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Boehner’s Catholic Critics Rush to Protect Welfare State


Speaker of the House John Boehner, a practicing Catholic, is scheduled to deliver the May 14 commencement address to the graduating class of the Catholic University of America (full disclosure: my alma mater). Now a group of Catholic academics, largely from Catholic University, have released what boils down to a theological/moral critique of the Ohio Republican’s voting record and, implicitly, his view of the state’s role in the economy.

The authors, who are drawn from multiple disciplines outside moral theology and include academics from architecture, media, social work, theatre, and dance departments from across the United States, say that the speaker’s voting record “is at variance from one of the Church’s most ancient moral teachings.”

Now what could that be? The Church’s teaching that marriage consists of one man and one woman for life? The Church’s insistence upon the need to legally protect unborn human life? Probably not, because Speaker Boehner has, from an orthodox Catholic standpoint, an excellent record on those questions, especially compared to his predecessor.

They go on: “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 are correct on this. The problem, from the point of view of the social doctrine of the Catholic Church, is their next judgment: “Your record in support of legislation to address the desperate needs of the poor is among the worst in Congress.”

To jump so seamlessly from the Magisterium’s insistence on the fundamental and non-negotiable moral obligation to the poor to the specifics of contingent, prudential, and political legislation is wholly unjustified in Catholic social teaching. One suspects that the moral theologians who signed this letter know that. It would be good for them to say so.

Surely they know what the American Bishops stated in their own 1986 Pastoral Letter, “Economic Justice for All” : “There are also many specific points on which men and women of good will may disagree. We look for a fruitful exchange among differing viewpoints.”

Surely they recall the statement of Blessed John XXIII in Mater et Magistra that, “When it comes to reducing these teachings to action, it sometimes happens that even sincere Catholic men have differing views. When this occurs, they should take care to have and to show mutual esteem and regard, and to explore the extent to which they can work in cooperation among themselves.” (no. 238)

And then there is that passage in Pope Benedict’s most recent social encyclical Caritas in Veritate: “The Church does not have technical solutions to offer.” (no. 9)

It appears then that these Catholic academicians who have written to Speaker Boehner do not understand the distinctions the Church herself makes between fundamental, non-negotiable dogmas and doctrines, and the prudential and debatable give and take when it comes to applying the principles of Catholic social teaching. Here Speaker Boehner need only consult the text of the Compendium of Catholic Social Teaching, which the authors of the letter say they have delivered to him, wherein he will read: “The Church’s Magisterium does not wish to exercise political power or eliminate the freedom of opinion of Catholics regarding contingent questions.” (no. 571)

The specifics of the 2012 Budget proposed by the Speaker and his colleagues are, the letter’s authors contend, the result of either ignorance or “dissent.”  I think they are neither; they simply reflect a different, and in many people’s estimation, more accurate and economically-informed way, of proposing how we achieve worthy goals. Indeed, it could be said that what these Catholic academicians are proposing is not a “preferential option for the poor,” but rather a preferential option for the State. They make the unfortunately common error of assuming that concern for the economically weak and marginalized must somehow translate into (yet another) government program.

That assumption is wrong, and flies in the face of another principle of Catholic social teaching — the principle of subsidarity. With good reason, this is something the Catholic Left — or whatever remains of it these days — rarely mentions or grapples with, because they know that it would raise many questions about the prudence of any number of welfare programs they support.

Indeed, what strikes me about this letter to Speaker Boehner is how reactionary it is. Instead of seeking to contribute to a creative discussion about how we best meet the needs of the poor in a time of economic difficulty, its authors cannot even begin to contemplate that there may be better ways to address such problems than government welfare programs. For a group of people who, I suspect, pride themselves upon having “progressive” views, their attachment to broken models from the past is rather perplexing and frankly, tiring.

— Rev. Robert A. Sirico is president and co-founder of the Acton Institute in Grand Rapids.