In recent weeks, bishops around the country have been urging states and local governments not to solve their fiscal woes on the backs of the poor. As the budget wars heat up, both on the federal level and in states and municipalities, it seems clear that our nation will need to enter an extended period of belt-tightening, affecting even some important social assistance programs. It will fall on individuals to ensure that the poor in their communities don’t fall through the cracks. 

There’s a precedent for that, as our special section on charitable giving this week shows (Pages 9-16). The Great Depression saw an outpouring of neighborly generosity, and the birth of movements like Catholic Worker to serve Christ “in the least of these.” That is an important legacy left to us by a previous generation. 

At the same time, Catholics have reason to be concerned about the moral implications of government budgets. 

No economist — or anybody who has used a checkbook register — believes the path our federal government is on is sustainable. This year we’re taking in $2.2 trillion, and spending $3.8 trillion. That’s creating the biggest budget deficit in our country’s history. 

President Barack Obama appears not to have the appetite to adopt some of the key proposals last fall of his own bipartisan budget commission, known as Simpson-Bowles, which recommended a combination of tax hikes and spending cuts to get the debt under control by 2035. 

Some 80 percent of the president’s proposed $3.7 trillion budget for 2012 goes simply to interest payments ($474 billion) on our debt, the Department of Defense ($553 billion), Social Security ($808 billion) and Medicare ($1.1 trillion). 

Even with various cuts in so-called discretionary spending, the White House acknowledges that the plan will nearly double our national debt over the next 10 years to $26.35 trillion. 

In coming weeks, congressional Republicans will be drafting their own budget proposal. They’re promising slash-and-burn spending cuts, although details are still unclear. 

The vast majority of the posturing and political bickering in Washington is over the roughly 12 percent of the budget that is discretionary spending. It should be clear to all — politicians included — that even eliminating all discretionary spending isn’t going to solve the problem, while it would mightily impact many socially worthwhile programs. 

Both major political parties seem to suffer a lack of realism, or at least a lack of courage in making a tough but necessary case to their constituents. Democrats won’t hear of touching entitlements. Republicans won’t hear of raising taxes. Both will be needed. 

As David Stockman, President Ronald Reagan’s former budget director, noted in a recent interview: “We simply can’t get by on the level of revenue that we have today given the size of government that everyone seems to want.” 

For Catholics, this should all be a cause of concern. The worsening economic health of our country — evidenced by irresponsible debt and deficits — will hurt the poor worst of all, not least because they don’t have legions of lobbyists advocating their interests in Washington. That this concern is justified applied even in the Obama budget, which would cut 7 percent from assistance to low income children and families. 

The inevitable sacrifices ahead must be equitable and proportionate to one’s means and blessings. Catholic agencies work mightily to protect the poor, but the Church’s voice must be heard in the debate over long-term solutions that ultimately will impact all of us.

Editorial Board: Greg Erlandson, publisher; Msgr. Owen F. Campion, associate publisher; Beth McNamara, editorial director; John Norton, editor; Sarah Hayes, presentation editor