A Moral Failure?

Is the national budget an issue on which Catholics can hold legitimate disagreement?

Bishop Stephen Blaire of Stockton, California has written several letters criticizing aspects of the budget of Rep. Paul Ryan due to its spending cuts on programs such as food stamps. Bishop Blaire has said the cuts are “unjustified and wrong,” they “fail[] to meet these moral criteria” required by Catholic Social teaching, and they “fail this basic moral test.”

Bishop Blaire’s statements were made in his capacity as Chairman of the Committee on Justice, Peace, and Human Development of the USCCB.

Rep. Ryan, meanwhile, is a Catholic from the Diocese of Madison, Wisconsin. It would seem from the face of Bishop Blaire’s statements that Rep. Ryan, and any Catholic voting for these budget proposals, would need to go to confession. “Bless me Father, for I have sinned, I have proposed to slow the increase in federal spending on food stamps.” That seems to follow from saying the budget proposal is a wrong, an injustice, and a basic moral failure.

But hold on just one moment. Rep. Ryan’s own bishop, the Most Rev. Robert Morlino, said in an interview on The World Over last week that he is in frequent conversation with Rep. Ryan. Asked about Bishop Blaire’s letters criticizing Rep. Ryan’s budget, Bishop Morlino declared that Rep. Ryan is a “very responsible lay Catholic . . . who makes his judgment very much in accord with all the teachings of the Church.” (skip to about 4 minutes into the clip)

I’m no canon lawyer, but I think Bishop Morlino’s judgment trumps here. It seems Rep. Ryan does not need to confess injustice, wrongness or moral failure due to his presenting a budget with certain spending limits on food stamps. Bishop Morlino said Paul Ryan is acting in accord with Church teaching.

This raises two larger problems that face the U.S. Bishops. First, in what circumstances should a statement by a USCCB Committee chair be represented as the voice of the U.S. Bishops, when in fact it can be and is contradicted by the jurisdiction of a specific local ordinary? Bishop Vasa of Oregon, quoting then-Cardinal Ratzinger, has pointed out that each bishop has apostolic authority, but a bishops’ conference has “no theological basis,” and “its documents have no weight of their own save that of the consent given to them by the individual bishops.”

The second and related point is that this trumping of a bishops’ conference committee-statement by a local ordinary seems to have been caused in significant part by another important distinction, often glossed over. Again, then-Cardinal Ratzinger wrote a 2004 letter distinguishing between two kinds of public policies: those involving “intrinsically unjust” practices such as abortion, versus those that do not, such as war.

Where a policy promotes intrinsic evil, there is a “grave and clear obligation” for Catholics to oppose it. But on other issues “there may be a legitimate diversity of opinion even among Catholics” about what to do. Notably, even capital punishment, which Church teaching now seems to exclude in 99.5 percent of cases, is listed by Cardinal Ratzinger as one where legitimate disagreement can exist among Catholics.

So if a policy, for example, facilitates abortion, attacks religious freedom, or redefines marriage beyond one man and one woman, these are clear “moral failures.” But as Bishop Morlino just demonstrated, Paul Ryan and Stephen Blaire have a legitimate diversity of opinion on the funding level for the food stamp program. I don’t think even Bishop Blaire would say the issues raised in his letters involve intrinsic evil.

It seems to me that a bishops’ conference can safely describe policies advancing abortion, same-sex marriage or attacks on religious freedom as moral failures. But there is a limit to the kinds of issues these judgments can be applied to.

H/t to my friend and our long discussion over the weekend.



37 thoughts on “A Moral Failure?

  1. Pat Mundy says:

    I disagree with the comments condemming Paul Ryan’s budget; I would think he is speaking about cutting down on food stamps for those that abuse the program and there is plenty of abuse. What about all the Catholic politicians who are for abortion, namely Nancy Pelosi, Kathleen Sabelius, Kerry and our Vice-President. Catholics who vote for a President or any office who are for Abortion, same-sex-marriage should be ashamed and have to answer to God. Sad to say many clergy and nuns voted for Obama knowing this. We can no longer say “God bless America, but should say God help America.

  2. LostWater says:

    Great post, Matt.

