Effie Caldarola

Effie Caldarola

As we drive through rural Nebraska to a memorial service for an old family friend, an orange sunset bathes tiny new corn in soft light.

In ordinary times, our group would be reminiscing, telling old stories. But inevitably the conversation turns to our current political climate. I can’t remember another time when people were so consumed by national events.

“You know,” a voice from the front seat speaks. “People talk about morality as if it’s all about sexual sins. But the real sin in our society is greed.”

How true that seems right now.

As Catholics, we need to follow the federal budget as it works its way through Congress. Our personal consumption and charity define our character, our generosity or greed. Likewise, a federal budget proclaims who we are as Americans and how we steward our resources.

Spiritual leaders tell us that a budget is a moral document. A few days before President Donald Trump issued his proposed budget, six chairmen of committees at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, including Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan of New York, reminded the president of that vital truth.

A budget, they said, should be based on “moral criteria that protect human life and dignity, give central importance to ‘the least of these’ (Mt 25), and promote the welfare of workers and families who struggle to live in dignity.”

Does President Trump’s initial budget meet those criteria? Does it give “central importance” to the poor?

Most commentators agree: This initial budget is basically dead on arrival. The math doesn’t add up. The draconian cuts it would make to the social fabric in the country won’t pass muster with most. And then there’s that odd juxtaposition of drastically cutting food stamps and Medicaid on the one hand and introducing family leave on the other.

It’s a confused and a confusing budget, but a federal budget is always a sausage-making process to which we should pay attention.

There’s an ancient concept, originating with the Greeks, called the “common good.” It’s bedrock Catholic teaching. Essentially, it’s the antithesis of the individualistic, “I’ll get mine” attitude.

The common good is why we can call 911 for help whether we’re rich or poor. It maintains fire departments, provides a social safety net, strives for equal public education for all and public spaces accessible to everyone. The common good doesn’t ask, “What’s in it for me?” but, “What sacrifices can I make so that our system is good and productive for all of us?”

Instead of proposing that kicking millions off food stamps will motivate them to seek employment, as if most people wouldn’t love a good job, we need a national conversation focusing on overlooked questions.

For example, why do people with full-time jobs still need food stamps to survive? Why, in a country so rich that our ruling elite is full of millionaires and billionaires, do almost 18 percent of children in the U.S. experience food insecurity?

Why is the gap between rich and poor so great?

Why are some proposing lowering taxes for the richest? Why hasn’t our recent economic recovery lifted all boats? How do we get Congress to listen to the people, and not primarily to the special interests that finance elections?

As we consider what will serve the common good, I appreciate these words of Jesuit Father Greg Boyle, who works with former gang members in Los Angeles: “Here is what we seek: a compassion that can stand in awe at what the poor have to carry rather than stand in judgment at how they carry it.”