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You Say Subsidiarity, I Say Bullshit—Why Paul Ryan and his Bishop Defenders are Wrong

You may remember that when Paul Ryan proposed a budget that would have slashed programs to help poor Americans, such as food stamps and housing assistance, the nation’s Catholic bishops were not pleased. They wrote letters to Congress charging that the Ryan budget failed to meet essential moral criteria, among them that “The needs of those who are hungry and homeless, without work or in poverty should come first.” Period.

Faced with such criticism from his own church, Ryan first tried to minimize the complaints. “These are not all the Catholic bishops,” he told reporters. That came as news to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, which had released the letters under the headline: “Federal Budget Choices Must Protect Poor, Vulnerable People, Says U.S. Bishops’ Conference.” Not, “… Say a Few Individual Bishops.”

More recently, a handful of bishops have broken ranks to defend Ryan’s budget and his claims that it need not concern itself with the poor.  Ryan’s own bishop, Robert Morlino of Madison, was the first to step up with a column in the diocesan newspaper. On the question of “how to best care for the poor,” Morlino wrote, “Catholics and others of good will can arrive at different conclusions.” 

Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia concurred, in a September interview with the National Catholic Reporter. “Jesus tells us very clearly that if we don’t help the poor, we’re going to go to hell. Period. There’s just no doubt about it. That has to be a foundational concern of Catholics and of all Christians,” said Chaput. “But Jesus didn’t say the government has to take care of them, or that we have to pay taxes to take care of them. Those are prudential judgments.” 

That phrase “prudential judgment,” which was also used by Rick Santorum during the GOP primaries to explain his dissent from Church teachings on issues from immigration reform to the war in Iraq, has been seized upon by other Ryan defenders. Conservative Catholic writer George Weigel wrote this week in the National Review that the earlier bishops’ letters criticizing the Ryan budget were merely “exercises in prudential judgment that were binding on exactly no one.”

But Bishop Thomas John Paprocki of Springfield, Illinois went the furthest in providing cover for Ryan when he spoke in the congressman’s home state recently. After telling parishioners that he wasn’t going to tell them who to vote for but that voting for a Democrat would “place the eternal salvation of your own soul in serious jeopardy,” Paprocki proclaimed Ryan’s budget “consistent” with Catholic principles. He also agreed with Ryan by arguing that government “programs aimed at combating poverty [may] actually help perpetuate it by stifling individual responsibility and fostering intergenerational dependence on government.” Furthermore, Paprocki said, when his brother bishops criticized sharp cuts to the federal food stamps program, they were “simply making a prudential judgment that this program is a necessary practical means to feed the hungry. However, reasonable minds can come to different conclusions about more effective ways to alleviate hunger.”

Agreed. At least on that last point. But what might those more effective ways be? We have heard none, other than Mitt Romney’s assertion that he would create jobs that would move people out of poverty. Perhaps he would. But what of those Americans who are hungry and homeless in the meantime?

If someone like Ryan uses his prudential judgment to decide that there are better ways to help the poor than to use the federal budget to fund programs that feed and house and provide other support to the poor, doesn’t he then have a responsibility to lay out what those other ways are? By not doing so, Ryan effectively shrugs his shoulders and says it’s not his job.

Ryan and his defenders rely heavily on the Catholic principle of subsidiarity, which Morlino defines as: “the problem at hand should be addressed at the lowest level possible—that is, the level closest to the people in need.” The federal government is so far removed from people on the ground, they argue, that it cannot possibly be responsible for addressing problems associated with poverty. That’s only true, however, if institutions at lower levels actually have the capacity to meet those needs. And that’s far from the case. As we discussed earlier this summer, each and every religious congregation in America would have to spend an additional $50,000 annually just to cover the proposed cuts in one federal nutrition program. 

It’s surprising that the bishops aren’t more interested in this problem, given that Catholic Charities is the largest single charity in the country. According to the Economist, Catholic Charities and its associated programs distributed $4.7 billion to the poor in 2010. More than half of that—62%--came from local, state, and federal government agencies. Only 2.7% of the American Catholic Church’s annual spending is on charities. In other words, the cuts proposed in the Ryan budget wouldn’t just shift responsibility for the poor to private charities. They would slash the funds those charities have to help the poor.

Paul Ryan can believe that subsidiarity precludes the involvement of the federal government in poverty alleviation, but surely he doesn’t just get to kick the problem to the financially struggling charitable sector and say, “Good luck with that.”

And as long as this Baptist is going to tangle with some bishops over their interpretations of Catholic social teaching, let’s challenge this idea that subsidiarity means addressing a problem at the lowest level possible. Does that mean that in addition to providing assistance at the lowest level, the funding for that assistance must also originate at the lowest level? Or that decision-making about how best to help the poor must also take place at the lowest level? That reading of subsidiarity is politically convenient but inaccurate.

The bishops are on even shakier ground when they seek to affirm Ryan’s claim that social programs simply create a culture of dependency. Let’s just look at food stamps. In 2010, nearly one-third of those on food stamps were working Americans. Another third were elderly or disabled, and another 22% were families with children. What’s the argument for taking food stamps away from these moochers? “Let them go hungry and then they’ll get another job”? “Let them go hungry and those kids will finally force their parents to get a job”? “Let them go hungry and maybe those grandmas will get back into the workforce”?

As for those poor Americans who do not have jobs and rely upon food stamps to feed their families, it is especially cruel and heartless to tell people that they need to end their dependency and just get a job when there simply are not enough jobs to go around. Is this all just a national game of musical chairs? The music stops, you don’t have a chair—sorry, no food, no roof for you.