The Ryan budget and competing visions of Catholic social teaching

Last summer, faith leaders drew together to form a “Circle of Protection” around vulnerable citizens as debates raged over how to balance the federal budget. At the time, a group of Catholic leaders urged Speaker of the House and fellow Catholic John Boehner to appeal to his faith and find a compromise that would reflect the Catholic value of solidarity.

Well, faith leaders are at it again with the release of Paul Ryan's 2013 budget. It might come as a surprise after reading these critiques from fellow Catholics, to hear Ryan say that he did consult his Catholic faith when making decisions about the budget.

According to Ryan, “The preferential option for the poor, which is one of the primary tenants of Catholic social teaching, means don’t keep people poor, don’t make people dependent on government so that they stay stuck at their station in life, help people get out of poverty, out into a life of independence.”

But, the Ryan plan, which would slash spending while giving tax breaks to the wealthy, has drawn plenty of criticism for how it would hurt those in our country who are already struggling. President Obama slammed the budget at the AP luncheon in Washington last week, calling it "thinly veiled social Darwinism" that is both "antithetical to our entire history as a land of opportunity" and "a prescription for decline."

The USCCB says of Catholic social teaching: "A basic moral test is how our most vulnerable members are faring. In a society marred by deepening divisions between rich and poor, our tradition recalls the story of the Last Judgment (Mt 25:31-46) and instructs us to put the needs of the poor and vulnerable first…The economy must serve people, not the other way around."

This conviction was echoed much more clearly by a different representative, Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut, who came to a different conclusion than Ryan about what Catholic social teaching means. While writing on the dangers of “playing politics with food stamps" DeLauro said:

For one, as a Catholic, I have always believed we have a moral obligation to alleviate suffering and hunger. In the words of Matthew 25:35, “For I was hungry and you gave me food.” In the deeds of Christ, who brought plenty in the midst of want with the miracle of loaves and fishes. Preventing our fellow citizens from starving and suffering the effects of malnutrition is a basic component of what good government does.

Whether Paul Ryan is trying to represent good government or good Catholicism, he could stand to take heed of DeLauro's reminder.

About the author

Elizabeth Lefebvre

Elizabeth Lefebvre is a writer living in Chicago.