    Bishop Blaire does have a moral obligation to advise his flock that the Ryan Budget is a Moral Failure. Bishop Blaire’s flock includes all of us, the body of Christ in the US, because of his holding the office of Chairman of The Committee on Justice, Peace, and Human Development. This is especially pertinent where he speaks to those matters that are entrusted to his office by the USCCB. Does this mean that Catholics can disagree with this Catholic teaching? Yes, Catholics are free to choose what they listen to and who is providing the teaching, and we Catholics do this at our own peril with our fully formed consciences.

    In your analysis, do we not have a requirement to oppose Mitt Romney because of his call for research that includes the destruction, of “excess embryos”, which our church equates with abortion? Please weigh in and tell, with your analysis above, how any Catholic could vote for this intrinsic evil? Romney calls for this evil, this evil is non-negotiable according to our faith, so then, a vote for Romney is a vote for cooperation with this intrinsic evil. There is another option, and no, that does not include voting for B.O.

    Thanks for the great post!

    1. Matt Bowman says:

      I don’t see what peril Rep. Ryan is in if he has the informed approval of his own bishop. In terms flocks and apostolic jurisdiction over them, then-Cardinal Ratzinger said “episcopal conferences have no theological basis, they do not belong to the structure of the Church, as willed by Christ, that cannot be eliminated.” “No episcopal conference, as such, has a teaching mission: its documents have no weight of their own save that of the consent given to them by the individual bishops.” A bishop, a theological shepherd, has a flock. Cardinal Ratzinger (not me) says no such theological basis exists for a bishops’ conference.

      1. Francis says:

        “Informed” seems to be a key concept here. Bp. Morlino spoke about feelings of trust he has for Ryan. He really didn’t say whether he had even read the proposed budget.The other bishops who are on the committee are likely much more informed as to the particulars.

      2. LostWater says:

        The peril referred to above is peril good or bad for any reason, or none at all. We all have peril at the forefront of our minds in everything we do. It was a lietral device, obviously not done very well.

        While Bishop Blaire has no eccliestical authority over Ryan, or anybody other than his own diocese, he does a moral obligation to instruct his flock, which is all of his, as I noted above because of his office, about concerns the bishops conference has entrusted to him and his office. Otherwise, the bishops would choose not to conference about these or any other matter!

        1. Matt Bowman says:

          I don’t think it is factually accurate to say that just because there is a bishops’ conference, each individual bishop has authorized the conference, and even each committee chair, to speak authoritatively as a theological shepherd to the members of his flock. I don’t think that is factually or canonically what the bishops did when they created the conference. Instead they created a body that will produce statements which they are free to accept or not. There is no ceding of jurisdiction in the mere creation of a conference. As Cardinal Ratzinger explained, a conference’s “documents have no weight of their own save that of the consent given to them by the individual bishops.” This statement makes no sense if by virtue of creating the conference a conference’s officials become, towards diocesan laity, as episcopal shepherds towards their flocks. That’s exactly the position that Cardinal Ratzinger was rejecting. The bishops haven’t actually ceded that jurisdiction, and it isn’t clear to me that canon law would let them cede it even if they wanted to.

    2. Everett says:

      National conferences of Bishops have no authority apart from the authority of individual bishops over their flock. The USCCB is useful inasmuch as it allows the bishops to come together and provide a unified voice on some issues, and to share certain burdens that might be difficult to do as individual dioceses.

    3. Joe M says:

      LostWater. Do you have a link showing where Romney has “called” for that type of research? His position is that there should be no government funding of that type of research. Seems like the opposite direction of a “call for” or “co-operation with an intrinsic evil”.

  3. Braden says:

    Matt-thank you for your clarification. This site owes its readers an explanation as to why it endorsed a candidate for President, Rick Santorum, who supports the intrinsic evil of torture. http://www.usccb.org/issues-and-action/faithful-citizenship/upload/forming-consciences-for-faithful-citizenship.pdf

  4. Jenny Grethel says:

    Pray that all Catholics come back under the direction of the Pope and the protection of the Holy Spirit!

  5. Cynthia says:

    I think you are so wrong here it stinks!
    You seem to get to pick and choose. Paul Ryan is from my state and he is an avid follower of Ayn Rand.
    I think his interest is more about serving his corporate masters than following his faith.
    Protecting young children from hunger is a moral issue and Rep. Ryan fails big time.

