Catholics and the U.S. Budget

May 20, 2011

Last Saturday, Speaker of the House John Boehner spoke during commencement at the Catholic University of America. However, Boehner's appearance sparked controversy as several Catholic academics criticized his record on fiscal issues concerning the poor. They argued that Boehner, who is Catholic, has not followed the Church's teachings. The Catholic scholars, many of whom are at the Catholic University of America, issued a public letter with their complaints. Here are a few of their arguments:

Mr. Speaker, your voting record is at variance from one of the Church's most ancient moral teachings. From the apostles to the present, the Magisterium of the Church has insisted that those in power are morally obliged to preference the needs of the poor. Your record in support of legislation to address the desperate needs of the poor is among the worst in Congress.

... The 2012 budget you shepherded to passage in the House of Representatives guts long-established protections for the most vulnerable members of society.

... A just framework for future budgets cannot rely on disproportionate cuts in essential services to poor persons.

... It is your moral duty as a legislator to put the needs of the poor and most vulnerable foremost in your considerations.
In the letter, they also referenced the "Circle of Protection" initiative (which I mentioned in a recent Ethics Daily article) and urged him to join this Christian effort. Asked about the controversy a couple of days before his address, Boehner stated:
I'm a big believer that in a country like ours those who have the opportunity to succeed and do succeed have a responsiblity to help those who can't compete. I've always believed this. ... I believe the actions that I've taken in my years in Congress uphold the values of my faith.
He did not mention the controversy during the address. He did, however, talk about the national debt as a moral issue in a speech to the National Religious Broadcasters a couple of months ago (see post here).

The letter somewhat echoes the controversy two years ago when President Barack Obama spoke at Notre Dame University. Many conservative Catholics protested his appearance because of his position on abortion. There are a couple of important differences with the Boehner presence: Boehner is Catholic, Boehner's critics did not demand that the University rescind the invitation as Obama's critics did, Boehner's critics did not disrupt the graduation ceremony as Obama's critics did, and Boehner did not address the controversy. Overall, this did at least create a more civil atmosphere. But the two cases raise important issues for consideration since few people criticized both appearances. This raises questions about how well people are following the teaching of the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, who urged the adoption of a "consistent ethic of life." His call for a "seamless garment" position on life issues included both protection for the unborn and caring for the needy (as well as positions on war, capital punishment, etc.). As I noted in my new book (Presidential Campaign Rhetoric in an Age of Confessional Politics), Bernardin was an important religious-political figure, especially as U.S. Catholic leaders became more politically involved following the Second Vatican Council. This continuing influence of Catholic leaders was seen in the recent health care debate and in the current budget debate. In fact, Representative Paul Ryan, the primary architect of the Republican budget plan, even wrote a letter to Archbishop Timothy Dolan, president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishop, explaining the plan (and apparently hoping for an endorsement of sorts). Dolan wrote back praising the idea of viewing budgets as moral documents but stopping short of endorsing the specific plan (as he reiterated the Church's position on looking out for the concerns of the poor). A Catholic politician writing to a Catholic archbishop seeking input and support for a budget plan might have surprised people in John F. Kennedy's day, but it is par for the course in our age of confessional politics.

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