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Shepherding Moral Economic Policy: Paul Ryan and Archbishop Dolan’s Dialogue on Catholic Social Teaching and the Federal Budget


Catholic university professors last week engaged in a tired broadside against Speaker of the House John Boehner as he was set to deliver the commencement speech at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.

This week, something much more constructive: The public presentation of an ongoing dialogue between Paul Ryan, a Catholic from Wisconsin, who is the House Budget committee chairman, and Archbishop Timothy Dolan, the president of the Catholic bishop’s conference, about Catholic social teaching and its application to the current budget debate.

In his letter of April 29, Ryan wrote:

The House Budget’s overarching concern is to control and end the mortal threat of exploding debt.  By scaling back Washington’s excesses, the budget will reduce deficits by $4.4 trillion over the next decade compared to the President’s budget proposal.  The House Budget is intended to restore the confidence of job creators in order to encourage expansion, growth, and hiring today.  The budget better targets assistance to those in need, repairs the social safety net, and fulfills the mission of health and retirement security for all Americans.  The budget reforms welfare for those who need it — the poor, sick, and vulnerable; it ends welfare for those who don’t — entrenched corporations, the wealthiest Americans.  It’s a plan of action aimed at strengthening economic security for seniors, workers, families, and the poor.

Congressman Ryan concluded:

although the Budget is Congress’ comprehensive spending and revenue plan, my colleagues and I, in developing this Budget, never forgot that the Budget is not just about numbers but about the character and common good of the American people.  This Budget is rooted in the dignity of the human person.  It honors responsibility to family and self, work, self-restraint, community, and self-government both individually and collectively.  The vast network of centralized bureaucracies under a government that grows without limits has reached the point where an increasing majority of citizens are now receiving

Our Budget marks out a new path that restores and respects human dignity by addressing these concerns, encouraging our people to take control of their well-being, to make wise choices about the future of their families, in work, education, investment, savings and all areas of social life.  Sustaining national moral character and human dignity have been our paramount goal in developing this Budget. 

Nothing but hardship and pain can result from putting off the issue of the coming debt crisis, as many who unreasonably oppose this Budget seem willing to do.  Those who represent the people, including myself, have a moral obligation, implicit in the Church’s social teaching, to address difficult basic problems before they explode into social crisis. 

This is what we have done, to the best of our ability, in our Fiscal Year 2012 Budget Resolution.  

I hope these facts, considered in the light of the social Magisterium, contribute to the ongoing healthy dialogue about the nation’s budget and the economic foundations that make possible the exceptional generosity of Americans of every faith.

New York Archbishop Dolan responded, in part:

I deeply appreciate your letter’s assurances of your continued attention to the guidance of Catholic social justice in the current delicate budget considerations in Congress.  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.

As is so clear from your correspondence, the light of our faith — anchored in the Bible, the tradition of the Church, and the Natural Law — can help illumine and guide solid American constitutional wisdom.  Thus I commend your letter’s attention to the important values of fiscal responsibility; sensitivity to the foundational role of the family; the primacy of the dignity of the human person and the protection of all human life; a concrete solicitude for the poor and the vulnerable, especially those who are hungry and homeless, without work or in poverty; and putting into practice the principles of solidarity and subsidiarity, here at home and internationally within the context of a commitment to the common good shared by government and other mediating institutions alike.

The archbishop also wrote:

The principles of subsidiarity and solidarity are interrelated to one another.  The late Pope reminded us that, “ . . . the principle of subsidiarity must be respected: a community of a higher order should not interfere in the internal life of a community of a lower order, depriving the latter of its functions, but rather should support it in case of need and help to coordinate its activity with the activities of the rest of society, always with a view to the common good. (Centesimus Annus, 48).”  Thus you rightly pointed out Pope John Paul’s comments on the limits of what he termed the “Social Assistance State.”

Your letter is correct in observing that the Church makes an essential contribution to society when she raises up moral principles to help guide and inform decisions about public policy in a compelling way.  We bishops are very conscious that we are pastors, never politicians.  As the Second Vatican Council reminds us, it is the lay faithful who have the specific charism of political leadership and decision (Lumen Gentium, 31; Apostolicam Actuositatem 13).  The high call to public service which you have nobly answered entitles you and all our elected officials to our respect and constant prayer.  Thanks to you and your colleagues for accepting that call.

The two have also communicated by phone on the issue, Ryan’s office tells me.

This is a healthy, serious breakthrough of an exchange about moral responsibilities in legislating. Neither party is the keeper of Catholic social thought. And whatever one believes theologically, it offers important and challenging guidance that should be grappled with. 

And so it is. 

This exchange also challenges prevailing conventional wisdom and rhetoric in the media, academia, and elsewhere — sentiments that resonated with some people of good will about the incident last week regarding the speaker. 

John Boehner, by the way, adds his gratitude for the exchange, in a statement:

I welcome Archbishop Dolan’s letter and am encouraged by the dialogue taking place between House Republicans and the Catholic Bishops regarding our budget, the Path to Prosperity.  Our nation’s current fiscal path is a threat to human dignity in America, offering empty promises to the most vulnerable among us and condemning our children to a future limited by debt.  We have a moral obligation as a nation to change course and adopt policies that reflect the truth about our nation’s fiscal condition and our obligation to future generations, and to offer hope for a better future.  Our duty to serve others compels us to strive for nothing less.  As Chairman Ryan notes in his letter to the Archbishop, Americans are blessed to have the teachings of the Church available to us as guidance as we confront our challenges together as a nation.


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