On Speaker Boehner and Catholic “Cruelty”

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.


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  • Matt B

    I have an even bigger problem with people whose stated views or intentions are radically inconsistent with their actions, or common sense. It makes you think that there’s a hidden agenda behind “the big lie.” For example, to think that a government – and a big centralized bureaucracy at that – can somehow find the solution and fix the problem of poverty, is so patently absurd that, to believe it, you must be either hopelessly naive, mentally imbalanced, or “on the take.” Most of the active participants of government are sociopathic megalomaniacs (the elected ones), or lazy and officious functionaries (career government). Very few if any have produced anything worthy of the name “useful.” The most anyone can hope from government is that is that it does the absolute minimum (of stealing, of ruining lives, of blowing things up). You might as well expect the Wizard of Oz to come down in a balloon and “make everything all right.”

    • Francis

      Matt B: I read the letter that the scholars sent to Boehner, and I did not see anything about “fixing” the problem of poverty. The reality is that there will always be poverty, and we will always have to address it. The main concern is that government has to give the needs of the poor, who are the most powerless and the most vulnerable members of society, priority when creating budgets and policies.

      • Matt B

        You are right, Francis, that we need to address the needs of the poor, our most vulnerable members of society. Our government, however, and our society in general, have became vast machines for creating poverty. And I mean both physical and spritual poverty. To look towards government, and even towards many foundational institutions of our society, for help in easing the burdens of the poor, and for lifting the poor out of their poverty, is like looking to foxes for help in the henhouse. Don’t get me wrong, Francis, there is plenty of Kennedy-esque pretense, and high-handed empty gestures. This is my frustration with professors: they ought to know better. My problem with the CUA bunch is not that they’re too radical. On the contrary, their radicalism doesn’t go nearly far enough. As a good move in that direction, they ought to scour their nightstands and medicine cabinets for theologically-offensive life-opposing biological impediments. Once freed from this nefarious contraband, they can begin to experience real poverty, and from this basis, teach the world about true freedom. “The eye of a needle,” you know.

        • Francis

          Matt B: “scour their nightstands”? Why do you presume that they are using contraception? They believe that the government should protect the poor by not gutting programs that provide assistance to the poor. So therefore they must use contraception? That does not make sense.

          • Matt B

            Of course you’re right Francis, it’s a wild assumption. I’m setting these people up as “straw men” in order to make my argument. If I were to investigate closer, I would probably find that they are all honest scholars, and most certainly better Catholics than me. I guess I’m feeling betrayed by a generation of Catholic theologians who “strained out the gnat, while swallowing the camel.” But in fact, our hope lies in just such teachers and scholars as they, who represent the best of who we are. Instead of giving them the “broad brush” treatment from now on, I’ll bless them instead. Even St. Paul, who was “the worst among sinners” made it all good under the tutelage of the Holy Spirit. Maybe we in America can hope.

      • Joe

        Adopting policies intended to help the poor that result in making more people poor is not more Catholic. It’s simply more ineffective. The progressive argument seems moved more by the visibility of a few acts than the net result of a policy. We’re talking about differences in math rather than Catholic doctrine.

  • Matt B

    I have a problem with people who want to do big things like “end poverty,” when they have serious issues with their personal responsibility. For example, liberal academics generally accede to the irresponsible practice of preventing births through artificial contraception. Moreover they promote this practice to married couples, who should know better; to young single adults (a demographic that’s growing older and older); and to teenagers and adolescents, who definitely don’t know any better. If you want to end poverty, remember the words of Mother Teresa: “there is no greater poverty than to reject new life because it is considered inconvenient.” The liberal view is not merely irresponsible, but veritably insane.

  • Jeff

    Well said Amanda. I would also add contraception and theft to your list of self-excommunicating offenses against the laws of God.

    If you take you neighbor’s money without permission and give it to someone in “need” you are guilty of theft. It is no different to do so yourself or vote for the politician that promises to do it for you. You cannot commit evil to bring about a “better good.” The USA has the most progressive tax system in the world. We have allowed our politicians to convert our republic into a socialist democracy. Jesus said that we would always have the poor. It is through pride that man believes he can create a society that eliminates the poor through government entitlement programs. The greatest evil is that these actions have encouraged and facilitated our government’s ability to replace God in the lives of many. Please read Matthew 25. It explains His plan for growing in faith, hope and charity.

    • Francis

      Jeff: You do not know where each of those who signed that letter stands on the abortion issue. You do not know whether or not they use contraception. Further, he use of contraception does not incur automatic excommunication, as you would like to believe.

