The War Over Getting the Bishops’ Budget Approval

“[T]the most dreaded seven words at Mass,” writes Anthony M. Stevens-Arroyo in his retort to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ religious liberty statement of last week, are, “We have a letter from the bishop.”

Letters to and from the Bishops, though, are now dominating the debate over the Paul Ryan budget. After being more than happy to take up the Bishops’ crusade against contraception, House Republicans are suddenly no longer interested in the Bishops’ stances on morality. John Boehner, the House Speaker, is dismissing concerns raised by the Bishops about the justice of Ryan’s budget.

A brief history of the skirmish is as follows: last year, after Catholic academics chastised Boehner for his “record in support of legislation to address the desperate needs of the poor” being “among the worst in Congress,” Ryan sought cover from USCCB president Cardinal (then-Archbishop) Timothy Dolan. Dolan’s reaction, while not exactly rejection of his budget, was more akin to warning that the budget should line up with Catholic teaching on aiding the poor. The letter, notably, fell far, far short of accusing Ryan of an unconscionable attack on the poor, as Dolan has accused the Obama administration of imposing the “unconscionable” contraception insurance mandate.

This week, the USCCB revealed that it had in fact sent letters to two Congressional committees, arguing that Ryan’s budget, which cuts programs to poor and vulnerable citizens, fails to meet “moral criteria.” A “just spending bill,” the Bishops argued, “cannot rely on disproportionate cuts in essential services to poor and vulnerable persons.” 

Meanwhile, Rep. Rosa DeLauro, who is Catholic and was among the Democratic women highly critical of Rep. Darrell Issa’s “religious freedom” show trial over the contraception coverage, sent her own letter to Dolan, on the heels of the Bishops’ call for the “fortnight of freedom” over the alleged infringements of religious liberty. According to the Catholic News Service:

DeLauro told CNS the church’s moral standing in society would lend a strong voice as the country weighed its priorities and responsibilities.

“What I am asking for is a campaign for the poor, the hungry, the middle class, the people who are going to be eviscerated by the Ryan budget,” DeLauro said.

DeLauro’s letter cited her Catholic faith, which she said guided her entry into public life and continues to frame her view on the role of government in society.

“My church, the Catholic Church, needs to speak out loud on this issue,” she said.

As I’ve argued before (and argued again today in a taped interview with the Christian Broadcasting Network’s David Brody, which should air soon), politicians should not be seeking the approval of any religious body for their legislative proposals. I fully understand the impulse of progressive Catholics who believe in their church’s long history of social justice advocacy who want to push back against it being hijacked by the likes of Paul Ryan, and I certainly understand anyone wanting to make an argument against his budget on any moral grounds. 

No one is denying Rosa DeLauro or Paul Ryan the ability to claim that their faith guides them through the budget process. And Catholics surely are going to engage in robust arguments about whether Ryan’s cold-hearted, small government justifications do or do not align with Catholic teaching. But if one doesn’t want the Bishops’ imprimatur on the contraceptive coverage, if one thinks that the Bishops’ demand that public policy conform to their religious edicts is a violation of the Establishment Clause, then their approval of the budget should be irrelevant. I know it’s all politics and optics, a fight over who, of the Catholic House members, is truer to the social justice tradition? And I know that DeLauro and others are pushing the Bishops to bring the same outrage to bear on the budget that they have to the contraception wars. 

But consider: child sexual assault cases against the church continue to be tried; the Bishops order a crackdown on nuns already under investigation for, among other things, disagreeing with the Bishops and promoting “certain radical feminist themes incompatible with the Catholic faith;” an individual Bishop compares the president of the United States to Hitler and Stalin; all while an increasing number of Catholics are saying, “no, thank you” to the Bishops’ “religious freedom” jeremiad. Yet, in spite of all this, in the war over the Catholic meaning of the budget, their moral authority has taken center stage.