Saturday, March 17, 2012

March 17, 2012
The Catholic Bishops of the United States have entered the political arena again. Their recent reaction to the administration’s directive on contraception insurance unavoidably raises questions regarding the wisdom and propriety of such involvement.
On March 6, on behalf of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, the Chairman of its Committee on Domestic Justice and the Chairman of its Committee on International Justice sent a letter to members of Congress addressing "the moral and human dimensions of the federal budget." The letter began with a description of the political situation:
In the past year, Congress and the Administration have taken significant action to reduce the federal deficit, while attempting to protect programs that serve poor and vulnerable people. Congress will continue to face difficult choices about how to allocate burdens and sacrifices and balance resources and needs. We fear the pressure to cut vital programs that protect the lives and dignity of the poor and vulnerable will increase.
That led to a statement of criteria for budgetary policy:
1. Every budget decision should be assessed by whether it protects or threatens human life and dignity.
2. A central moral measure of any budget proposal is how it affects “the least of these” (Matthew 25). The needs of those who are hungry and homeless, without work or in poverty should come first.
3. Government and other institutions have a shared responsibility to promote the common good of all, especially ordinary workers and families who struggle to live in dignity in difficult economic times.
The first and third go a step beyond the more general statement in that each lays down a political principle, and the former carries a hint of doctrine.
As a transition to more detailed comments, the letter made a more explicit reference to Catholic policy:
The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church teaches: “Just, efficient and effective public financing will … encourage employment growth, … sustain business and non-profit activities” and help guarantee “systems of social insurance and protection that are designed above all to protect the weakest members of society.”
This comes closer still to political commentary, as it refers to government expenditures. The Bishops added, "We do not offer a detailed critique of entire budget proposals, but we ask you to consider the human and moral dimensions of these choices." That is a little disingenuous, as the letter eventually addresses individual programs. First, however, it takes yet another intermediate step, referring to broad categories of policy:
. . . 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.
Then came the specifics:
. . . We support proposals in the Administration’s Fiscal Year 2013 budget to strengthen programs that serve poor and vulnerable people, such as Pell Grants and improved workforce training and development. We also support proposals to restore cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, as well as efforts to make permanent recent expansions of low-income tax credits.
. . . We do not support the Administration’s proposal to increase the minimum amount of rent that can be charged to families receiving housing assistance. Minimum rent provisions affect the poorest and most vulnerable families--they already struggle to live in dignity. We strongly oppose the Administration’s proposal to eliminate funding for the DC Opportunity Scholarship Program, which provides vital assistance to poor families in the nation’s capital in seeking out high-quality education for their children.
The Conference does not support the entire foreign operations budget, but we strongly support poverty-focused international assistance. The Administration proposes to increase State and Foreign Operations funding by 2.4 percent, but cut lifesaving, poverty-focused programs by over one percent. Cuts may be necessary within the broader foreign operations budget, but they should not reduce poverty-focused international assistance. . . .
We are also very concerned with proposals to eliminate the “firewall” that currently exists between defense and nondefense spending. Elimination of this firewall would mean that poverty-related domestic and international programs would compete with other more powerful interests and less essential priorities. Likewise, reverting to a “security/non-security” distinction for Fiscal Year 2013 would threaten international development assistance.
With a nod to the earlier controversy, the letter also took a position on health care:
Access to affordable, life-affirming health care that respects religious freedom remains an urgent national priority. Rising health care costs contribute in major ways to increased government spending. We warn against shifting rising health care costs to vulnerable seniors, people with disabilities, and those who are poor, without controlling these costs.
It ended with a return to general principles but included a reference to the plutocratization of our politics:
The moral measure of this budget debate is not which party wins or which powerful interests prevail, but rather how those who are jobless, hungry, homeless or poor are treated. Their voices are too often missing in these debates, but they have the most compelling moral claim on our consciences and our common resources.
Partisans could find the Bishops’ policy positions insufficiently liberal, too liberal, or whatever, but leaving that aside, what are we to make of the stance? The letter ended by stating that "The Catholic bishops of the United States stand ready to work with leaders of both parties for a budget that reduces future deficits, protects poor and vulnerable people, advances the common good, and promotes human life and dignity." However, it goes beyond that and takes positions on specific legislative items. Is that a good idea?
It is very difficult, in evaluating an intersection between religion and politics, to avoid the temptation to approve it when the religious sentiment is congenial and deprecate it when not. If we resist that and try to maintain objectivity, where do we draw the line? As I’ve said before, I don’t know, but I continue to think that there is some realm of general moral principle in which a statement of religious belief is powerful enough to mean something, but avoids the introduction of specific doctrine or, worse yet, the implication that a policy or political tendency is God’s will. In general, I think that this letter stays within bounds.


15.  upload/Letter-to-Congress-Federal-Budget-2012-03-06.pdf   
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