Washington Grapples With Catholic Social Teaching

May has marked a month of renewed focus on Church thought and its practical implications.

U.S. House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, waves as John Garvey, president of The Catholic University of America, and Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington applaud following Boehner's commencement address May 14 at the university.
U.S. House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, waves as John Garvey, president of The Catholic University of America, and Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington applaud following Boehner's commencement address May 14 at the university. (photo: CNS photo/Jenna Isaacson, Catholic University of America)

WASHINGTON — When John Boehner arrived on the campus of The Catholic University of America as commencement speaker May 14, the Catholic speaker of the House of Representatives did so under a cloud of controversy. The media attention was the result of a well-timed, backhanded welcome letter sent by a group of professors from Catholic universities.

The letter was patronizing in tone. “We write in the hope that this visit will reawaken your familiarity with the teachings of your Church on matters of faith and morals as they relate to governance,” the letter said. It continued: “Mr. Speaker, your voting record is at variance from one of the Church’s most ancient moral teachings. From the apostles to the present, the magisterium of the Church has insisted that those in power are morally obliged to preference the needs of the poor. Your record in support of legislation to address the desperate needs of the poor is among the worst in Congress. This fundamental concern should have great urgency for Catholic policymakers. Yet, even now, you work in opposition to it.”

The letter to the Ohio Republican, a graduate of Xavier University in Cincinnati, was also confusing, presenting itself as akin to protests against President Obama being honored at the University of Notre Dame for his advocacy for legal abortion and even infanticide — giving the impression that rather than being a matter of prudential judgment, budget cuts at a time when calls are being made for renewed fiscal responsibility constitute an intrinsic evil.

What stood out, though — albeit probably lost in most of the headlines and news briefs — was that the majority of those signing the letter were not even professors at The Catholic University of America.

Claes Ryn, a professor of politics at CUA, underscored that point: “Most faculty on campus seem to have been bothered by the tone and the substance of the letter. Even some liberal Democrats would have nothing to do with it. The associate professor of politics who organized the letter, Steven Schneck, directs an institute on campus [the Institute for Policy Research & Catholic Studies] that has been trying to shed a reputation as left-wing. He has now reinforced that image.”

Ryn also objects to the tone: “The letter is presented as an expression of Catholic sentiment, but what is Catholic about it? It is hardly the tone of the letter. The signers announce that they are not opposed to the speaker’s visit to campus. Oh no, they welcome him! They just want him to know that they regard him as a moral midget. This is the voice of Catholic conscience?”

The Principle of Solidarity

Seeking to provide some clarity after media frenzy about the commencement letter, Ryn said in an e-mail: “The signers of the letter present a strained, truncated version of Catholic social thought. They are, of course, correct that Jesus showed great empathy for the poor and told us to care for them. The poor, he said, you will always have among you. But when he admonished us to be charitable, he was addressing the conscience of individuals, calling upon them to act. We should love ‘neighbor,’ people up close who have names and faces. This is something quite different from exuding a merely sentimental and self-applauding ‘caring’ for abstract and distant collectives like ‘the poor’ and ‘the downtrodden.’ Individuals and local communities are sometimes unable to handle social problems at the grassroots, but here a central principle of Catholic social thought comes into play, and it is one that the signers of the letter simply ignore: It is the principle of subsidiarity.”

“This principle says that, whenever possible, social problems should be addressed by those most directly concerned,” Ryn explains. “Only when people at the grassroots are quite unable to manage on their own, should groups and associations further away become involved. In America, more than in most countries, there is a proliferation of intermediate associations, including churches, that have traditionally assisted the poor. To the extent that their efforts have been deemed insufficient, municipal and county governments have stepped in. Further away, but capable of action, are the state governments. The principle of subsidiarity advocates a maximum of neighborliness and localism and opposes centralization as destructive of humane relations. In their highly selective and self-important use of Catholic social teaching, the signers of the letter disregard all this. The problem of poverty must be handled just as they deem appropriate or the approach violates Catholic conscience.”

He added: “And what does Catholic social teaching demand? That poverty be handled by the federal government of the United States — the authority most distant of all from those affected. To present this view as the Catholic view shows moral-spiritual and intellectual myopia.”

And Ryn is far from alone. On campus, in the politics department at CUA, there were other dissenters from the letter.

“I have no objection to faculty speaking their minds; it is, after all, what they are paid to do in a certain way. However, I did find the letter somewhat gratuitous, leaving the signatories open to the accusation of selectivity in the target of their critique,” David Walsh, another CUA professor of politics and former department chairman and author of After Ideology: Recovering the Spiritual Foundations of Freedom, tells me. “It might just as easily have been signed by ‘Catholics for Obama.’ Besides, one could make the argument that not caring about the fiscal decline of the United States is particularly irresponsible in regard to the most vulnerable members of society who depend on government support.”

A Layman’s Testimony

In his commencement speech, Boehner did not respond to the letter or controversy, instead presenting a layman’s testimony to the role his Catholic faith and prayer have played in his life. Boehner highlighted the importance of humility and patience.

“[CUA] has prepared you in a way no other institution can,” he told the graduates. “The focus of your development here has been getting you to grapple more with who you want to be than what you want to be. You’ve been challenged to think rationally and to use your heart and your conscience to guide your words and your actions.” He added: “Of course, to whom much is given, much is expected. That’s why each of you must be willing to work hard and make the sacrifices necessary to succeed. Let me tell you, there are no apps for these skills …”

This non-direct response to the letter frustrated Schneck, as you might expect. From Rome, where he was attending a conference on Pope John XXIII’s 1961 encyclical Mater et Magistra (On Christianity and Social Progress), Schneck responded to the speech: “Naively, I truly hoped that the speaker’s thinking might have been awakened by our letter and the crazy media frenzy about it. … At the very least, he could have offered a standard argument for how his policies help the poor, via subsidiarity, the miracle of the market, trickle-down, or whatever.”

