Recently in this space, I wrote about the group of liberal Catholic academics, led by professors at Catholic University of America, who wrote a stern public letter to Speaker of the House John Boehner, a Catholic and a Republican. My post generated a lot of response. I was invited by FoxNews to address the topic on the Sunday morning “Fox & Friends.” (Click here.) That invitation gave me a chance to say some things I didn’t state in my previous post, but which (I hope) are worth articulating here. These are critical issues of faith and politics that are not about to go away.
To recap, John Boehner ventured to Catholic University to provide the commencement address. In response, a group of over 70 Catholic professors expressed their disapproval of Boehner’s policies. They wrote:
It is good for Catholic universities to host and engage the thoughts of powerful public figures, even Catholics such as yourself who fail to recognize (whether out of a lack of awareness or dissent) important aspects of Catholic teaching. We write in the hope that this visit will reawaken your familiarity with the teachings of your Church on matters of faith and morals as they relate to governance.
Mr. Speaker, your voting record is at variance from one of the Church’s most ancient moral teachings. From the apostles to the present, the Magisterium of the Church has insisted that those in power are morally obliged to preference the needs of the poor. Your record in support of legislation to address the desperate needs of the poor is among the worst in Congress.
The professors criticized Boehner for the 2012 budget that he “shepherded,” which, they argued, “guts long-established protections for the most vulnerable members of society,” is “particularly cruel to pregnant women and children,” “radically cuts Medicaid and effectively ends Medicare,” and “invokes the deficit to justify visiting such hardship upon the vulnerable.”
They were confident that Boehner had not given “fullest consideration to the teachings of your Church.” And so, to “assist you,” they offered “a copy of the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church. Published by the Vatican, this is the ‘catechism’ for the Church’s ancient and growing teaching on a just society and Catholic obligations in public life.”
The professors wrapped up by invoking Pope Benedict’s words on charity. This was an interesting touch, as Benedict’s words were the only charity expressed in this letter.
In truth, the message from the Catholic professors demonstrated an all-too-typical self-righteousness among liberal Christians when it comes to poverty and public policy. Yes, that’s a strong charge, so let me explain, in the hopes I’m not likewise lacking charity.
Here is the fundamental reality: Liberal and conservative Christians, Catholic and Protestant alike, split over how to best deal with poverty. Conservatives prefer locally based private-sector solutions, whereas liberals prefer federally based public-sector efforts. Biblically speaking, conservative Christians interpret parables such as the Good Samaritan and the “rich young man” as exhortations for private action, not as calls for collectivism and wealth redistribution by a coercive state centralized in Washington.
Conservatives believe the public sector does too much. More than that, they believe that government programs are wasteful and can place the poor on what Ronald Reagan described as a “treadmill of dependency” that leads to despair rather than liberation. (That conviction was instrumental in Reagan’s conversion from a liberal Christian to a conservative Christian.) Conservatives believe that the federal government has subsumed far too many roles better left not merely to the private sector but to local public authorities—the essence, really, of the Catholic doctrine of subsidiarity. In fact, without doing an exhaustive analysis of John Boehner’s votes in the House and overall belief system, I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s closer to the Church on this teaching—subsidiarity—than most signers of this letter.
Readers can pick at what I’ve said, agreeing here, disagreeing there. We can agree, as Catholics, that the state has a role in aiding the poor, especially when the private sector fails. But what’s definitely wrong is the unceasing accusation by liberal Christians that conservatives don’t care about the poor. Quite the contrary, numerous studies and even books—Arthur Brooks’ Who Really Cares; Peter Schweizer’s Makers and Takers—show that conservatives tend to give more than liberals.
When these liberal Catholic professors lecture Boehner for being “particularly cruel” and for failing to recognize “Church teaching,” what they’re really showing is a classic liberal failure to recognize basic differences over the best means to help the poor—and to do so with charity to those they disagree with. Rarely in my life, as a Catholic and former Protestant, do I encounter liberal Christians who display this crucial understanding. Instead, way too often, they call conservatives names. It’s very un-thoughtful.
On a separate but related point, consider another area where the professors are lacking in fairness to John Boehner, which I touched upon in my previous post:
Boehner inherited the largest budget deficit and debt in the history of America. He didn’t create the mess. His predecessors, and especially the liberal Democratic trio of President Obama, Senator Harry Reid, and Catholic ex-Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, were not good stewards. They left Boehner an astonishing $1.6-trillion deficit, which, unless reduced, is a far greater obstacle to helping the poor.
The best poverty program is a growing economy. The worst poverty program is an economy mired in recession that will only get worse when buried by astronomical debt fueled by inflationary money-printing and uncontrolled spending habits. By the same logic, conservatives like Boehner could accuse liberal Christians of not caring about the poor because of their failure to reduce utterly immoral rates of unprecedented spending.
Boehner knows what any of us who have worked in public policy knows: there is tremendous waste in the federal government. An enormous amount of tax dollars directed to the poor are consumed by a bloated bureaucracy that rarely polices itself—in total contrast to any household, company, church, or charitable organization.
The letter by these liberal academics demonstrates these fatal disconnects. Worse than that, it questions a man’s commitment as a Catholic.
And worse still, the letter is mild compared to what I’m hearing from other liberal Catholics. One member of Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good, who responded to my previous post on this subject, wrote: “John Boehner sadly has one of the worst records in Congress regarding legislation that is fair. His record … includes opposition to virtually every initiative aimed at helping working American families…. During the health care debate, Boehner kept repeating the mantra that America has the best health care in the world. This is an out and out lie and he knew it.”
Can you imagine being called a liar for believing that America has the world’s best healthcare, or for opposing a “healthcare reform” bill that the USCCB had said “must be opposed” because of its massive expansion of abortion?
My liberal colleagues in the academy will not agree with everything I’ve written here. That’s fine. But it’s my hope that they will try to be more charitable not merely to Speaker John Boehner but to other Catholics who disagree with them not on ends—that is, helping the poor—but on means. God’s work here on Earth is difficult enough. Let’s try to do it without accusing one another of cruelty.
Paul Kengor is professor of political science at Grove City College. His books include The Judge: William P. Clark, Ronald Reagan’s Top Hand and Dupes: How America’s Adversaries Have Manipulated Progressives for a Century.