Bishop Stephen Blaire of Stockton, Calif., the chairman of the U.S. bishops’ Committee on Domestic Justice, Peace and Human Development, has been in the news after media reports quoted his critique of the GOP budget proposal authored by Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis.
In April, Bishop Blaire issued a letter that called the GOP’s proposed cut in benefits for children of immigrants “unjust and wrong.”
He has also rejected proposed limits on the funding of food stamps, as part of a larger GOP plan to curb increases in social programs. "Just solutions, however, must require shared sacrifice by all, including raising adequate revenues, eliminating unnecessary military and other spending, and fairly addressing the long-term costs of health insurance and retirement programs," said Bishop Blaire in a letter that issued a harsh judgment: "The House-passed budget resolution fails to meet these moral criteria."
Partisan groups have used the USCCB statements, combined with protests sparked by Ryan’s delivery of a speech at Georgetown University,, to bolster a campaign to discredit the Wisconsin lawmaker’s budget proposal . Meanwhile, his supporters have called the USCCB’s criticism “unjust” in the editorial pages of The Washington Post.
On May 4, Bishop Blaire spoke by telephone with Register senior editor Joan Frawley Desmond.
Various statements from you and your committee have described the budget proposal from Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., as “unjust” and have asserted that it failed to meet basic “moral criteria.” Why was it important to publicly address the moral problems of the Ryan budget?
It’s important that we weigh in in terms of our Catholic social teaching. Our great concern is the protection of the poor and the vulnerable. It’s not so much that we are criticizing the Ryan budget; we would be critical of any effort to reduce care of the poor.
We understand that there must be budget adjustments, but it’s important that it be across the board and that we not diminish food stamps and while neglecting cuts to the military [budget].
I was particularly concerned about proposals to reduce food stamps because that money goes to people experiencing hunger and food shortages. Remember that the money from people using food stamps also goes back into the community. The more food stamps are utilized, the more that money goes into the local economy.
We want to weigh in, but we also understand the complexity of finding solutions that help stabilize the economy of the country.
Rep. Ryan has asserted that he applied principles of Catholic social doctrine in the development of his proposal, but your public response stated that the proposal was “unjust.” Were the principles poorly understood or poorly applied?
The principles of social justice have to do with basic needs: housing, hunger, employment. I don’t have his budget in front of me.
Principles of Catholic social doctrine, like solidarity and subsidiarity.
Subsidiarity is one of our traditional Catholic social principles. The idea is that the responsibility be carried out at the lowest level possible.
But that principle does not excuse those in higher positions from taking care of their responsibilities. You cannot use the principle of subsidiarity to say that government does not have a responsibility to those in need.
If housing and food needs can be addressed at a lower level, that is good. But, in our complex society, that is almost impossible.
However, it is perfectly legitimate to discuss the government’s role — it can’t just dole out funds. We need to make sure these programs are helping the poor help themselves.
Solidarity means that we all need to stand together and support the common good.
The individual has to accept his responsibility — and government as well. To say, “There can be no increase in revenue [for social programs” means] you are shutting down an avenue that would prevent the government from carrying out its responsibilities.
One can accept a basic philosophy that says the government is restricted in what it can do, but that does not take away its responsibility. Our No. 1 response should be to help those who need help.
Getting back to your point that cutting revenues — taxes — results in preventing the government from carrying out its responsibilities: It would seem that there is a difference of opinion on whether Ryan’s budget proposal is actually “cutting” programs that aid the poor or just slowing spending. Is there a moral difference?
You have to determine what your priorities are. If your only priority is to cut the budget, that approach is inadequate.
You might call it a balanced approach. The first question is not limiting the budget, but to ask, “What are our responsibilities?” We have to ask: “Does the budget adjust to our philosophy or does our philosophy adjust to budgetary needs?”
The budget is not just a financial document; it is a moral document: Are you cutting services to the poor and leaving the military alone?
Is “balance” a principle of Catholic social teaching?
There really is not a principle of balance, but a principle of the common good. That means the various entities are able to flourish and make their contribution for the good of the whole community.
Balance is my word. It may not be the right word. I have tried to adhere to a sense of moderation, so that society can function, so that people can live virtuous lives and have freedom to accomplish what they understand their goals and responsibility to be.
You see some of that [thinking] in Republican, Democrat and independent philosophy. Balance might mean an equitable sharing of burdens, responsibilities, rights and duties.
Reportedly, the military budget has already been substantially cut, though it is a matter of debate as to whether military readiness will be undermined by further cuts. Either way, Ryan claims that budget increases are unsustainable. If you agree that government spending is unsustainable, how should this reality drive our search for “just” solutions?
Our responsibility as bishops is to keep lifting up the moral principles. I hesitate myself to venture too much into formulating a political solution. But I would say this: There have been proposals that offer a more balanced approach. It had to do with some revenue increases and ending [tax] loopholes and deductions.
If the whole economy goes down, the poor go down with it. But we can’t solve these problems on the back of the poor.
Our society has become so politically contentious that one political side doesn’t want to give any credit to the other side to try and hammer out a solution in a way that will help the poor. Many of the proposals for balancing the budget are more beneficial to those with greater means.
The Church walks a tightrope. We have to comment on all the policies, trying to apply our social teaching. But it isn’t our role to formulate policy.
I know they have interpreted our response as critical of the Ryan budget and perhaps it is. But, really, I want to protect the poor and vulnerable in our country. We will keep speaking out no matter what party is in power.
Have you had a chance to speak with Congressman Ryan?
No. I did speak with him way back when, but not on this issue.