Schneck did add: “I honor the speaker for his other good work, for his opposition to abortion, for his support of Catholic education, and so forth. I remain hopeful that the way forward lies through rebuilding compassionate conservatism and moral progressivism.”

Speech Drawn From Struggle

Others were more receptive to the commencement speech and to Boehner himself. “He gave a very warm human speech, much of it drawn from his own struggle to lead a Christian life. I thought it was appropriate and moving,” David Walsh says. “It was full of the kind of concrete advice that we all can use, especially newly minted graduates as they begin to make their way in the world. There was really no discussion of political or policy issues, and certainly no partisan posturing. So I was delighted he came, especially since he is an eminent Catholic public official.”

And graduating senior Alexandra Smith, a politics major from Bryn Mawr, Pa., and former chairwoman of the CUA College Republicans, said of the controversy: “I thought it was absolutely absurd, and I am so ashamed to say that I have had a few of the professors who signed the letter. If these professors wanted a genuine dialogue about Catholic social teaching, they would have raised their opposition back in April” when Boehner was first announced as commencement speaker. Smith continued, “Putting out a letter 72 hours before the commencement ceremony was a clear attempt to both seek media attention and to disrupt the occasion.” She added: “What really made me angry was when a Washington Post reporter essentially crashed the event by taking advantage of a 10-minute pause between the commencement and degree ceremonies and specifically told the person sitting next to me, ‘We’re looking for students opposed to Boehner’ and proceeded to ask him questions like: ‘Do you believe that the budget cuts reflect Catholic social teaching?’”

Mission accomplished. One student told the Post: “His policies reflect different values than the values of social-work professionals, which are to help people who are poor, vulnerable and repressed.”

Not a Party Issue

Maria Sophia Aguirre, professor of business and economics at CUA, puts the situation in further perspective: “The principles of the social doctrine of the Church (the dignity of the human person, solidarity and subsidiarity, the common good) as well as the preferential option for the poor, are perennial principles. Therefore they are to be lived and applied by all and at all times; it is not a party issue. The concrete implementation of these principles — in the case of our discussion, the welfare-policy recommendations and programs — is a matter left to the freedom and responsibility of each Christian.”

“Under the present economic conditions,” she continues, “the reality of the needs of so many families who are suffering its consequences is presented to us in a special acute way. ... And yet, this does not necessarily mean that cutting funding or reallocating it necessarily means rejecting the preferential option for the poor or any other principle of the social doctrine of the Church. Just like it does not necessarily mean that allocating more funds for welfare programs will ensure that the needs of these families will be met, especially if we are to respect the principle of the fundamental dignity of each person. One could perhaps argue that such programs could at times violate it and even foster behavior that harms the good of the person and of society as a whole.”

As it happened, though, the broadside released before the commencement wound up being just the beginning of a renewed focus on what exactly Catholic social teaching means on a practical level, in a Washington in moral crisis, economically and otherwise. Later in the week, House Budget Committee chairman Paul Ryan’s office released a refreshing exchange between him and Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York, now president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, on just that.

Ryan-Dolan Exchange

In reply to Ryan, a Catholic from Wisconsin, Archbishop Dolan took the principle of subsidiarity more seriously than Schneck had taken it: “The principles of subsidiarity and solidarity are interrelated to one another. The late Pope [John Paul II] reminded us that ‘… the principle of subsidiarity must be respected: A community of a higher order should not interfere in the internal life of a community of a lower order, depriving the latter of its functions, but rather should support it in case of need and help to coordinate its activity with the activities of the rest of society, always with a view to the common good. (Centesimus Annus 48).’ Thus you rightly pointed out Pope John Paul’s comments on the limits of what he termed the ‘Social Assistance State.’”

Archbishop Dolan continued: “Your letter is correct in observing that the Church makes an essential contribution to society when she raises up moral principles to help guide and inform decisions about public policy in a compelling way. We bishops are very conscious that we are pastors, never politicians. As the Second Vatican Council reminds us, it is the lay faithful who have the specific charism of political leadership and decision (Lumen Gentium 31; Apostolicam Actuositatem 13). The high call to public service which you have nobly answered entitles you and all our elected officials to our respect and constant prayer. Thanks to you and your colleagues for accepting that call.”

The exchange promises to be — and ought to be — indicative of a new collaboration, free of conventional considerations and even partisan biases often encouraged by media, political and staff presumptions about parties and critics.

Speaker Boehner responded to the Ryan-Dolan exchange in a statement: “I welcome Archbishop Dolan’s letter and am encouraged by the dialogue taking place between House Republicans and the Catholic bishops regarding our budget, the ‘Path to Prosperity.’ Our nation’s current fiscal path is a threat to human dignity in America, offering empty promises to the most vulnerable among us and condemning our children to a future limited by debt. We have a moral obligation as a nation to change course and adopt policies that reflect the truth about our nation’s fiscal condition and our obligation to future generations, and to offer hope for a better future. Our duty to serve others compels us to strive for nothing less. As Chairman Ryan notes in his letter to the archbishop, Americans are blessed to have the teachings of the Church available to us as guidance as we confront our challenges together as a nation.”

Boehner’s statement was clearly not the “rethink” that Schneck — my former politics professor — was looking for, but part of a conversation that may bring a whole new bipartisan seriousness to the dialogue about what, exactly, social justice is.

Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online and a nationally syndicated columnist. She is a graduate of The Catholic University of America.