You may have missed the story, but apparently some Roman Catholic academics decided to take Speaker of the House John Boehner to task on the occasion of his visit to the Catholic University of America to give the commencement address earlier this month.
Dozens of professors signed an open letter to Boehner denouncing him for not being sufficiently “progressive.” It reads in part: “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.” You can read the full text of the letter at the National Catholic Reporter’s website.
The main piece of evidence offered in support of these allegations is that Boehner voted for Paul Ryan’s budget, which “guts long-established protections for the most vulnerable members of society.” The letter specifically mentions Medicaid, Medicare, and WIC (the Women, Infants, and Children nutrition program).
Where to begin?
First, “preferencing the needs of the poor” does not necessarily mean implementing a welfare state. The apostles, to whom the letter appeals, almost certainly envisioned no such thing.
Second, it’s worth remembering that these academics apparently forgot another longstanding principle of Catholic Social Teaching, that of subsidiarity, which holds that policies affecting a population should be formulated and implemented by the jurisdiction closest to that population. In this case, that would be local governments. Why should we think that a one-size-fits-all solution offered by the federal government, a jurisdiction purporting to represent over 300 million people, is the best way to address the needs of the poor?
Third, and from a practical budgetary standpoint this is the most immediate issue, the programs over which these academics are wringing their hands are not exclusively or even dominantly used by “the poor,” unless we take an exceedingly elastic definition of that term. The whole reason this country is going bankrupt is because aid programs cater to the middle class. According to this new poll, 60% of Americans believe Social Security and Medicare are “vital to their basic financial security as they age.” Many of us have known upwardly mobile people and even lottery winners on food stamps or WIC. If there’s ever going to be any hope of salvaging the nation’s finances, programs like this (if they can be kept at all) have to be reformed so that their poster children are really representative of the people who benefit from them.
Would God really object to that?