WASHINGTON — Catholic leaders are concerned that government programs that help the poor and vulnerable will be compromised if the White House and Congress cannot reach a deal to avert sweeping across-the-board spending cuts known as sequestration.

"I think our concern is that any cuts that are made not be done on the backs of the poor," said Bishop Stephen Blaire of Stockton, Calif., chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development.

Bishop Blaire told the Register that while some anti-poverty programs will be spared — such as food stamps and Medicaid — others will probably not. He called upon President Barack Obama and congressional leaders to protect the poor.

"A budget always involves moral choices," Bishop Blaire said. "We want to again lift up the importance of working to end poverty and hunger in our nation."

Sequestration took effect on March 1, though analysts said the effects would not be felt for several weeks. The sequester is a round of automatic, across-the-board, indiscriminate spending cuts that total $85 billion this fiscal year and $1.2 trillion over the next decade. President Obama and congressional Republicans held meetings after the March 1 deadline, with hopes of replacing the sequester with a less painful deficit-reduction plan.

If the sequester stands, $1.2 trillion would be evenly split between the defense budget and non-defense discretionary spending, which includes federal block aid grants to states and local communities to help pay for teachers, long-term unemployment, drug enforcement, Head Start, Meals on Wheels and other domestic programs. Mandatory spending on Social Security and Medicare is not affected.

Low-income families could be losing valuable assistance in the form of rental housing vouchers and the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program, said Kathy Saile, director of the USCCB’s Office of Domestic Social Development. "A lot of these programs are an integral part of the safety net that is helping people in poverty or helping to keep families from falling into poverty," Saile told the Register, adding that several Catholic charity and aid programs will be affected. "As we try to do deficit reduction and strike federal-budget deals, we should do so in a way that protects poor and vulnerable people, that doesn’t hurt them and doesn’t cause more poverty."

Catholic Charities USA’s Feb. 25 "Washington Weekly" newsletter said its agencies and the people served by them would be affected by sequestration. Catholic Charities USA said its senior lobbyists have spent the last two months meeting with almost every newly elected member of Congress and that they will continue to meet with lawmakers to encourage them to prevent the vulnerable from being harmed by indiscriminate spending cuts. The sequestration was not supposed to really happen. It was written into law during a round of failed deficit-reduction budget talks in 2011; the idea being that the cuts were so politically unpalatable that they would force politicians to compromise on deficit reduction.


New Deadline Ahead

The compromise never materialized. The day before the March 1 deadline, Congress abandoned efforts to avert the sequestration and left Washington for the weekend. Obama met later in the day with congressional leaders at the White House, but no grand bargain was reached.

Congressional leaders shifted their attention to the next fiscal deadline, March 27, which is when the current deal authorizing government spending was set to expire. On March 6, the House approved a six-month spending bill to keep the government running past the deadline and to the end of the fiscal year. The bill also locked in the sequester cuts for the remainder of the fiscal year.

The government shutdown averted, President Obama began courting rank-and-file Republicans, even taking them out to dinner in Washington in the hope of striking a budget and deficit-reduction deal.

However, the political scene in the days leading up to the March 1 sequester deadline was marred by partisan gridlock. The Obama administration held campaign-style events warning of catastrophe unless congressional Republicans agreed to a deal that replaced spending cuts with new tax revenue, which Republican lawmakers — after already agreeing earlier this year to allow the Bush-era tax cuts to expire for wealthy Americans — were loath to do.

Republicans accused Obama of peddling doomsday scenarios — including a questionable claim that 40,000 teachers would be laid off — and trying to scare Americans by overstating the effects of the spending cuts.


Catholic Republicans

Despite the apocalyptic descriptions, Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., a pro-life Catholic, said during a Senate Budget Committee hearing on Feb. 26 that sequestration is "really small" in the context of total government spending and the overall economy.

"The federal government has doubled its spending in the last 10 years, and we’re talking a 2 1/2% reduction in spending from the 100% growth; and, by the way, that’s budget authority. The actual outlays for this year are about 1 1/4%. That’s one-quarter of 1% of GDP. This is not some sort of severe austerity plan," said Toomey, who also proposed a bill to give the president more flexibility in deciding where to cut spending, rather than the indiscriminate cuts set to take effect.

While saying that he never liked the sequester idea, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., also a pro-life Catholic, said Obama was presenting the American people with the false choice between big government and people having to wait longer in airports, losing medical assistance and being turned away from educational services.

"Government is too big and destined for bankruptcy because of our long-term obligations in our entitlement programs, particularly Medicare and Social Security," Rubio said in prepared remarks. "While the sequester is the topic of the day, the reality is that if we do nothing to save Medicare and Social Security for younger people like me who are decades away from retirement, the sequester will seem like child’s play in comparison to what will happen when these two vital programs go broke."

Re-establishing fiscal discipline and welfare reform are necessary components to securing the common good, a key principle in Catholic social teaching, said Samuel Gregg, author of the new book Becoming Europe: Economic Decline, Culture and How America Can Avoid a European Future.

Gregg, director of research for the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty, told the Register that there is room for prudential judgment among Catholics when it comes to budget cuts and that cutting welfare programs is not necessarily unthinkable from a Catholic perspective. "There is no reason to maintain welfare programs that are, for example, inefficient or ineffective," said Gregg, who added that government-assistance programs should not be permanent features of the economic landscape. Wealth generation, he said, is more effective at lifting people out of poverty and making them self-sufficient.

"Another thing to consider is that, when it comes to thinking about something like a budget, a government budget, the criteria we are looking at are not simply the interests of the poor," Gregg said. "Those are, of course, accorded a certain priority, but the overall good is the promotion of the common good, and that includes and goes beyond the well-being of the poor."

Gregg added that, while government has a role to assist those in need, it should not be supplanting the role of organizations in civil society in carrying out those responsibilities. "Solidarity doesn’t necessarily equate to excessive government spending," Gregg said.


‘Circle of Protection’

Other Catholics believe much more strongly in the role of government in protecting the needy.

Saile said government-assistance programs such as food stamps and the earned-income tax credit go to working families.

"Catholic teaching supports the role of government in securing the common good, which includes helping poor and vulnerable people," Saile said.

Bishops Blaire, Richard Pates of Des Moines, Iowa, and Dennis Madden, auxiliary bishop of Baltimore, signed a letter Feb. 25 from the Circle of Protection ecumenical coalition to urge Republicans and Democrats to shield anti-poverty programs from sequestration. The letter was also signed by Carolyn Woo, president of Catholic Relief Services; Father President Larry Snyder, president of Catholic Charities USA; Sister Carol Keehan, president of the Catholic Health Association; and James Ennis, executive director of the National Catholic Rural Life Conference.

"The letter pretty well states that we all agree in terms of not balancing budgets on the backs of the poor," Bishop Blaire said. "We would like to see Congress break away from the brinkmanship and have a more cooperative effort in addressing fiscal issues."

Brian Fraga writes from

Fall River, Massachusetts.