      • Jeff

        Frances, the Church’s teaching is clear; “‘every action … to render procreation impossible’ is intrinsically evil” (CCC 2370). By using contraceptives, we remove ourselves from God’s grace and jeopardize our eternal salvation. The word excommunication simply means putting out of communion. You cannot be actively using or promoting contraceptives and remain in a state of grace. If you are not in a state of grace, you have separated yourself from God’s grace and communion with His Church. For those that would quote the three criteria for mortal sin, please read paragraphs 56 and 57 of the Encyclical by Pope Pius XI, Casti Connubii (or better yet, read the whole encyclical :). The last sentence of paragraph 57 states: “If any confessor or pastor of souls, which may God forbid, lead the faithful entrusted to him into these errors or should at least confirm them by approval or by guilty silence, let him be mindful of the fact that he must render a strict account to God, the Supreme Judge, for the betrayal of his sacred trust, and let him take to himself the words of Christ: “They are blind and leaders of the blind: and if the blind lead the blind, both fall into the pit.” Matthew 15:14″ The primary mission of the Church is to bring souls to Christ. Allowing the contraceptive mentality to prevail in favor of promoting materialism through entitlement programs does not serve God. In 1917, Our Lady of Fatima stated, “more souls go to hell for sins of the flesh than for any other reason.” How much worse is the issue of impurity today? This is the most important issue that should be addressed by our bishops. Pray for our brothers and sisters, that they may see the true nature of contraception. Pray for our priests, that they may have the strength and courage to communicate the intrinsic evils of contraception. Pray for ourselves, that we may gird our loins with His Truth and act to end these abominations.

        • Matt B

          Beautifully put, Jeff. If more faithful Catholics stated these obvious truths, and prayed ardently for an awakening – we could move this mountain. I will do it. Will you?

    • DavidB

      Doesn’t that claim render all taxation (& pretty much every known government, short of anarchy) an offense against the laws of God?

      Taxation is basically that – taking money from someone (without choice, apart from the choice to leave that country’s jurisdiction) & sharing it through common services.

      • Jeff

        DavidB, there is no conflict between following our government’s laws (i.e., paying our taxes) and not voting for someone that promises to redistribute wealth as a normative process – a form of theft, plain and simple. This is but one issue to consider when voting. Until we end abortion – the legalized murder of an innocent human being – this issue outweighs all other issues combined. If you have two candidates that promise to end abortion, then you can consider the other moral issues. Once we rid our government of all the moral issues, we can start debating matters of prudential judgment like a fair and efficient tax system.

        • Joe

          I think that the distinction leads back to the issue of subsidiarity. Deciding to give someone elses money to the poor is not an act of charity.

  • Ted Seeber

    One can have the right to private opinions, but not to private facts. The fact is, regardless of efficiency, WIC is the most pro-life welfare system the government has, and cutting it is an anti-life act. The fact is, the United States has one of the worst health care systems in the first world- and many 2nd and 3rd world nations have better health care systems than we do.

    Having said that- I do believe Speaker Boehner and Rep. Ryan when they say they do take the poor into account- and their budgets of block grants and subsidiarity show it. They just need to realize that for some of us- the right to life comes *before* politics. That solidarity with the poor and the unborn come *before* corporate profits and low taxes. Priority IS important.

    • Everett

      Rather than throwing out platitudes, would you care to provide some form of evidence to suport your claim that the US has one of the worst health care systems in the 1st world and is worse than many 2nd and 3rd world ones?

      On WIC, I agree with you, its a good program, though one that is unfortunately abused by some as well.

    • Joe

      Ted Seeber. In terms of quality of care, the United States leads the world in health care. The “rankings” that claim otherwise are demonstrably flawed and fly in the face of simple, provable facts. Also, corporate profits and low taxes directly benefit the poor. Arguably in a much more lasting way than government entitlements do.

  • debr

    I would like to recommend some reading material to all of those folks at the university who signed that letter or for that matter anyone who agrees with them. I am in a couples group and we are currently reading our Holy Father’s encyclical “Veritas in caritate”. He wonderfully and with great charity explains subsidiarity and our responsibilities as faithful Catholics living in this modern world economy. In fact, if I remember correctly B16 gave a copy to President Obama during an audience he had with him in Italy. I wonder if he read it??
    We can all pray for the Holy Spirit to give Speaker Boehner the courage to be able to lead this country accordingly.
    What is really cruel is to make people slaves for assistance to the government who gives it out.

  • Amanda

    Yes, Liberals and Conservatives are free, according to the Church, to decide how best to help the less fortunate. But where there is no room for disagreements, according to CLEAR instruction coming directly from the Vatican, is where we stand on abortion and gay marriage. This is why I will not listen to any Liberal trying to lecture anyone on the teachings of the Church, for they have already excommunicated themselves from the Church and should be made aware of it by the Church.

    • Mark

      Not completely free to decide, Amanda. For example, the “principle of subsidiarity is opposed to all forms of collectivism. It sets limits for state intervention” (CCC 1885).



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