When Mitt Romney, the presumptive GOP presidential candidate, announced that Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., would be his running mate, Republicans steeled themselves for a full-scale war on the congressman’s controversial budget plan, which proposes cuts in a range of social programs designed to provide health care, food assistance and other subsidies to the needy and seniors.
Already, Ryan is being accused of decimating social entitlements, and, as the November 2012 election looms just a couple of months away, Democratic activists and ad campaigns are warning vulnerable beneficiaries that Ryan’s policies leave them unprotected.
Catholic leaders and activists have expressed their own strong reservations regarding the budget’s impact on the needy.
This year, Bishop Stephen Blaire of Stockton, Calif., and Bishop Richard Pates of Des Moines, Iowa, have issued open letters protesting proposed cuts in specific programs.
Sister Simone Campbell, the executive director of the social-justice lobby Network, has been speaking against Ryan’s policies in television and print media interviews.
“The bishops have said Ryan’s budget doesn’t pass the moral test,” she told the Daily Beast, “and we stand with the bishops on that one.”
While some of Ryan’s Catholic critics affirm a holistic view of Church teaching on moral and social issues, pinpoint specific budget priorities in the Ryan budget and explain why they think they are wrong, more often the candidate is attacked in a blanket way for violating Catholic social teaching by simply proposing spending cuts.
In these latter instances, the naysayers assert that his intentions are wrong: He’s giving tax cuts to the “rich” and refuses to tackle the military budget.
The partisan diatribes ignore a host of inconvenient truths, from massive ongoing cuts in military spending to the limited impact of raising taxes for the wealthy. Another would be that, when a government massively overreaches itself, cuts to programs for the poor shouldn’t come as a surprise. It’s part of exercising prudence.
Ryan’s message: Let’s have a serious conversation about fiscal responsibility and the national debt now, or you’ll be forced to do it when entitlement programs go broke.
Ryan remains good-natured through all the pushback — in the rough and tumble of election-year politics and with regard to critiques launched by some Church leaders and lay Catholic activists and commentators.
Some of the naysayers freely employ their Catholic bona fides to pummel Ryan’s integrity, while ignoring or justifying the pro-abortion voting record of his opponents. Sister Simone, for example, cites the bishops’ concerns about Ryan’s plan, but, as a strong advocate of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, she clearly believes the organization is under no obligation to uphold Catholic teaching on life issues, traditional marriage or religious liberty.
It’s easy to become antagonized or cynical about the morphing of legitimate debate on the application of Catholic social teaching into partisan smear campaigns.
But the furor Ryan’s candidacy has generated in the public square and in the Church also provides an opportunity for a deeper reassessment of how Catholic leaders and many well-intentioned activists tend to approach the budget debate.
The truth is: We won’t identify just solutions by attacking the messenger — whether it’s Ryan or any other politician asking the electorate to grapple with some tough calls.
We are free to disagree with his judgments, but national debate about inconvenient realities is long overdue.
Our government continues to spend money we don’t have, steadily increasing the national debt to be paid off by future generations.
Thus, the demand for fiscal responsibility is not “social Darwinism,” as some have called it, but a deeply moral and courageous response to an unsustainable reality.
This summer, the Kansas Conference of Catholic Bishops issued a statement that addressed the debt problem. “The United States has become a debtor nation with an unsustainable national debt. Most of this debt burden is unjustly transferred from one generation to the next. The potential for a collapse of our economy, resulting from a failure to address our spiraling debt, imperils everyone, but places the poor at the most serious risk,” the bishops of Kansas stated.
“As we expect individual households to live within their means, we have the right to expect that the government will also live within its means as an indispensable part of our nation’s economic recovery. It is irresponsible for those elected to positions of political leadership to fail to address realistically and effectively government debt and unfunded obligations.”
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops also will be developing a letter addressing a range of moral, social and economic concerns posed by the recession and the debt crisis.
As Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore and others have noted, serious ethical lapses, fostered by moral complaisance and greed at the highest levels of our government, financial and corporate sectors played a significant role in our economic collapse.
Across broad swathes of the middle class as well, a culture of consumerism distracted Americans, leading families to put off hard choices until it was too late.
The Church can help lead the way out of this quagmire first by providing its own flock with the formation that provides a sturdy compass for navigating difficult choices in family and political life. Further, we can approach the Ryan budget as an opportunity to reassess established positions on government spending and to secure the survival of the Church’s own social agencies.
Diocesan Catholic Charities and other outreach programs heavily depend on government funds, but it may well be past time to identify solutions that leverage volunteers and in-kind donations.
While we put our own house in order, let’s retire the smear tactics, assume Ryan’s good intentions when he states his case and take up a creative, honest discussion of Catholic social teaching in matters of prudential judgment.