    1. Amanda says:

      Cynthia, I understand where you are coming from, but what does our moral obligation say about spending money we don’t have? Although it is sad that years and years of mismanagement (from both parties) has made it where tightening our belts will mean hardships for a lot of people, especially the poor, I think in the long run having a budget that does not actually spend more than we have, will in the long run help them. But I’m also an accountant by trade, and I have never liked being in the red. But I’m also pretty sure that Jesus never taught us to overspend, just to give everything we have. But you can’t give more than that. Peace and Joy! Amanda

      1. Cynthia says:

        Easy Amanda,
        Ask the very rich to pay their fair share of taxes.
        And please don’t tell me they already do, because most of them don’t.
        My hubby and I pay a far higher percentage of our income in taxes, how is that fair?
        Your an accountant which is a fine job.
        I on the other hand work full time with families in poverty teaching them child care, budgeting, how to organize and many more relevant things.
        The thing you don’t understand, is that I have families working full time who still are unable to feed their children at the end of the month.
        If every poster on here actually got out and worked with the very poor, I can tell you this, your view would change.
        So many of my clients are low IQ like in the 70′s, have mental health issues and grew up in dysfunctional families. Even the hardest working ones have trouble pulling themselves higher because of their limited IQ’s.

        1. Joe M says:

          Cynthia. The statistics show that the wealthy in the US already pay taxes more progressively than most places in the world. — Unfortunately, many of the poor people you refer to need help BECAUSE OF the expanding cost of government. Lets work together on policies that actually have a history of being effective at helping to create more jobs, higher pay and lower prices of goods. The “solutions” that Democrats propose have no such history.

        2. Amanda says:

          Cynthia, I want to first apologize for this coming so late I have been busy, I also want to say I will try to say this in all charity as I’m sure you didn’t mean for your post to come off sounding like I’m some how in the wealthy lifestyle of the very wealthy and couldn’t possibly understand what people who have to scrape by have to do. You make some very contradictory statements, you want the very rich to pay their fair share in taxes, but you complain about your high level of taxes. Compared to the families you work with I’m sure they would consider you very rich. Heck, you and your husband BOTH work, where as I’m a single parent (and became one while I was in college, and had to use welfare to get by) and only have one income, you guys are probably making way more than I am because you have two incomes. Why shouldn’t you pay more taxes than me? But to the point I agree that the way the tax system is set up right now is not fair. My view is we just need to say that any amount over 17K a year is taxed at 15% for everyone, then everyone would be paying their fair share. There wouldn’t be any tax credits for kids you have or whether you have a house or whether you are married you just pay that on your labor. The problem with that is it would really mess up middle America because most of them rely on those tax credits to be able to make ends meat. Another reason why this could have problems is there isn’t just federal taxes people have to consider there is social security, medicare and then any state and local taxes, then there is sales tax. I realize completely that the poor get really hurt on all these things. But I’m also not sure bankrupting the very rich is the way to get what needs to happen. Even though I don’t live pay check to pay check, a nice little chuck of my check does go to the government and then another nice little chunk goes to different charities of my choice. Also I do volunteer at our local shelter to help people create realistic budgets and ensure they can pay back a little debt while maybe saving for the future. Is it the same amounts I can do? No, but it is a start. Also I would remind you to remember what G.K Chesterton said when asked What is wrong with the world? His reply, “I am.” So we have to do everything we can to try to make this imperfect world as good as we can. I have found complaining doesn’t do much, however actions do a lot more, especially with a smile. Peace and Joy. Amanda

    2. Martial Artist says:


      You wrote

      Paul Ryan … is an avid follower of Ayn Rand.

      I am not from Wisconsin and am only aware of Mr. Ryan from the press he has gotten for his budget plan. Can you provide any citations of his speech or writings which support your assertion that he is an Ayn Rand enthusiast? Or is this simply your personal interpretation of his positions?

