It seems unfathomable to much of the world that a country with all of the material blessings of the United States cannot find the political will to get its own house in order. This suggests not only a lack of gratitude for what it has been given, but also a failure of leadership. The political standoff that has paralyzed our country for the past two years suggests there is a great deal of blame to go around for the ongoing crisis.
What is missing is any sort of national consensus for addressing the problems of debt, deficit, poverty and the growing economic and social divides in our country. Despite the compromises cobbled together at the last minute, or after the last minute, this lack of political consensus only guarantees other standoffs and other cliffhangers.
We recognize that there is no consensus even within our own Church on what is the best political solution or the best economic solution to some of our specific challenges. Yet the Church has much to say on the principles that should be guiding our discussion of the issues. The principles that we should not be invoking are those of narrow self-interest or disregard for the plight of others.
Catholic social teaching acknowledges both the role of personal responsibility and communal solidarity. In looking at the huge debt that the country has amassed, and the ongoing deficits that are contributing exponentially to that debt, it is clear that our nation bears a responsibility to address this problem. While the Church has not addressed in depth the problem of debt and deficits, the experience in Europe, in the Third World and in the United States suggests this is likely to be one of the great economic challenges of the 21st century and worthy of the Church’s reflection at the highest level.
The Church has criticized both political leadership and multinational institutions that have piled up outrageous debts in Third World countries, often exacerbated by grave problems with corruption. However, even where political corruption per se is not the problem, there remains the temptation to provide citizens with benefits that are not properly funded, putting off until tomorrow the hard decisions while currying political support for the next election.
At the same time, any larger social discussion of the cost of this indebtedness and the necessary strategies to live within our means must also entail a similar commitment to social solidarity. All of the recent popes have stressed the notion of solidarity with the poor and the disadvantaged.
Solidarity with the poor must be in conjunction with the fair distribution of the costs of such solidarity. A progressive tax rate is completely in keeping with Catholic social teaching and recognizes that to those who have been given much, much is expected.
Until we can have a political discussion that openly and honestly considers the benefits all sectors of society receive and the costs all sectors of society must bear, it is unlikely that we will be able to get our fiscal house in order.
Ultimately, we need leaders who will not simply cater to the prejudices and selfishness of various interest groups with an eye to the next election, but will speak honestly and forthrightly about what is at stake and what is necessary to be done. This may be too much to ask in the present climate of polarization and mistrust, yet without the honesty, fearlessness and humility that must come with true leadership, the price to be paid by our country will grow ever greater.