In May, a group of academics wrote an open letter that was highly critical of House Speaker John Boehner, who was scheduled to address Catholic University’s graduates and receive an honorary degree.
Boehner’s offense? According to those who wrote the letter, he violated the principles of Catholic social teaching by pushing for budget policies that cut spending for a number of domestic programs, some of which are aimed at low-income households.
But is it really a violation of Catholic social teaching for a leading national politician, in good conscience, to support a budget plan that tightens the government’s belt—even if it means reducing funds for some programs that aid the poor?
The truth is: nothing would be worse for the poor and the vulnerable in the U.S. than a full-scale economic collapse, something that could very well happen if the nation does not get its fiscal house in order.
The risks are real: Recent projections show government debt will exceed 100% of the nation’s annual economic output by 2021, assuming today’s policies are extended into the future. That’s well past the danger zone. Change is coming, one way or another. The only question is whether our leaders will implement that change, including reductions in spending, in an orderly way or in the midst of a full-scale crisis.
Indeed, given the scale of the problem, one might think that Speaker Boehner has a solemn obligation to use his position to get the country to a better place in this regard. For the “common good,” we need a restoration of a sensible balance in public finances. Just ask the Greeks.
The criticism leveled against Boehner echoes past attacks on Republicans for pushing welfare reform in 1995 and 1996—an effort that eventually resulted in landmark legislation that President Bill Clinton signed into law. The head of Catholic Charities USA predicted at the time of passage that the new law would lead to “a national catastrophe….No one will be spared the consequences.”
But that’s not what happened. Instead of catastrophe, welfare reform brought some of the most positive social change for low income Americans in decades. Welfare caseloads plummeted as millions of former welfare recipients entered the workforce.
According to the Congressional Budget Office, between 1991 and 2005, low-income households with children saw an 80% increase in their real wage levels—a surge in financial stability that more than made up for the reduction in cash welfare support from state governments.
The erroneous predictions of a “catastrophe” provide a cautionary reminder for those who would lean on simplistic interpretations of Catholic social teaching to score points in a political debate. It’s certainly a clear principle of Catholic teaching that a society must take pains to care for those who can’t care for themselves. But that support needs to be provided in a pragmatic way that will work in the real world, not utopia.
For decades, the nation’s welfare system contributed to social disintegration by ignoring an iron law of economics, and human nature: when the federal government subsidizes particular behavior, there will be more of it. And so it has been with single motherhood.
Multiple social forces have fueled the decimation of the nuclear family in America’s inner cities over the past 60 years. But there’s little doubt that federal welfare policies contributed to the destruction. Governmental support for single mothers helped underwrite massive irresponsibility on the part of millions of absent fathers. Out-of-wedlock births are now the norm, and whole generations of Americans have grown up in communities nearly bereft of responsible men.
Welfare reform sought to break this cycle through a new emphasis on work, responsibility and marriage. Initially, Catholics who supported this groundbreaking law were accused of abandoning the social teachings of the Church—just as Boehner has been attacked this year. Yet, today, we no longer hear calls for the full repeal of welfare reform. Clearly, most experts have determined that reverting to the old system would be far worse for poor families than maintaining the 1996 reforms.
The lesson here is that Catholic social teaching can’t be used to provide cookbook answers to such problems. The Church’s principles are just that—principles. They must be applied in practice by lay people, based on the evidence they find in the social sciences, and their own reasoning.
In most instances, faithful and sincere lay Catholics will be found on both sides of raging political debates on tackling poverty and addressing the budget crisis. The only burden placed on Catholic citizens and policymakers is that they engage in honest debate, and never allow partisan loyalties to trump the moral judgment of their conscience, formed by a faithful understanding of the Church’s teachings.
The United States faces daunting challenges. Catholic social teaching provides the roadmap for addressing them. But—with the important exceptions of defending the sanctity of human life and traditional marriage—those principles leave significant room for the laity to use reason and judgment to reach their own conclusions about the best way forward.
Catholics engaged in these debates would be wise to keep that in mind and to invoke their own arguments, rather than agencies of the Church, to bolster their case.
James C. Capretta is a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. He was an associate director at the Office of Management and Budget from 2001 to 2004.