Jonathan Cohn

Unholy Cuts: The Bishops Decry Ryan Budget

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Republican leaders have repeatedly cited support of (some) Catholic leaders in their opposition to the Obama Administration’s health care policiesparticularly a requirement that insurance plans cover contraception, which the Church opposes on principle. But now Republicans are the ones catching grief from Catholic leaders, for violating a different set of Church teachings: about the need to protect the poor and vulnerable.

On Tuesday, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops sent a series of stern letters to Republican committee chairman in the House. The subject was proposed cuts to programs like food stamps and housing assistance, consistent with the overall spending blueprint that House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan has put forward. The message: Don’t slash the safety net, particularly if you’re doing so to finance tax cuts for the wealthy.

Major reductions at this time of economic turmoil and rising poverty will hurt hungry, poor and vulnerable people in our nation and around the world … The bishops’ conference acknowledges the difficult challenges that Congress, the Administration and government at all levels face to match scarce resources with growing needs. A just spending bill cannot rely on disproportionate cuts in essential services to poor and vulnerable persons; it requires shared sacrifice by all. ...

With other Christian leaders, we urge the committee to draw a “circle of protection” around resources that serve those in greatest need and put their needs first even though they do not have powerful advocates or great influence.”

The rebuke from the Bishops is welcome, if a bit overdue. Ryan has cited Catholic values as a justification for his proposals, saying that reducing government is consistent with Church teachings about self-reliance, local control, and allowing civil society to flourish. Those statements prompted an outcry from many Catholic leaders, who noted the Church’s longstanding defense of social welfare policies, but not from the Bishops, who have reserved most of their public criticism for policies on abortion and (lately) contraception.

Dan Nejfelt made this point recently at the blog for Faith in Public Life, a progressive religious organization: 

The Catholic Church has always been a powerful leader in the fight to protect the most vulnerable, and in past decades (especially the 1980’s) Catholic bishops were at the forefront of debates over economic issues. Just last year they lobbied behind the scenes and were leaders in the Circle of Protection which publicly spoke out against immoral budget priorities.

But right now one of the most powerful Catholics in American politics is publicly claiming that church teaching says his plan to take food and health care away from millions of vulnerable Americans is the right thing to doand the bishops are remaining silent.

It’s an open question whether the Bishops’ opposition to social spending cuts will attract the same attention, or have the same political effect, as their opposition to Democratic policies. But Republican leaders seem to take it seriously. On Wednesday, House Speaker John Boehner, who is also Catholic, said “I want them to take a bigger look. The bigger look is that if we don’t make these decisions, these programs won’t exist.”

As Boehner surely knows, that’s not true. The only reasons the programs can’t survive under Republican budgets is that Republicans insist on using some of the money to finance tax cuts for the wealthyand because Republicans keep opposing attempts to control health care spending by reforming the system itself, rather than simply reducing support for the sick and elderly.

That’s precisely what the Bishops are saying when they call for “shared sacrifice.” Let’s hope the would-be budget cutters, or at least the voters who elect them, are listening.

follow me on twitter @CitizenCohn

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