About a year ago, we wanted to join with other religious groups to make sure that when budget issues were addressed the voice of the poor was presented. We call this group the “Circle of Protection” — a group of churches — I’m not sure if they are all Christian, but a group of religious leaders and social agencies that have signed on to an agreement to stand up for the protection of the poor in all these political debates about the budget going forward.
Somebody has to be the voice of the poor, and the Church has that responsibility. There are other groups with experts to talk about the economy. This allows us to be more effective.
We have our priorities as bishops, but the circle has a list of priorities we address. They don’t give us direction. Our focus and direction come from our social teaching, but those principles are very similar to what other religious groups subscribe to. Together with them we identified a number of issues on which we all stand together. It’s designed to create a strong interfaith response.
If I have stumbled, I am not quite sure what it would be. I am trying to speak on behalf of the bishops, on behalf of our principles. I don’t have any intention of criticizing Ryan’s political philosophy, and I would do the same whether it was the White House or more liberal politicians.
Pope Benedict XVI has discussed the moral problems that give rise to the unsustainable national debt that has created a more serious crisis in Europe. How do you interpret his remarks?
That is correct. All we have to do is assess the problems of this country and those around the world. You see greed and corruption everywhere. Why have we had so many financial disasters? There have been companies that have been mismanaged and corrupt. One has to begin with a sense of what is just and right.
What the Christian brings to all economic matters is a sense of generosity. If you only address objective positions without a sense of the Gospel spirit of generosity, then you are not being truly Catholic or Christian. Generosity is tested by how we take care of the most vulnerable in our society.
What about our leaving a crushing debt for the next generation to pay off?
That is a moral problem.
A standard principle in our moral teaching is moderation.
We have lost that sense of moderation when dealing with debt and lifestyle. Moderation calls for [a sense of] responsibility for addressing this issue.
There will always be debt, but what is a moderate debt to be incurred? I have no quarrel with those who say we need to be concerned with not leaving the current generation with an impossible debt.
I cannot emphasize enough the importance of everybody sitting down to hammer out solutions — business, communities, churches, social agencies, government, education. We need to mobilize our society to hammer out some just solutions, but not on the backs of the poor.
Everybody has their ideology, and some adhere to it in a zealous way. We need to be humble enough to enter into a dialogue to effectively address these problems.
But some critics point to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ statements on economic policy and say that a “preferential option for the poor” is a “preferential option for government.”
A preferential option for the poor would best be realized when the government does not simply dole out moneys that keep people in their limited circumstances, but utilize funds in a way that helps people take responsibility for their lives. The preferential option for the poor doesn’t mean handouts, but how can we invest in strengthening society? What can we do to stimulate the situation, to help people find work?
For example, what do we do to promote family life? The Church is very concerned with the stability of the family. The breakdown of the family has contributed to poverty.
Not along ago, there was a focus on funding faith-based groups to aid those in need because religious institutions were judged to be more effective than secular programs, changing minds and hearts and inspiring hope and behavior that helps people move out of poverty. But now church-affiliated social agencies face cuts in their programs because of religious-freedom issues. What’s the connection between the religious-freedom fight and our nation’s effort to help the poor to help themselves?
There are many facets to the religious-liberty question. The most serious issue we are dealing with is the freedom of the Church to carry out her mission, to carry out her responsibilities through her institutions.
We are the largest private provider of education, charity and health services. Society will suffer if we are not protected in the free exercise of our ministries in accordance with our mission.
We bring the Gospel to the world through our love and care for the poor and by building the common good.
The Church wants to be free — both to be a voice of persuasion and not imposition and also to carry out our institutional expression of our faith.
Yet even within the Church there is considerable confusion about religious freedom as an element of social justice.
Yes. It is a positive step forward that we are having this discussion. The Second Vatican Council document Dignitatis Humanae puts religious freedom in the context of other rights.
Our conversation highlights two major challenges that are likely to affect the future mission of Catholic social agencies that depend on government funds — as well as those that don’t. Today, Catholic Charities in many dioceses are confronting religious-freedom issues as well as budgetary cuts. Will Church agencies be forced to rethink their dependence on government funding?
Once you are in a contract with the government, there is government money and regulations involved. The issue may not be religious liberty, but equal protection under the law — are Church agencies being treated differently than other agencies?
When the government contracts with us, they often get a bang for their buck. There has been a wonderful tradition in this country for granting exemptions and accommodations to Church agencies, but if they move away from that, who will suffer?
How far can the Church go in material cooperation in order to promote the common good? You raise a very interesting question. Some take a narrow, rigid approach, and others take a loose approach. We need to get back to moderation. The Church has to function in society. We can’t just withdraw. This isn’t easy.
How do you view the USCCB’s role in the national debate during an election year? What are the limits of that role?
This is not always an easy question to answer. Our document on “Faithful Citizenship” makes a good effort. It lays out principles and tries to give traction to these principles without becoming political.
We have to be careful how we speak — that we don’t sound like politicians. When you speak on moral principles, you can leave them in an ethereal position. But as soon as you make an application, it will be politically interpreted.
I have tried very hard. I have not made any comment about Ryan or about his political philosophy. I have simply tried to speak to the applications of his philosophy; but that is difficult, and it has been given a political spin.
We have to be as wise as serpents to speak in a way that addresses the principles that flow from the Gospel and our social teaching and try to avoid walking into traps where we come out as politicians. We will stumble — let’s be realistic.
I have been quite involved in the religious-liberty issue, and I cringe when it comes off as “anti-woman,” and our position is articulated by those who oppose us.
We have to stay on message, but that is not easy.
Joan Frawley Desmond writes from Bethesda, Maryland.