget we will consider some of the positions taken in this debate and explore the delicate compromises that will need to be made as we participate in the challenge of considering a creative solutions to develop a just and responsible budget.