The news out of the USCCB meeting in Atlanta last week included a conversation amongst the bishops about reactions to Congressman Paul Ryan’s budget. It was a conversation more important than the personal figures of Ryan, Bishop Earl Boyea of Lansing, Michigan, or even Bishop Stephen Blaire of Stockton, California. It was a conversation about what the Church is competent to say and do and about what she ought to leave alone when it comes to economics.
On Thursday of last week, by a vote of 171-26, the bishops decided to put together a committee to draft a message on the U.S. Economy. The idea to provide guidance about the economy was that of Bishop Blaire, who is the chair of the bishops’ Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development. The last time the bishops really addressed the economy was in the 58,000 word Economic Justice for All. There were later expressions of the bishops on such matters, but they were always in reference to the 1986 document. With such a momentous decision on the part of the bishops, an important discussion was had.
Before the vote, several bishops expressed serious concern that the bishops’ message on the economy be strict about what the Church can and cannot say. The concern arises as a result of a letter sent by Bishop Blaire regarding Congressman Paul Ryan’s budget proposal for 2013. Bishop Boyea noted that many laity expressed concern about the “perceived” “partisan action against Congressman Ryan and the budget he had proposed.”Archbishop Joseph Naumann of Kansas City reiterated the perception of partisanship which stemmed from the letter.
The problematic perception comes from the fact that Bishop Blaire did not just lay out the principles of Catholic social teaching. Providing principles for discernment, criteria for judgment and directives for action is part and parcel of social teaching. The Church and her leaders have not only the right but the obligation to provide principles if we are to form our consciences correctly.
Bishop Blaire, however, chose to apply those principles to Ryan’s budget based on estimates and projections provided – one would presume – by advisors in his committee. Those estimates and projections, though, are not matters of doctrinal principle. They are fallible interpolations colored, as estimates tend to be, by prejudices and presumptions that can at times produce vastly different results between economists. So many were dismayed that Bishop Blaire could so adamantly conclude that Congressman Ryan’s budget was “unjust” and that it failed the basic moral tests.
At the USCCB meeting last week, Bishop Boyea and other bishops shared that they were concerned that this appearance of partisanship would shut down dialogue. This is how Bishop Boyea put it,
“There have been some concerns raised by lay Catholics, especially some Catholic economists, about what was perceived as a partisan action against Congressman Ryan and the budget he had proposed. We need to be articulate only in principles, and let the laity make these applications.”
He went on to say,
“I’m not sure that we have the humility yet not to stray into areas where we lack competence, and where we need to let the laity take the lead. We need to learn far more than we need to teach in this area. We need to listen more than we need to speak. We already have an excellent, fine Compendium [on the Social Doctrine of the Church].”
Archbishop Naumann expressed his concern that the bishops are being perceived as “encouraging the government to spend more money with no realistic way of how we’re going to afford to do this.”
In his defense, Bishop Blaire did note in his letter that the government needs to balance the budget. His argument was that the balancing cannot happen on the backs of the poor while military spending, for instance, is ignored. He wrote in the letter that
“A just framework for future budgets cannot rely on disproportionate cuts in essential services to poor persons; it requires shared sacrifice by all, including raising adequate revenues, eliminating unnecessary military and other spending, and addressing the long-term costs of health insurance and retirement programs fairly.”
The difficulty, of course, is that while this may all be true in principle, the practical application of these principles by means of prudence can lead good Catholics to different conclusions. Thus the perception that Bishop Blaire’s letter was partisan and trying to convince Catholic voters that, regardless of their own prudential discernment, Ryan’s budget cannot be considered just. Where, then, does this leave prudence?
Prudence enjoys a small section in the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church. In paragraph 547 we learn that
“the lay faithful should act according to the dictates of prudence, the virtue that makes it possible to discern the true good in every circumstance and to choose the right means for achieving it. Thanks to this virtue, moral principles are applied correctly to particular cases.”
Note that prudence is the application of “moral principles,” and an application that is done by the laity. No one doubts that the Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development should be providing our nation with moral principles. But the very essence of prudence is when those principles are applied, and the laity ought to have a role in that, especially if the laity in question are experts on the budget like Congressman Ryan.
Paragraph 548 in the Compendium teaches that
“Prudence makes it possible to make decisions that are consistent, and to make them with realism and a sense of responsibility for the consequences of one’s action.”
It is around “realism” and “responsibility” that many believe Bishop Blaire’s letter fails. For instance, while the estimates provided about the effect of Ryan’s budget may be accurate in the short term, do they ignore the possibility that a balanced budget will spur economic growth that will ease the strain on the poor in the long run?
