Did the American Pope Really Bless Ryan’s Budget?

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REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

Despite some extremely flawed and misleading reporting in the past week (Politico headline: “Paul Ryan Gets Boost From Catholic Bishops), no, New York Archbishop Timothy Dolan is not delighted by the House GOP’s budget. Nor has Dolan–the head of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops–“clearly dispute[d] one of the chief rallying cries against the budget: That it would hurt the poor to benefit the rich,” as Politico reported.

Somebody, it seems, has been spun by Ryan’s office. It’s understandable–Catholic leaders communicate in a dialect designed to be obtuse. But let’s look at what correspondence between the chair of the House Budget Committee and the most powerful Catholic in the U.S. actually says.

On April 29, the Catholic Ryan sent a four-page letter to Archbishop Dolan to “share with you some observations surrounding the current budget debate.” Ryan quotes from Pope John Paul II’s encyclical Centesimus Annus, as well as other documents in the church’s social Magisterium, in order to argue that his budget’s treatment of programs for poor and working families conforms with Catholic social teaching.

Ryan’s letter was in response to a missive the USCCB sent to Congress on April 13. The letter, which was written by the chairs of the USCCB’s committees on Domestic Justice & Human Development and International Justice & Peace, raised “serious concerns about how [Ryan’s budget] meets the criterion of adequately protecting poor and vulnerable people.” The bishops specifically cited proposed changes to Medicaid and Medicare, as well as “substantial cuts” to food and nutrition programs, child development and education, affordable housing, and the foreign operations budget.

In writing to Dolan, Ryan was essentially going over the heads of those bishops to their boss.

But if he thought Dolan would hold a different view on his budget, Ryan was wrong. The Archbishop responded with a two-page letter of his own on May 18. (Ryan’s office made both of the letters public on May 19.) The reply was polite, respectful, but firm. The message: Nice try. I’m glad you understand Catholic social teaching. Now apply those principles to your budget.

In fact, Dolan’s letter is about as clear as a Catholic leader can get. Over and over he pointedly refers to Ryan’s letter instead of Ryan’s budget [emphasis mine below]:

  • “I deeply appreciate your letter’s assurances of your continued attention to the guidance of Catholic social justice in the current delicate budget considerations in Congress.”
  • “I commend your letter’s attention to the important values of fiscal responsibility; sensitivity to the foundational role of the family; the primacy of the dignity of the human person and the protection of all human life; a concrete solicitude for the poor and the vulnerable, especially those who are hungry and homeless, without work or in poverty; and putting into practice the principles of solidarity and subsidiarity, here at home and internationally within the context of a commitment to the common good.”
  • “I am grateful as well for your letter’s attention to the priorities I express in my letter of January 14, 2011 to all the members of Congress, as well as to specific concerns raised recently by my two brother bishops [the April 13 letter.]

And Dolan quotes right back at Ryan from Centesimus Annus. Ryan had cited the principle of subsidiarity in quoting a passage that warns of the dangers when citizens become overly reliant on government and arguing for smaller government. Dolan reminded him that the principle of solidarity is equally important and interrelated. I’m going to reproduce his statement on this in full, because it’s important [emphasis mine again]:

“A singularly significant part of our duty as pastors is to insist that the cries of the poor are heard, and that the much needed reform leading to financial discipline that is recognized by all never adds further burdens on those who are poor and most vulnerable, nor distracts us from our country’s historic consideration of the needs of the world’s most suffering people. The late Blessed Pope John Paul II was clear about this when he said: ‘When there is question of defending the rights of individuals, the defenseless and the poor have a claim to special consideration.’ (Centesimus Annus, 10, citing Rerum Novarum, 37). In any transition that seeks to bring new proposals to current problems in order to build a better future, care must be taken that those currently in need not be left to suffer. I appreciate your assurance that your budget would be attentive to such considerations and would protect those at risk in the processes and programs of such a transition. While appreciating these assurances, our duty as pastors will motivate our close attention to the manner in which they become a reality.

Actually, I take back what I said at the beginning. I don’t understand how anyone could read Dolan’s letter and come away with the conclusion that it lends support to Ryan’s cause. I don’t fault Ryan’s office for trying to spin it that way. They were working with a pretty safe assumption that most journalists believe Catholic leaders and the GOP are two peas in a pod, that abortion is the issue that dictates all of the bishops’ interactions with politicians.

If Dolan actually had disputed the bishops’ concerns about the Ryan budget, as Politico reported, and overruled his colleagues, it would be a huge, unprecedented break of episcopal decorum. That just does not happen. And it didn’t. Nothing has changed. The Catholic bishops–including Dolan now, who is in this debate thanks to Ryan–have made clear their definition of what constitutes a just and moral budget. And so far, the Ryan budget fails to meet that standard.