It’s the ultimate in Catholic double standards: a website called www.PrayForPaulsChangeOfHeart.org launched this week, calling for Catholics to pray that he abandons his Path to Prosperity budget in favor of something more in line with the Church’s social justice teachings. If you click around, you can also find a page with one sentence requesting prayers for Vice President Joe Biden, noted adamant supporter of the pro-choice cause. (It says nothing of Kathleen Sebelius, whose Mass attendance doesn’t exactly jive with her record of eschewing established Catholic doctrine.)
In condemning Ryan’s budget, the site pulls from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ letter to Ryan, which outlines the criteria the Church feels a Catholic policymaker ought to consider when crafting budgetary policy:
1. Every budget decision should be assessed by whether it protects or threatens human life and dignity.
2. A central moral measure of any budget proposal is how it affects “the least of these” (Matthew 25). The needs of those who are hungry and homeless, without work or in poverty should come first.
3. Government and other institutions have a shared responsibility to promote the common good of all, especially ordinary workers and families who struggle to live in dignity in difficult economic times.
Of course, it’s very easy for a Catholic capitalist to dispute each of these claims – first and foremost, how does it serve the poor if the government continues down its current path to bankruptcy? – and this potential for argument creates a crucial distinction between budgetary policy and life issues. A budget has room for interpretation, and there are different ways to construct the social safety net; abortion, however, is a clear-cut issue, a literal matter of life or death.
In fact, as Ryan’s own bishop, Robert C. Morlino notes, the Catholic Church has a prerogative to approach matters concerning “intrinsic evil” – i.e. abortion – head-on, and leave to the lay people those matters where intrinsic evil is not present.
Making decisions as to the best political strategies, the best policy means, to achieve a goal, is the mission of lay people, not bishops or priests. As Pope Benedict himself has said, a just society and a just state is the achievement of politics, not the Church. And therefore Catholic laymen and women who are familiar with the principles dictated by human reason and the ecology of human nature, or non-Catholics who are also bound by these same principles, are in a position to arrive at differing conclusions as to what the best means are for the implementation of these principles — that is, “lay mission” for Catholics.
Thus, it is not up to me or any bishop or priest to approve of Congressman Ryan’s specific budget prescription to address the best means we spoke of. Where intrinsic evils are not involved, specific policy choices and political strategies are the province of Catholic lay mission. But, as I’ve said, 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 mentioned above. Of that I have no doubt. (I mention this matter in obedience to Church Law regarding one’s right to a good reputation.)
So I’m going to be a little blunter about it: the Catholic Church needs to shut up about Paul Ryan’s budget.
Now, I say this as a devout Catholic myself, but one who is absolutely fed up with watching the Church stick its nose into matters of fiscal policy. Indeed, the Church, and indeed, all of us as individuals, have a moral obligation to aid the least among us, as Christ calls us to do. But as the savior of the world Himself said, render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, and unto God what is God’s. The Catholic Church has mixed itself up with Caesar, and conflated its mission to serve the poor with government subsidized entitlement programs.
The government is not responsible for administering care to the least among us – the government can’t accomplish this! It’s much too big, and too far removed. This is a basic principle of Catholic social justice teaching, called subsidiarity. To quote Bishop Morlino once more:
At the same time, the time-tested best way for assisting our neighbors throughout the world should follow the principle of subsidiarity. That means the problem at hand should be addressed at the lowest level possible — that is, the level closest to the people in need. That again, is simply the law of human reason.
Who, then, is best equipped to take a hands-on approach to alleviating the crisis of poverty: a large, ungainly, centralized federal government, or ministers of the Catholic Church, who are guided not by paychecks and days off, but rather by a sense of purpose and love?
The Church has spent the last half-year engaged in a moral battle with the government over the Health and Human Services contraception mandate, after spending a good deal of time before that trying to work with the government to pass a healthcare reform bill it found palatable (for the record, the USCCB did not support Obamacare in the end, but only because it contained pro-abortion policies). How ludicrous that the Church would attempt to work its agenda into government-sponsored programming, and then balk when the government fails to adhere to Catholic doctrine. We don’t live in a Catholic theocracy, and it’s not the federal government’s job to carry out the Church’s mission.
Moreover, paying taxes which are then redistributed to the poor does not constitute charity; that’s a federally-imposed financial burden, not love. Again, render unto Caesar what is his, but to God what is God’s. The Catholic Church will never totally get its way when working with the government, because those in government don’t hold the Church’s interests at heart.
If American Catholics want a vice presidential candidate to condemn, then by all means, look to Joe Biden. His well-documented position on life issues aside, consider his abominable record of personal charity: he’s a man of considerable wealth, and yet in 2011, he donated 1.5% of his income to charitable causes. This is what happens when we fool ourselves into thinking that taxes are a form of charity. Real charity is stamped out when we decide that it’s a virtue to pass the buck on caring for the least among us to the government.
All this is to say, there's some misplaced "Catholic outrage" at play here. To pray that Catholic politicians make decisions that reflect their faith is a wonderful thing to do. But condemning a man who adheres to absolute life doctrine while taking a fiscally conservative position on an issue of no intrinsic evil -- all while ignoring the much more blatant sins present in certain other politicians -- is morally dishonest.
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