A Catholic Democrat's take on social teaching, budgets and taxes

When my mother-in-law moved into a nursing home the costs soon consumed her life’s savings. It was an anxious time, but Medicaid was there to help. Our family’s story is not uncommon. Figures vary, but about 60 percent of the elderly in nursing homes rely on Medicaid to pay for their care. 

At the beginning of life, Medicaid also pays for about one-third of all births in America. Maybe you know a scared young mom who needed such help. If you are pro-life, like me you realize what support for these births can mean. 

Or maybe, like I do, you have a friend who lost his job and, despite best efforts, hasn’t found work. Unable to stretch unemployment insurance enough to make ends meet, he was embarrassed to need help, but at least he was able to feed his kids with food stamps. Maybe you, too, know a divorced mom with a special-needs child who is able to make it because of Women, Infants and Children (WIC) nutrition assistance. We all know people in these situations. They’re our neighbors, our friends, our relatives. Maybe we’ve been there, too — or worry that someday it might be us or our loved ones in such circumstances. 

Rep. Paul Ryan, the GOP’s 2012 budget strategist, would cut all these programs and many others like them just when folks are struggling to stay afloat. The economic reality is grim. About 1 in 7 Americans live in poverty now. Religious and other charities are desperate and face huge shortfalls in donations. Food banks have a 50 percent surge in demand, while state and local governments’ budget shortfalls are forcing cuts rather than help. Instead of trying to balance the budget in a way that protects the most vulnerable — as both parties did in past hard times — Ryan would cut food stamps by 20 percent, would turn away as many as 450,000 poor women and infants from WIC nutrition assistance, and reduce Maternal and Child Health Grants by one-third. Over the next decade he would cut $1.5 trillion from federal Medicaid payments. 

Rep. Ryan would gut these critical, life-supporting programs at the same time that his budget would give almost $3 trillion in new tax cuts that overwhelmingly benefit millionaires and corporations. 

Catholic teachings tell us that public officials must put the vulnerable foremost in their policy decisions. Sure, our Church encourages personal charity; it also promotes local help, and it understands its own call to serve the vulnerable. But, important as such subsidiary efforts are, our Church also insists that national governments cannot shirk responsibility for those needing a helping hand. Every social encyclical since Pope Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum in 1891 has insisted that this is a fundamental duty for any government, reflecting a vision that Rep. Ryan and followers of Ayn Rand’s so-called “virtue of selfishness” do not seem fully to understand. 

In our Church’s tradition, a nation is not a bunch of individuals selfishly competing with one another in a “survival of the fittest” fight for success. Instead of competition, the Church preaches that caritas (love or care) should be the heart of public life. Caritas should direct governing. This isn’t soft-hearted silliness. It must be, as our pope titled his encyclical, Caritas in Veritate — caritas sharpened by truth, truth that requires Mother Church to engage prophetically in political life to remind the powerful that the common good is measured by those Jesus called “the least of these” (Mt 25). 

Like Rep. Ryan, I, too, believe that we must address the national debt. But it’s wrong — it’s immoral — to do this by shredding already stretched safety nets that save lives and give a bit of dignity to those in need. Maybe the rich can forgo more tax breaks? Maybe we can reduce some giveaways to Wall Street? Maybe we can trim weapon systems that the military does not even want? Before we cut Medicaid funds for our elderly and needy, or take food stamps away from hungry kids or slash programs for at-risk moms and babies, let’s pray that those in power — especially Catholics such as Ryan — reflect humbly on the Church’s ancient teachings and consider if there is not some other way. 

Since February the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has sent several letters to Congress, pleading with politicians not to balance the budget on the backs of the vulnerable. Recently the conference followed up on these letters by sending out a national alert asking Catholics to write letters to Congress to remind the powerful of three things: 

1. Budgets must protect human life and dignity. 

2. Needs of the hungry and homeless, those without work or poor should come first. 

3. Government and other institutions have a responsibility to promote the common good of all, especially ordinary workers and families struggling to live in dignity in difficult times. 

I keep thinking about my mother-in-law, about my unemployed friend and his kids, about the divorced mom who needs help. It’s only a little thing, but when you get home from Sunday Mass, why not support the bishops’ conference and write a letter to your congressperson? 

Stephen Schneck is director of the Institute for Policy Research & Catholic Studies at The Catholic University of America.