The good bishop desires “raising adequate revenues.” Fine, but does that have to be done by raising the taxes on the wealthy when 50% of the nation’s citizens pay no income tax at all? Or can this goal be met by Ryan’s restructuring the tax code in order to spur the growth which would produce the desired revenues? Bishop Blaire asks for “eliminating unnecessary military and other spending,” but isn’t it up to the Congress and the President to determine what is “unnecessary” as they have all the information, classified and non, required to make such a prudential decision? And Bishop Blaire asks that Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security be dealt with “fairly,” but who’s to determine fairness in the midst of crushing debt? Is maintaining the retirement age fair to me, when I’m paying into a system that is universally projected to be bankrupt by the time I retire?
Bishop Blaire’s letter criticizes Congressman Ryan’s change in policy for the Child Tax Credit (CTC), but he does not address the documented fraud associated with the CTC. Currently, the CTC provides $1,000 of credit per child for taxpayers who provide Social Security Numbers (SSN) or an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number (ITIN) for their child. But the ITINs provided by the IRS to persons who do not have a SSN are a lot easier to obtain than SSNs. As a result, some immigrant families have been claiming non-existent children through fake ITINs, thus exempting themselves from any tax burden.
The government knows what a huge loophole this ITIN identification can be, which is why the IRS closed it for the Earned Income Tax Credit years ago before there even was a CTC. So the Ryan budget puts the CTC on par with other regulations already in the tax code.
Now, Ryan’s budget may indeed result, as Bishop Blaire states, in excluding immigrant children, but it will also end a loophole that cost the nation $4.2 billion in 2010. It would certainly make fraud harder; and it would make sure that everyone, including undocumented workers, pay their taxes… which brings up another point.
When the Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development’s argument in defense of undocumented immigrants includes the insistence that they are in fact paying taxes, it does not help to defend the current policy which has been abused by scores of undocumented immigrants in order to avoid paying those taxes.
Or take Bishop Blaire’s criticism of cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), aka food stamps. The good Bishop quotes the estimate of millions of families who will not receive SNAP, but he doesn’t mention that as unemployment has gone down since 2009 the rolls of those on SNAP have actually increased by 11.2 million, i.e. by 25%. Something is wrong with the program, especially as one considers that of the $100 billion in the proposed Farm Bill $80 billion of that is going to cover SNAP.
But the particularities of Bishop Blaire’s letter aside, the fact remains that the issues over which he condemns Ryan’s budget are all obviously prudential matters. What many Catholics have argued and some bishops have heard is that Bishop Blaire’s letter crosses the line of what the institutional Church is competent to say. Bishop Blaire and his advisors may be absolutely correct that Congressman Ryan’s budget fails the basic moral test of Catholic social teaching, but they may also be spectacularly wrong because the great graces of Holy Orders do no protect him or his advisors from error in the estimates and projections of economic budgets.
Let me be clear that I am not arguing that the Church should “shut up and pray” when it comes to economic matters or that the bishops should keep quiet when injustices occur. If the bishops really believed that Congressman Ryan wants to line the pockets of millionaires while watching little children starve to death, I can understand a bishop’s desire to act. But to believe such a thing is, by the account of many, the very definition of partisanship.
I should also say that Bishop Blaire has the unenviable job to proclaim the Gospel of Christ in the public square that many in our society – many Catholics included sadly – don’t think should be influenced by that Gospel. I believe him when he says that he seeks balance and moderation from all sides of the political machine.
Still, the point is that Bishop Blaire and all the bishops need to be more cautious when it comes to applying the principles which are their purview to concrete matters of public policy that are so obviously prudential and thus not a matter of episcopal expertise. I say “obviously prudential” knowing that even that phrase is a catalyst for sparring wits, but if the percentage of GDP dedicated to Federal assistance programs in 2013 dollars is not a matter of prudence, then nothing is.
Also, Cardinal Dolan recently said that no Americans, conservative or liberal, want their bishops telling them how to vote. And Bishop Blaire was certainly not doing that. But when such prudential matters are spoken of so forcefully, the crucially important discourse amongst Catholics about these matters is choked. That’s not good for the Church, for this nation, and especially not for the poor who need real answers from moral economists.
Hopefully the new economic pastoral that will come out of the USCCB will express the balance between principle and prudence in a way that we can all better understand and apply. All in all, the conversation in Atlanta last week gave me great confidence that the wonderfully Catholic “both/and” would be brought into the economic discussions by the bishops. No doubt everyone will consult their own experts, but the principles should stand on the firm footing of Catholic social teaching, principles which Bishop Blaire and the other bishops have done very well in expressing.