Needed: A creative Catholic voice in budget debate

Social justice vs. social issues. The continuing split between Catholic advocates of these two supposedly opposed areas of concern has been a focus of internal debate in the Church for years. 

Now, as Congress and the Obama administration grapple with how to lower the federal deficit before it strangles the economy, the tension may very well grow worse. 

Unless — almost miraculously — it somehow gets healed as an unanticipated dividend of deficit reduction itself. 

Long shot though it admittedly is, that could conceivably happen if Catholics on both sides of the argument joined forces in tapping the full resources of Church teaching on human development and applied them to the political and economic debate. 

Few people doubt that soaring federal deficits do indeed pose a threat to the nation’s fiscal health. It’s clear, too, that, in general terms, the solution requires some mix of increased revenue and decreased spending. 

Provider or enabler 

But in what proportions? And how to increase revenue and cut spending? Questions like these, already hotly debated, will play a major role in next year’s election. 

Underlying the arguments of partisans is a clash between two fundamentally different views of government that might be called “social democracy” and “democratic capitalism.” In essence, social democracy sees government as a provider, giving people goods and services they need, while democratic capitalism assigns government the role of enabler, making it possible for people to get what they need by their own choices and efforts. 

On one point nevertheless nearly everyone of whatever persuasion agrees: The burdens of raising public revenues and cutting government spending should be shared equitably. Beyond that, however, just about every group with interests at stake — the elderly, the military, union members, the ethanol industry, people earning more than $250,000 a year, and on and on — has champions happy to argue that it should be spared. 

Not surprisingly, churches tend to champion the poor. In a typical recent instance of that, a coalition of Christian leaders including Catholic bishops, the National Association of Evangelicals, the National Council of Churches, Bread for the World, the Salvation Army, and others joined in a statement calling for a “circle of protection” for government programs for hungry and poor people in the United States and overseas. 

Catholic signers included bishops who chair the U.S. bishops’ committees on international justice and peace and domestic justice and human development, as well as the presidents of Catholic Relief Services and Catholic Charities USA. 

Lesson from welfare 

The “moral measure” of budget cutting, the religious leaders declared, is “how the most poor and vulnerable people fare.” 

The point is well taken. Yet precedent suggests that issue may be more complicated than generalizations suggest. 

Back in the 1980s and 1990s, government welfare came under fire for creating a culture of dependency that rewarded people for staying poor. Changes were urged that would encourage those who could work to take jobs and give up their reliance on the welfare crutch. But welfare reform was opposed at the time by many religious groups, including Catholic ones. 

In the end, Congress passed reform legislation and President Bill Clinton signed it into law. To the opponents’ surprise, it worked. Welfare reform is now rated one of the big successes of U.S. domestic policy in the 1990s. 

The facts are different in the present debate, and the poor obviously need protecting. But instead of simply circling wagons around the status quo, mightn’t Catholic spokesmen use the present moment to press for changes that tackle the roots of poverty more creatively than anything now in sight? 

For instance: With 41 percent of children born in the United States now born out of wedlock, reform might come to grips with the fact that households headed by single females have only two-fifths the median income of married families, and a child born to an unwed mother is six times more likely to experience poverty than a child born to married parents. 

Compassion and realism combine to suggest that, without cutting assistance to single-parent households, government could save money in the long run by encouraging people to get married.

Catholic spokesmen for their part have an opportunity to frame their participation in the policy debate in reference to a principle that occupies a central place in the social teaching of popes up to and including Pope Benedict XVI: integral human development. 

Authentic development 

In his 2009 social encyclical, Caritas in Veritate (“Charity in Truth”), Pope Benedict said development that “does not involve the whole man and every man” is “not true development.” 

A striking feature of the encyclical was its linking of life ethics and social ethics, which the pontiff traced to earlier encyclicals by Popes John Paul II and Paul VI. In combination with the principle of integral development, this points to a comprehensive platform on which “social-justice Catholics” and “social-issue Catholics” could unite to confront problems like family breakdown, illegitimacy and single parenthood, no-fault divorce, failing schools, drugs, and early dropping out of school that create and sustain a culture of poverty. 

In the middle of a heated national debate about cutting back on federal spending? Exactly. With much else up for grabs right now, why not contribute some creative thinking from the Catholic tradition to the discussion? Catholic social-justice people and Catholic social-issue people have the resources of Catholic social doctrine at their disposal for that purpose. 

Russell Shaw is an OSV contributing editor.

How did we get here (sidebar)

A Gallup poll late last month found an overwhelming majority of Americans blamed the federal deficit problem on unneeded or wasteful government programs, not on insufficient taxes. 

Spending too much on programs - Americans 73, Republicans 91, Independents 73, Democrats 56 

Not raising enough money in taxes - Americans 22, Republicans 7, Independents 20, Democrats 38 

No opinion - Americans 5, Republicans 2, Independents 7, Democrats 6