The warmth with which elderly Catholic nuns have been greeted on their cross-country bus tour to protest Republican cuts to the federal budget is hugely encouraging. The sisters and I may disagree about certain things, particularly the budget plan of Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan -- who is Catholic -- but what a blessed country we live in, where a major public argument centers on how to best care for the poor and unfortunate.
One reporter said the nuns were "greeted like heroes" outside Ryan's office. "For the sisters, the tour is about more than debating points," a Huffington Post dispatch said, citing the nuns' participation in various social welfare projects during their journey. A reminder that we have responsibilities to one another is exactly what you'd hope to see from women dedicated to God and His service.
Bishop Robert Morlino of Madison, Wis., gave Ryan a vote of confidence while affirming the work of so many religious orders in a recent interview, saying that the congressman's budget is "in accord with Catholic principles."
Ryan's done something very positive by taking Catholic social teaching seriously in his role as House Budget Committee chairman. He's engaged with bishops and laymen. No political party should own "social justice," and at a time when the very ability of Church organizations to freely carry out their mission to serve as Jesus did has been compromised by the federal government, it's a crucial moment for this sort of discussion.
The Rev. Robert Sirico, president of the Michigan-based Acton Institute, has a project called PovertyCure that is an important part of this advancing conversation. Its goal is "advancing entrepreneurial solutions to poverty." PovertyCure wonders if we've been asking the wrong questions about the causes of poverty and how to address them.
"PovertyCure is different because it places the focus on the human person, created in the image of God, with dignity and creative capacity as the source of wealth," Sirico tells me. "The dominant model among both secular and religious agencies has been one of aid or charity. PovertyCure shifts the focus to unleashing the entrepreneurial capacity that already fills the developing world. Long-term sustainable development does not come from aid or charity but from helping to foster the conditions where people create wealth and prosperity for themselves, their families and their communities."
The PovertyCure website (povertycure.org) gives you a sense of the approach, which is to do what every good teacher does: unleash potential. Rudy Carrasco, a Christian minister, explains: "Everybody has capacity, talent, and ability. Everybody has responsibility ... You have a responsibility to be a steward of the resources under your control because you have a heavenly Father who has put great things inside of you and that's waiting to be called out and developed and extracted."
I'd like to think that the nuns on the bus would be encouraged.
For all too long, we've tolerated insulting public conversations about moral responsibilities in economic life. Something similar has been happening in the religious-freedom debate over the Department of Health and Human Services' abortion-coverage mandate and other federal threats to conscience, where one side tries to drown out serious concerns with cries of "war on women," and other shallow obfuscations.
Sirico writes in his new book, "Defending the Free Market": "Freedom without a moral orientation has no guiding star. On the other hand, when a people surrenders (its) freedom to the government -- the freedom to make moral, economic, religious, and social choices and then take personal responsibility for the consequences -- virtue tends to waste away and faith itself grows cold."
The nuns on the bus may not be cheerleaders for the bishops, but their road trip can be viewed as an important accompaniment. Fundamentally, this debate we're having regarding God and Caesar is about much more than a presidential election: It's about who we are as a people and whether we merely tolerate or actually welcome religious believers as economic and political participants. The sisters and the bishops are on the same page, there.
Any social and media discourse treating religion respectfully should be cause for thanks -- for without freedom, no one's got a prayer.