      Pax et bonum,
      Keith Töpfer

      1. Braden says:

        “I think Ayn Rand did the best job, of anybody, to build a moral case for capitalism.”–Paul Ryan, in 2009. http://www.facebook.com/video/video.php?v=1188874849092

        1. Joe M says:

          “I reject her philosophy,” Ryan says firmly. “It’s an atheist philosophy. It reduces human interactions down to mere contracts and it is antithetical to my worldview. If somebody is going to try to paste a person’s view on epistemology to me, then give me Thomas Aquinas,” who believed that man needs divine help in the pursuit of knowledge. “Don’t give me Ayn Rand,” he says. –Paul Ryan, in 2012. http://www.catholicworldreport.com/Blog/1300/give_me_thomas_aquinasdont_give_me_ayn_rand.aspx

      2. Joe M says:

        The Paul Ryan following Ayn Rand story has been debunked directly by Paul Ryan himself.

        1. Braden says:

          Gotcha. Paul Ryan says it’s not true, so therefore it’s not true. What he said on the video never happened. The video must be some liberal trick, serendipitously posted on Paul Ryan’s Facebook page. Do you think he knows about that it?!? This could be a huge conspiracy if someone hacked into his Facebook page with a fake video of Ryan.

          1. Joe M says:

            Braden. Apparently, you haven’t read Paul Ryan’s statements directly addressing his Ayn Rand comments. — I realize that it would be politically convenient for some people if Paul Ryan were an “Ayn Rand Follower”. However, if we can’t take a persons own word for what they believe and what they do not, why discuss anything that anyone says at all? In that case, a person would be justified claiming that Obama secretly believes everything that Jeremiah Wright has ever said.

    3. Don says:

      Rep Ryan is the worst nightmare of so-called liberal Catholics who have acted for years as though they have a monopoly on social justice issues and anyone who disagrees with them is immoral. Why? Because he presents very reasonable arguments for a different approach. In doing so, the threatens their perceived monopoly of the issue. Unfortunately they tend to resort to ad hominem attacks and mischaracterization of his proposals rather than debate the issues.

      We owe Rep Ryan a huge debt of gratitude for laying out very reasonably the case that smaller government and free enterprise are not necessarily at odds with Catholic social teaching and may, in the long run, help the poor much more than the failed policies of the massive social welfare state. The left-wing monopoly on social justice is over.

  6. Joe M says:

    If I am reading Church Teaching correctly, it is always more desirable for a person to have a job rather than to be in a position of needing to rely on a government safety net. To me, the Democrats economic platform fails to pass this basic moral test.

    1. Braden says:

      This would be relevant if people choose to remain on a program like food stamps, rather than find a job. It would also be relevant if Democrats didn’t want people to have jobs.

      1. Joe M says:

        Braden. When Democrat policies reduce the number of available jobs, that is removing the option for some people to have a job. Wanting people to have jobs and being for policies that create jobs are two different things. As we have seen under Obama, in Europe and in California, liberals have a poor record complying with Church Teaching regarding the preference of jobs over government reliance.

        1. Braden says:

          Only if there is only one path to job creation. You take conservative theories and make them facts. There’s nothing Catholic about that.

          1. Joe M says:

            Braden. There is nothing partisan about empirical evidence. Do you contest that relatively liberal policies have been implemented under Obama, in Europe and in California?

          2. Braden says:

            If you think liberal policies contributed to economic decline in Europe, you’re crazy. There’s something called a world banking system. But I’m sure the utter collapse of BNP Paribas and Credit Suisse was due to liberal policies. And Goldman Sachs’ re-ordering of the books in Greece was definitely a liberal policy. Also, remember the great job gains of the Bush administration? I don’t either. Yes, empirical evidence.

          3. Joe M says:

            Braden. What collapse of BNP Paribas and Credit Suisse are you referring to? BNP reported profits in 08 and 09. Suisse is alive and well having made minor staff cuts consistent with many other companies during the recession. And yes, the recession was caused by government manipulation of the lending market via Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. — Here is actual evidence regarding Europe: http://www.oecd-ilibrary.org/economics/government-final-consumption-expenditure-in-us-dollars-2012-3_govxp-table-2012-3-en — As you can see, government spending has expanded radically across Europe over the last 10 years. European liberals have promised programs and pensions that they can not afford and now the chickens are coming home to roost. As I pointed out, this crisis creates poor people and destroys jobs, not passing a basic moral test put forth by Catholic Teaching.

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