Boston, Mass. - Catholic Democrats is calling Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York, the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), to clarify comments he made in a letter (dated May 18, 2011) sent to U.S. Representative Paul Ryan (R-WI) that threatens to undermine the principles of Catholic Social Justice in his supportive words of the assertions made by Congressman Ryan regarding the priorities in Ryan's budget. Catholic Democrats further calls on all U.S. bishops to publicly advocate for the poor, the elderly and working families in the midst of a divisive national debate that threatens to dismantle federal social safety programs for the most vulnerable members of our society.
Representative Ryan's budget, which was passed by the U.S. House of Representative in April, would retain tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans while slashing important social services such as Medicaid, which provides health care services to the poor, and privatizing the Medicare program, which analysts estimate would cost the elderly on average thousands of dollars a year. Additionally, among other programs, the Ryan Budget makes deep cuts to the SNAP program (more commonly known as food stamps) and cuts to the Women Infants and Children nutrition program.
"The Ryan budget, which would dramatically decrease federal investments in jobs, healthcare, research and nutrition programs, appears to be a Republican effort primarily intended to sabotage the fragile economic recovery in an attempt to undermine President Obama's chances of reelection. As Catholics, we cannot stand by and allow special interests to enrich themselves like this at the expense of the most vulnerable in society," said Dr Patrick Whelan, president of Catholic Democrats. "Archbishop Dolan must urgently clarify why he appears to be at odds with his brother bishops on standing up for the poor in the face of this unconscionable attempt to fund tax cuts for wealthy Americans at everyone else's expense."
Archbishop Dolan responded on May 18th to a letter from Mr. Ryan (dated April 29, 2011), saying, "As you allude to in your letter, the budget is not just about numbers. It reflects the very values of our nation. As many religious leaders have commented, budgets are moral statements... The late Blessed Pope John Paul II was clear about this when he said: 'When there is question of defending the rights of individuals, the defenseless and the poor have a claim to special consideration' (Centesimus Annus, 10, citing Rerum Novarum, 37). In any transition that seeks to bring new proposals to current problems in order to build a better future, care must be taken that those currently in need not be left to suffer."
Archbishop Dolan goes on to say, "I appreciate your assurance that your budget would be attentive to such considerations [a preferential option for the poor] and would protect those at risk in the processes and programs of such a transition," indicating his support - at face value - of the assertions Representative Ryan made in his letter to the archbishop. In Representative Ryan's letter to Archbishop Dolan, he states, "The proposal is consistent with the preferential option for the poor, providing more support for low income groups and the sick, and slows the growth of support for the wealthiest Americans with less need."
A group of Catholic theologians and scholars disagree with Ryan's assertion. In a letter to U.S. Representative John Boehner (R-OH) on May 11, 2011, which was prompted by an invitation to Mr. Boehner to be the keynote address at the Catholic University of America graduation ceremony, they state, "Mr. Speaker, your voting record is at variance from one of the Church's most ancient moral teachings. From the apostles to the present, the Magisterium of the Church has insisted that those in power are morally obliged to preference the needs of the poor." They go on to say, "The 2012 [Ryan] budget you shepherded to passage in the House of Representatives guts long-established protections for the most vulnerable members of society."
Archbishop Dolan also expressly agrees with Representative Ryan's assertion regarding a principle of Catholic social doctrine called "subsidiarity," which relates to the role of government. According to the Office of Social Justice of the Archdiocese of St. Paul - Minneapolis, "the state has a positive moral function. ... One of the key functions of government is to assist citizens in fulfilling their responsibility to others in society. ... According to the principle of subsidiarity, the functions of government should be performed at the lowest level possible, as long as they can be performed adequately. If they cannot, then a higher level of government should intervene to provide help."
Ryan states that, "In American political terms, this is the same purpose as 'federalism.' ... 'Subsidiary' and 'federalism' both counsel that the states, as 'subordinate organizations' closer to the people, can do better in applying funds to the neediest." Dolan states, "Thus you rightly pointed out Pope John Paul's comments on the limits of what he termed the 'Social Assistance State.'" Dolan's support of Ryan's assertion is a de-facto support of Republican ideology of a smaller federal government that provides fewer services to the poor, instead placing this responsibility in the hands of the states.
However, Ryan's assertion is not be supported by Bishop Stephen Blaire (Diocese of Stockton) and Chairman of the Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development, and Bishop Howard Hubbard (Diocese of Albany) and Chairman of the Committee on International Justice and Peace. In a letter to sent to all U.S. senators (dated May 5, 2011), they state, "Cost cutting proposals should not simply shift health care costs from the federal government to the states or directly to beneficiaries. Such measures could leave more elderly, working families and poor people without the assurance of adequate and affordable health care."
Bishops Blaire and Hubbard also take exception to Ryan's assertion that his budget is "consistent with the preferential option for the poor, providing more support for low income groups and the sick." They said, "We also are deeply concerned about the human and social costs of substantial cuts to programs that serve families working to escape poverty, especially food and nutrition, child development and education, and affordable housing programs." They also express concern for the 30% cut in foreign aid, saying, "we ask the Senate to support poverty-focused assistance and to continue reform of foreign assistance so it is even more effective for the poorest people in the poorest places on earth."
"Archbishop Dolan's letter is being interpreted by some as an endorsement of Ryan's budget," said Steve Krueger, national director of Catholic Democrats. "We do not think that was his intention, especially given the Conference's continued concern about how budget cuts affect the poor in previous statements issued by the USCCB. Studies have shown that 'helping the poor' is the most important part of a Catholics identity. Catholics, and people of goodwill, do not have to be theologians to understand when the poor are being are hurt and the Ryan budget does that. Archbishop Dolan should immediately clarify his letter to Congressman Ryan for the common good."