Editorial: Political leaders are taking us to the brink

Politics was once understood to be the art of the possible. These days, it seems better understood as the last resort of the unyielding. Real unemployment numbers remain stubbornly high. Real wages remain stubbornly stagnant. And real opportunities — both for first-time job seekers and victims of the Great Recession — remain stubbornly elusive.

Compounding these issues, a political standoff between the White House and the Senate on one hand and the House of Representatives on the other has meant that up to 800,000 federal employees are laid off by a partial government shutdown. A shutdown not only impacts those families, but a wide swath of society dependent on government services. While attention has been focused on the closure of national parks, the real impact on people is better illustrated by such services, such as Head Start, that help struggling families (see story, Page 4).

‘A just framework for future budgets cannot rely on disproportionate cuts in essential services to poor persons.’

And if this were not crisis enough for our nation, a refusal to put people before the political posturing may lead to a default on our national debt with potentially long-term consequences to the world economy.

The win-at-all-costs mindset of our increasingly dysfunctional political leaders is causing real pain among people and destabilizing uncertainty among businessmen and women. One voice of reason has been the U.S. bishops, who issued a letter Sept. 30, on the eve of the crisis, reminding our political leaders of the moral significance of their refusal to act: “We urge wise bipartisan leadership and moral clarity,” the bishops wrote, “in crafting a plan to ensure the government continues to operate and meet its responsibility to protect human life and dignity, care for poor and vulnerable people at home and abroad, and advance the universal common good.”

The letter, signed by Archbishop José H. Gomez, Bishop Stephen E. Blaire and Bishop Richard E. Pates on behalf of the U.S. bishops, recognizes the challenges created by “unsustainable deficits,” but emphasizes the responsibility of political leaders to protect the most vulnerable.

“A just framework for future budgets cannot rely on disproportionate cuts in essential services to poor persons,” the bishops wrote. “It requires shared sacrifice by all, including raising adequate revenues, eliminating unnecessary military and other spending, and addressing the long-term costs of health insurance and retirement programs fairly.”

Amid the current government gridlock, it is nearly impossible to take any stand that is not seen as somehow overtly political. Catholics might feel duty-bound to support one party or the other not because of the rightness of their position, but because of some affinity for other positions on which that party generally endorses.

It’s worth noting, too, that constituents are just as divided as their representatives. According to a Pew survey released Oct. 7, 44 percent of adults polled said Republican leaders should give in. Forty-two percent said Democrats should. In many ways, we are reaping what we have sown.

But in the maze of competing interests that is our political system, the bishops have tried to address underlying principles of justice for the poor and disadvantaged, rooting these principles in the historic teachings of the Catholic Church. We pray that our political leaders emulate the bishops and recover a sense both of the common good and of the nobility — much tarnished in recent years, unfortunately — of their vocation as servants of the people. 

Editorial Board: Greg Erlandson, publisher; Msgr. Owen F. Campion, associate publisher; Beth McNamara, editorial director; Gretchen R. Crowe, editor; Sarah Hayes, executive editor