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.



  • Mark


    I think the issues about jurisdiction are important and interesting, but that a very important issue is glossed over, when you write the following:

    “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.”

    In what sense do you think Morlino’s judgement trumps? i.e. on the fact of the matter (whether in fact ryan’s budget proposal objectively fails to meet the criteria set ford by Catholic moral teaching)? or does it just trump in the jurisdictorial regard?

    How do we know that his proposal is not indeed wrong; perhaps even wrong in a way such that somebody who knowingly proposed it would have something to confess? In good faith we should assume that, even if Ryan were wrong, he is not aware of it.

    However, the question remains as to whether his proposal is right nor not. In fact, I think Catholics (myself above all) need to become better acquainted with how Catholic moral teaching bears on budget proposals.

  • Name *Ed Tobey

    Stupid oblivious Catholics are the biggest enemy of the church. All the comments about feeding the poor ignore 1 fact. Monster federal programs don’t work. The federal food stamp program is by far the largest purchaser of illegal drugs on earth. Do charity work with crack heads. Every one gets and sells food stamps for $.50 to $.75 per dollar to get money to buy crack. Millions of druggies.

    And don’t even ask me about the new mass, birth control to make millions more Catholics living in abject poverty in South America and elsewhere, ignoring the gay priest problem at a cost of billions, etc. the Vatican is highly overrated.

  • Magnum

    Should a farmer give away all his seed corn so the poor will be well fed today knowing it will cause the community to starve next year, or should he give only enough to keep the poor from starving to death and keep enough to hire the poor to plant and harvest the next crop? Some say his responsibility is to look out for the long-term wefare of the community and some (usually those who don’t rely on the farmer’s food nor work for the farmer) say that only today’s poor matter, don’t think about next year.
    It’s easy to tell the farmer to give it all away if you are a fisherman. But what would you think if you were the farmer?

  • Antonio A. Badilla

    Matt, how wonderful that you are able to clarify this issue for all readers. I have always understood a bishop’s authority can’t be challenged by any body of bishops, especially when it comes to matters of personal judgment. The bishops, I believe, have been far too harsh with representative Ryan, yet when the Jesuits at Georgetown invited Kathleen Sebelius to speak and Biden announced how wonderful gay marriage is, the National Conference of Catholic Bishops remains silent. Go figure!I believe the bishops have tried to do their jobs, especially by asking us to opposed the Obama Administration’s attempt to violate our religious freedom, but, unfortunately they have now fallen into their Democratic leanings and their timidity to condemn Georgetown, Biden and Pelosi is a complete disgrace.

  • Alice

    If we contine to ignor the national debt of our country we will find ourselves in a terrible position. So spending less on a program that helps the poor is better than bankruptcy. A worst of the two evils kind of situation. The money would stop going to these programs all together if we end up like Greece.

    • cynthia

      How about we cut down on corporate welfare first?

      • Curious

        Yes Cynthia, let us start with the big Obama bundlers FIRST!!! How about all those buddies of Obama that DO NOT pay their taxes, much less their fair share of taxes. Let’s see, there is GE, Solyndra, Warren Buffet’s Berkshire Hathaway Co., Valero Energy, Goldman Sacs, and Bank of America. Oh and who can forget those “rich” buddies of Obama’s that don’t pay their taxes either. Hmmmm… like John Kerry, Timothy Geithmer, Tom Daschle, Killefer, Charles Rangel, etc. PLEASE, let’s start with them!!! Oh, don’t think that will happen under this president. They’re his big money collectors. Don’t even go to the union bosses, oh my, what a crock of cr_p that is. It seems all of the buddies talked you talk, but DON’T walk the walk. God Bless

  • Paul

    I’m not sure that there is a ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ way to talk about budgetary concerns. But this is fact: Pope Benedict XVI, whom BOTH bishops owe their obedience to as the Bishop of Rome, has stated that dependence upon the government is to be avoided. So this is a legitimate area for disagreement. And it’s one that Catholics should cultivate as part of a lively and intelligent discussion. If only to replace and supplant the “discussion” between Catholics and Catholics In Name Only like Nancy Pelosi, Joe Biden, and John Kerry who want to see gay marriage, abortion, contraception, and the rest become the order of the day for the Catholic Church.

    Here’s a good question Catholics should be asking themselves: Which is the more Catholic solution? To pour more money into programs which have gross failings and inefficiencies? (60 billion dollars per annum are lost to Medicare fraud alone) Or to rearrange the money flow so it is more efficient and cuts down on the fraud and problems as the Ryan budget does by empowering local government?

    For my part, I would argue that it is more Catholic, since it espouses charity, especially local charity, to see an increase in efficiency by empowering local government to take on these tasks. By cutting down on wasteful inefficiencies and fraud due to the distance of the government from the recipients of social welfare, we therefore serve the recipients of these programs in a much better manner.

    The Apostles didn’t choose 1 person to help them feed the poor and minister to people in Acts 6:1-7. They chose 7. Among them was our first martyr, St. Stephen. The Apostles recognized that 1 person alone could not help the situation, and it would take many people. Thus giving the recipients of charity more individual attention. Similarly, our Federal Government is like the 1 person. We need to give people receiving social welfare more individual attention. That can only be done by consolidating social welfare along a horizontal line by disseminating the money and responsibility across the United States.



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