Church urges ‘circle of protection’ for poor in US budget debate
WASHINGTON (CNS) — Catholic social teaching’s concern for human life and dignity stood front and center as the role of the federal spending was debated by political leaders and assessed by the electorate in a presidential election year.
Concepts rooted in church teaching — subsidiarity, solidarity and the common good — entered the public arena, offering Americans insight into principles that, church leaders repeatedly explained, must be considered when identifying spending priorities while the country struggled with a growing federal deficit and a sluggish economic recovery.
Throughout the debate, the chairmen of two committees of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops renewed their call for a “circle of protection” around federally funded programs benefiting poor and vulnerable people.
“The common good requires that the people who are hurting the most will not be hurting even more as a result of efforts that are being taken to improve the economy,” said Bishop Stephen E. Blaire of Stockton, Calif.
“Our ongoing concerns remain centered on the care for the poor and most vulnerable in society,” Bishop Stephen E. Blaire of Stockton, Calif., chairman of the bishops’ Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development, told Catholic News Service Dec. 6. “We cannot neglect them as we seek to stabilize our political economy.
“While it is certainly a good to be accomplished in terms of creating a more stable economy with a balanced budget, it would not be beneficial to have such efforts result in a wider gap between those who are rich and those who are poor. The common good requires that the people who are hurting the most will not be hurting even more as a result of efforts that are being taken to improve the economy,” he said.
Meanwhile, Bishop Richard E. Pates of Des Moines, Iowa, chairman of the bishops’ Committee on International Justice and Peace, called for continued funding of poverty-focused international assistance, which encompasses programs such as HIV/AIDS treatment, disaster aid, refugee services, health care, support for small farmers and aid to orphaned children.
Such spending — totaling $20.2 billion in fiscal year 2012, comprising about 0.6 percent of the federal budget — helps promote human development and builds peace among nations, he said.
“It’s also to keep people alive,” Bishop Pates told CNS Dec. 6. “We’re able to provide some of the (programs) that have long-lasting impact. It shows the American heart is really attached to this.”
At the same time, Father Larry Snyder, president of Catholic Charities USA, focused his agency’s message to Congress during the budget negotiations on preventing drastic cuts in funding for social service programs as well as protecting the charitable tax deduction that has existed since 1917.
“Our concern is that they don’t try to take the easy way out, which is seen as cutting the services to the poor,” Father Snyder told CNS Dec. 4. “That’s too easy and too often the poor become the folks on whose backs the budget gets balanced.”
Talk of reducing or even eliminating the tax deduction for charitable giving has Father Snyder concerned that donations to Catholic Charities agencies nationwide will decline. He urged Congress to address tax loopholes rather than eliminate the deduction.
“This will have a definite impact on the lives of the poor. It’s about Americans who are engaging in providing needed services through the nonprofit sector,” he said.
“This isn’t a loophole. This is part of the fabric that has sustained American society,” Father Snyder added.
The president and Republican leaders of the House of Representatives continued to negotiate a budget deal in mid-December in an effort to avoid going over the so-called “fiscal cliff” in the new year as Bush-era tax cuts expire and automatic, across-the-board spending cuts take effect.
The fiscal cliff is a result of the inability of President Barack Obama and Congress to reach a budget deal on the road to addressing the country’s $16-trillion debt.
The bishops’ stance, echoed by social service providers and advocates for low-income people, gained the attention of Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., a Catholic and the Republican vice presidential nominee in 2012. His proposal, which never moved beyond the House after being adopted in a largely party-line vote in March, called for a major revamping of Medicare and Medicaid, significant cuts in domestic programs over the next decade and additional tax cuts for top income earners.
In making his arguments, Ryan cited Catholic social teaching as a driving force in the development of his proposal.
The bishops kept the church’s teaching on the importance of protecting human life and dignity before Congress throughout the year in a series of letters offering moral arguments for keeping the needs of the poor foremost in budget talks.
The letters pointed specifically to the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program, unemployment benefits, Pell grants, Section 8 housing vouchers and tax credits benefiting low-income families as vital safety nets in American society.
The most recent messages from the bishops were sent to Capitol Hill within 10 days after the re-election of Obama. In a Nov. 16 letter to the chairmen of the House and Senate appropriations committees, Bishop Pates and Carolyn Woo, president of Catholic Relief Services, expressed concern that proposed cuts in poverty-focused international assistance would be devastating.
Catholic concerns about the budget also reached Catholics in the pews. Through Catholics Confront Global Poverty, a joint effort of the USCCB and CRS, parishioners have had the opportunity to join webcasts and receive email updates in a campaign to educate Catholics about budget issues and worldwide poverty.