Dealing With Debt — and Stewardship

“This coming month and every month to come, more or less, this government will spend $300 billion a month. That’s a lot of money. It’s more than any government has ever spent in the history of man,” Florida’s Republican Sen. Marco Rubio said in a closing speech on the floor of the U.S. Senate, before August recess.

The speech came at the end of the Treasury-declared Aug. 2 deadline debt-ceiling debate in the Senate and helped put the whole fight in some context.

“$180 billion of that $300 billion is money that we collect from the people of our country through taxes and fees and other ways,” Rubio, a freshman senator, continued. “But we borrow $120 billion a month to pay our $300 billion-a-month bill.”

“And that’s just too much money,” he said. “That’s too much money for Republicans; it’s too much money for Democrats. It’s just too much money.”

Rubio had voted against the final deal the White House had agreed to with congressional leaders, after the president had stalled things by nixing a framework Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., had tentatively agreed to the week before.

At the same time, though, Rubio thanked Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky for his leadership.

In doing so, he echoed the judgment of other members of his party who believed that the GOP leadership had, in fact, realized that what Washington has been doing — spending and borrowing and spending and letting itself borrow even more, all the while planning to spend more — could not be sustained.

“We have a moral responsibility to deal with this threat to freedom and liberate our economy from the shackles of debt and unrestrained government,” Speaker of the House John Boehner, R-Ohio, said earlier this year, speaking to the National Religious Broadcasters.

Indeed, Boehner often spoke in moral terms about the debt ceiling, as he tried negotiating with the president and then his own caucus in the House.

Such remarks suggest that Washington is now engaged in a moral debate about the responsibilities of stewardship. And it’s one being led in no small way by Catholics.

As Capitol Hill addressed the debt-and-budget crisis, politicians have explicitly discussed and grappled with Catholic social teaching.

“It is immoral for governments to make promises they cannot fulfill,” Congressman Paul Ryan, House Budget Committee chairman, recently contended in a column in Our Sunday Visitor.

He made that assertion only after citing Pope Benedict XVI on debt. In last year’s papal-interview book, Light of the World, the Pontiff said: “[W]e are living at the expense of future generations ... in untruth. We live on the basis of appearances, and the huge debts are meanwhile treated as something that we are simply entitled to.”

When Boehner spoke at The Catholic University of America’s commencement this past May, his appearance was protested by a good number of liberal Catholic university professors. The speaker was accused of “opposition” to Catholic moral teaching.

But Boehner is not a speaker of the House who takes his moral-stewardship responsibilities lightly. And this is not a time when anyone who holds such a post can afford to shrug off the debt’s impact on the nation’s future.

Indeed, though Catholic principles of social justice have long been associated with Democratic economic policies — despite the party’s symbiotic alliance with the abortion industry and its once single-minded support for welfare programs that undermined inner-city families and neighborhoods — Republican thinkers and leaders finally seem to be fighting back.

Men like Boehner and Ryan now challenge the liberal lock hold on social justice not because they want to shield their own stance for moral scrutiny, but because they want to challenge political policies, which they believe could doom the nation. This is about survival.

Earlier this year, Congressman Ryan wrote to New York’s Archbishop Timothy Dolan about the budget his party proposed in the House. The exchange broke new ground between GOP leaders and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, who often adopted opposing positions on economic policy.

That’s not to say that Archbishop Dolan endorsed the Ryan budget. But the details of their respectful exchange are worth reading and hint at the possibilities of future engagement. The key point broached in their discussion is this: The principle of subsidiarity should not be dismissed by students of moral economics any more than we should shrug off our obligations to those who truly need charity or a safety net.

The promising start suggests that more fruitful discussions will be forthcoming, as conservatives in Washington approach Church teaching in unconventional ways.

In a tract on wealth and justice produced by the American Enterprise Institute this past year, written by AEI president Arthur Brooks and Ethics and Public Policy Center fellow Peter Wehner, the authors cite Blessed Pope John Paul II’s encyclical Sollicitudo Rei Socialis in their critique of statist economic policies. In 1987, the Pope wrote that the denial or limiting of “the right of economic initiative ... diminishes, or in practice absolutely destroys the spirit of initiative, that is to say the creative subjectivity of the citizen. As a consequence, there arises, not so much a true equality as a ‘leveling down.’ In the place of creative initiative there appears passivity, dependence and submission to the bureaucratic apparatus which, as the only ‘ordering’ and ‘decision-making’ body — if not also the ‘owner’ — of the entire totality of goods and the means of production, puts everyone in a position of almost absolute dependence, which is similar to the traditional dependence of the worker-proletarian in capitalism. This provokes a sense of frustration or desperation and predisposes people to opt out of national life, impelling many to emigrate and also favoring a form of ‘psychological’ emigration.”

Some will dismiss this kind of intellectual work as an attempt by conservative ideologues to co-opt Catholic teaching to fit their political agenda. But when you look around and see other examples of this trend — like the Heritage Foundation’s — you get the feeling that it is bigger than the mere promotion of a partisan agenda.

Few can look at our economic, cultural and political situation in America today and say that the last few decades on any of those fronts have served us especially well. As Marco Rubio put it on the Senate floor right before the chamber recessed for August, the economic decisions Washington faces today are not about a relatively arbitrary deadline here or there, but about a “generational choice.”

Boehner has been described as the most pro-life speaker the House. The last few decades of American political history have been characterized by Catholics — Democrats and Republicans both — as behaving badly when it comes to policy that would protect the most innocent among us, the unborn.

Boehner and Rubio come from two different generations. But they have both insisted on a different direction for the ship of state, in their different roles and with a nod to political realities.

Boehner has had to keep his caucus together while negotiating with the president. Rubio has a little more freedom to stake out his own position. Together they may change Washington yet — they certainly have made some advances — even with all the numerical, procedural, embedded obstacles in place.

They want to revolutionize how people think about and operate as Catholics in public life. For too long, the phrase “social justice” has been stuck in a welfare-state, largely Democratic Party framework. This is welcome progress. As generational choices are made, our leaders need guideposts that don’t appear to belong to one party or another.

Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online and a

nationally syndicated columnist.