A bishop in New England recently suffered a series of public verbal attacks from some his state’s lawmakers — starting with the Catholic majority leader — for making a statement, in the midst of the legislature’s budget debate, on behalf of the poor and for the rights of unions. 

The language they used was inexcusable, especially because it ignored the substance of his comments and focused instead on his personal moral authority. 

But the underlying rationale of the accusations were: A bishop has no right to “interfere” in public policy debates like those on the budget. Really? 

One can argue about the bishop’s prudence, or naïveté, or reasoning, or even application of Catholic social justice principles. But to say that budget debates are off limits to a moral analysis from religious leaders is profoundly un-Catholic. 

One of the best measures of a government’s (or family’s, or individual’s) moral fiber is its allocation of financial resources. It is a statement of what is judged important and what is not. 

For the federal government, that is even more true today, considering there’s a lot less to go around, and many more hard spending decisions to make. The current course is unsustainable, with the national debt over $14 trillion dollars and budget deficits running over $1 trillion. A recent analysis indicates that, because of the tax code’s host of exemptions and deductions, nearly half of all Americans do not pay a dime in federal income taxes, while the nation’s wealthiest pay a much smaller proportion of their income in taxes today (17 percent) than they did just two decades ago (26 percent). 

The biggest temptation for lawmakers is to capitulate to those with the resources and media megaphones to advocate for their interests, and to ignore the interests of those who don’t have a voice in the Capitol — especially the poor and the unborn. 

That’s why the bishops — and every Catholic with a moral conscience — are duty-bound to speak up on behalf of the disadvantaged, even while encouraging a return to fiscal responsibility. 

“The moral measure of this budget debate is not which party wins or which powerful interests prevail, but rather how those who are jobless, hungry, homeless or poor are treated,” wrote Bishop Howard J. Hubbard of Albany, N.Y., and Bishop Stephen E. Blaire of Stockton, Calif., who oversee foreign and domestic policy on behalf of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, in a letter to the House of Representatives last month. “Their voices are too often missing in these debates, but they have the most compelling moral claim on our consciences and our common resources.” 

One obvious candidate for cuts should be federal funding to Planned Parenthood, which receives $361 million annually from taxpayers, or about 33 percent of its revenue — despite the fact that a majority of Americans describe themselves as pro-life. As Cardinal Daniel N. DiNardo of Galveston-Houston, the bishop’s chair on pro-life activities, wrote U.S. representatives last month: “The current and future budget debate will involve hard choices and much shared sacrifice. ... Whether to fund the largest abortion network in the country is not one of those hard choices.” 

Will the U.S. Congress be up to the task? That’s very much an open question. A few statements by bishops is unlikely to make them see the light. That’s why it is important that America’s 70 million Catholics transcend partisanship and insist their representatives make right moral choices.

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