In America, it’s not hard to find religious voices criticizing proposals to cut government spending. Especially if those proposals call for reforming welfare or entitlement programs, they’re attacked for “balancing the budget on the backs of the poor.” That’s why it’s refreshing to see two prominent public voices recently engage in a more thoughtful, civil, and charitable dialogue on the federal budget.
On April 29, House Budget Committee chairman Paul Ryan (R–WI) sent a letter to Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York, president of the Catholic bishops’ conference, expressing his understanding that the committee’s proposed 2012 budget “is not just about numbers but about the character and common good of the American people.” In particular, Ryan described how the budget known as “The Path to Prosperity” accounts for various concerns of the Catholic Church’s social teaching regarding the poor.
For example, Ryan noted that if the U.S. government continues to drive up the deficit through reckless spending, “the weakest will be hit three times over: by rising costs, by drastic cuts to programs they rely on, and by the collapse of individual support for charities that help the hungry, the homeless, the sick, refugees and others in need.” The failure of many European nations to address their financial crises has led to “drastic cuts in benefits to the retired, the sick, the poor, and millions of public employees.”
In contrast, the House Committee’s budget “better targets assistance to those in need, repairs the social safety net, and fulfills the mission of health and retirement security for all Americans. The budget reforms welfare for those who need it—the poor, sick, and vulnerable; it ends welfare for those who don’t—entrenched corporations, the wealthiest Americans.”
In response, Archbishop Dolan sent a letter to Ryan earlier last week. Dolan neither endorsed nor critiqued the policy details of the budget, but he did thank Ryan for attending to important values that the Church prioritizes. These shared values include “fiscal responsibility; sensitivity to the foundational role of the family; the primacy of the dignity of the human person and the protection of all human life; a concrete solicitude for the poor and the vulnerable…[and] a commitment to the common good.”
These principles also inform The Heritage’s Foundation own proposal for addressing the debt crises, Saving the American Dream.
The Archbishop rightly acknowledged that “one must always exercise prudential judgment in applying these principles.” And people of good will can disagree on how to do that. This sort of recognition has been lacking in recent statements by others, but it helps pave the way for further discussion.
Ryan and Archbishop Dolan are right that the national budget is a moral document, and America’s financial crisis is a moral issue. As my colleagues Jennifer Marshall and JD Foster argue in a special publication entitled Indivisible, a free and thriving economy and the character of our culture are interrelated.
America’s elected officials have a moral obligation “to address difficult basic problems before they explode into social crisis.”
And the Church has a moral duty to articulate the principles it believes should guide moral reasoning about economic decisions. As Archbishop Dolan suggests, advocating principles like fiscal responsibility, human dignity, and the common good is an important way that the “the light of our faith.. can help illumine and guide solid American constitutional wisdom.”