Catholic social justice principles — including the preferential option for the poor, solidarity and subsidiarity — rarely enter the mainstream media discussion, much less during a presidential campaign season.
But that appears to be changing now that U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) is running for vice president with former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee.
Several media critics, including The New York Times editorial page, have recently noted that the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops earlier this year criticized Ryan’s federal budget plan that seeks to address the ballooning national debt through a series of government spending cuts, entitlement reforms, tax loophole closures and reductions in individual and corporate tax rates.
In several letters to Congress, the bishops conference’s Committee on Domestic Justice and Development has said that Ryan’s budget proposal — known as the “Path to Prosperity” — fails to meet the moral criteria for evaluating budgets because the plan would result in disproportionately huge cuts to social programs, such as food stamps, that the poor depend upon.
“We should prioritize programs that serve the ‘least of these,’ not eliminate them,” Bishop Stephen E. Blaire, chairman of the Committee on Domestic Justice and Development, wrote in a May 8 letter to Congress.
The proposed plan
Ryan, a Catholic and chairman of the U.S. House Budget Committee, has defended his budget by arguing it is compatible with Catholic social teaching.
Ryan wrote a column last year for Our Sunday Visitor where he said his budget proposal honors the principle of subsidiarity and benefits the poor by growing the economy, which he argued can be accomplished in part by curbing government borrowing and spending.
“Our budget helps the poor, first and foremost, by promoting urgently needed economic growth and job creation,” said Ryan.
While the USCCB has taken Ryan’s plan to task, some individual bishops have defended the vice presidential candidate. Bishop Robert C. Morlino of Madison, Wis., praised Ryan as “a brother in the Faith” in his diocesan newspaper, and added that Catholics can disagree on applications of Catholic social doctrine into policy proposals.
“Vice Presidential Candidate Ryan is aware of Catholic social teaching and is very careful to fashion and form his conclusions in accord with the principles (of Catholic social justice),” Bishop Morlino said.
The bishops’ concerns
During a USCCB meeting in June, Bishop Earl Boyea of Lansing, Mich., and Archbishop Joseph Naumann of Kansas City expressed concerns that the conference’s criticisms of the Ryan plan fueled perceptions that the bishops conference is partisan and constantly demanding more government spending. They said the debate over government fiscal policy is best handled by the laity.
“We need to talk about the (national) debt and the real seriousness of that debt,” Archbishop Naumann said.
“The Path to Prosperity” aims to make debt reduction a priority. The plan proposes to turn Medicaid — the federal health insurance program for the poor — into a block grant that the federal government would give to the individual states, giving them more discretion over how to use those funds.
Medicare would be transformed into a voucher system where future beneficiaries — currently under age 55 — would be given a fixed sum to purchase private insurance. The eligibility age would be changed from 65 to 67 by 2034. Annual Medicare spending would be capped, and not allowed to exceed the growth of the economy by more than a half-percentage point.
The Ryan plan would also repeal the Affordable Care Act, dubbed Obamacare by opponents, cut the individual income tax brackets from six to two — 10 percent and 25 percent — and cut the corporate tax rate to 25 percent.
Ryan’s budget would cut $3.3 trillion in non-defense spending — such as Medicaid, food stamps, public housing, Pell Grants and job training — over the next 10 years, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, which noted that the figure represents about 62 percent of Ryan’s proposed reductions.
Several analyses of Ryan’s budget are skeptical of its effectiveness. The non-partisan Congressional Budget Office said Ryan’s plan would not balance the federal budget until 2040. The CBO also reported that Ryan’s Medicare overhaul would have beneficiaries paying a larger share of their health care costs than they would under the current program, and that it would result in reduced access to medical care.
There is also the question of whether the plan’s tax cuts benefit the rich over the poor. The Urban-Brookings Institute Tax Policy Center reports that people earning $1 million a year would see a 12.5 percent increase in their annual income while households earning $20,000 to $30,000 a year would see no tax cuts.
Those earning $50,000 to $70,000 a year would get an average tax cut of $1,000, and see their after-tax incomes grow by about 2 percent.
With those kinds of analyses in mind, almost 90 Georgetown University faculty members and administrators in April sent a letter to Ryan in advance of his scheduled appearance on campus.
Jesuit Father Thomas J. Reese, a senior fellow at the Woodstock Theological Center, wrote that Ryan’s budget reflected the values of Ayn Rand, the novelist/philosopher who advocated individualism and laissez-faire capitalism whom Ryan has cited as a intellectual influence.
“Survival of the fittest may be OK for Social Darwinists but not for the followers of the gospel of compassion and love,” Father Reese wrote.
Stephen Schneck, director of the Institute for Policy Research & Catholic Studies at The Catholic University of America, told Our Sunday Visitor that while he believes Ryan is a “good guy and a good Catholic,” his budget would mean “devastating” cuts for the poor.
“I think those cuts are immoral, a moral failure on the part of this budget proposal,” said Schneck, who disclosed that he is supporting President Barack Obama’s re-election bid.
“We are morally obliged as a civilization to care for people who can’t take care of themselves,” said Schneck.
Bishop Blaire’s letter called for a “circle of protection” for anti-poverty programs and added that a just framework for future budgets cannot rely on disproportionate cuts in essential services to poor persons.
Ryan addressed those criticisms earlier this year in an interview on EWTN’s “The World Over,” where he argued that government social programs are not effective at breaking the cycle of poverty. Helping the poor become self-sufficient and preventing the federal debt from crushing civil society, Ryan said, ultimately benefits everybody in the long run.
Either way, Schneck said he was “super excited” to see Catholic social teaching being featured in the national political debate.
“I love the idea that we’re using this vast array of Catholic intellectual tools,” Schneck said. “It’s great for America and it shows how valuable and necessary Catholic social teachings are.”
Brian Fraga writes from Texas.