House Republicans versus Catholic bishops, meet the newest Cafeteria Catholics

April 19, 2012

It is a notable development that Roman Catholic Bishops seem to be giving House Republicans a bit of push back on the FY 2013 federal budget. “Federal Budget Choices Must Protect Poor Vulnerable People, Says U. S. Bishops’ Conference” includes references to letters by Bishops Stephen E. Blaire of Stockton, California, and Richard E. Pates of Des Moines, Iowa, chairmen of the Committees on Domestic Justice and Human Development and International Justice and Peace, respectively, urging Congress to resist proposed cuts in hunger and nutrition programs at home and abroad.

Bishops Blaire and Pates reaffirmed the “moral criteria to guide these difficult budget decisions” outlined in their March 6 budget letter:

1.Every budget decision should be assessed by whether it protects or threatens human life and dignity.

2.A central moral measure of any budget proposal is how it affects “the least of these” (Matthew 25). The needs of those who are hungry and homeless, without work or in poverty should come first.

3.Government and other institutions have a shared responsibility to promote the common good of all, especially ordinary workers and families who struggle to live in dignity in difficult economic times…

Just solutions, however, must require shared sacrifice by all, including raising adequate revenues, eliminating unnecessary military and other spending, and fairly addressing the long-term costs of health insurance and retirement programs.

In April 16 and April 17 letters to the House Agriculture Committee and the House Ways and Means Committee addressing cuts required by the budget resolution, Bishop Blaire said “The House-passed budget resolution fails to meet these moral criteria.” Bishop Blaire also wrote that cuts to nutrition programs such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP- food stamps) and the Child Tax Credit (CTC) will hurt hungry children, poor families, low-income workers and other vulnerable people. Additionally, he wrote that if cuts to the federal budget need to be made, savings should first be found in programs that target more affluent and powerful interests.

While Catholic teaching on social justice issues may be a surprise to some, it has quite a lengthy history and is held at the highest levels. In his first encyclical letter, Deus Caritas Est (2005), Benedict lays a biblical foundation for the theology of Christian charity beginning with the Old Testament concepts of man’s creation in the image of God and the radical love represented therein. This idea is identified in three principle NT parables

Luke’s depiction of Lazarus and the rich man (16:19-31) is Benedict’s starting point for depicting Christian love in the parables. According to the text, “there was a rich man who was clothed in purple and fine linen, and who feasted sumptuously every day” (v. 19). This passage deals with the flagrant expression of materialism in the face of human suffering. As concerns “proximity,” the rich man’s indifference was directed toward a particular human being languishing at his own front door. Furthermore, it is noteworthy that the rich man, now consigned to the flames of hell, calls Lazarus by name, suggesting more than a passing familiarity with the man’s afflicted condition. In the next life, Jesus tells his audience that there will be a profound role reversal. Benedict observes, “The rich man begs from his place of torment that his brothers be informed about what happens to those who simply ignore the poor man in need. Jesus takes up this cry for help as a warning to help us return to the right path” (2005, 15). Abraham responds to the rich man’s plea on behalf of his five equally oblivious brothers, “they have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear them” (16:29).

Luke’s account of the Good Samaritan (10:25-37), as understood by Benedict, gives us further insight on the matter of proximity and argues for a universal application of the biblical principle of “neighbor.”

Until that time, the concept of “neighbour” was understood as referring essentially to one’s countrymen and to foreigners who had settled in the land of Israel; in other words, to the closely-knit community of a single country or people. This limit is now abolished. Anyone who needs me, and whom I can help, is my neighbour. The concept of “neighbour” is now universalized, yet it remains concrete. Despite being extended to all mankind, it is not reduced to a generic, abstract and undemanding expression of love, but calls for my own practical commitment here and now. The Church has the duty to interpret ever anew this relationship between near and far with regard to the actual daily life of her members (2005, 15).

The Good Samaritan story arises out of a lawyer’s attempt at self-justification (v. 28). He rightly states the OT understanding about love of God and neighbor by joining Deut 6:5 and Lev 19:18.  Jesus responds to the “trick” question concerning the identity of one’s neighbor (v. 25) by expanding the notion of neighbor to locate the hated Samaritan among those to be included, and he pointedly casts the social outcast as one who shows mercy.

Benedict suggests the idea of church as family and proposes his interpretation of the Luke passage as a template for the broadest-based expression of concern: “The parable of the Good Samaritan remains as a standard which imposes universal love towards the needy whom we encounter ‘by chance’ (cf. Lk 10:31), whoever they may be.” Citing Gal 6; 10, “Do good for everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith,” the Pope proposes that the first consideration is for those who are members of the faith community (2005, 25b).

The Final Judgment depicted in Matt 25:31-46 associates one’s eternal fate with care for the downtrodden. Benedict’s analysis points to a potentially bitter consequence for social neglect..

Lastly, we should especially mention the great parable of the Last Judgment (cf. Mt 25:31-46), in which love becomes the criterion for the definitive decision about a human life’s worth or lack thereof. Jesus identifies himself with those in need, with the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick and those in prison. “As you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me” (2005, 15).

The theology of social action has evolved over time, beginning with events recorded in Acts. Benedict observes that, “charity is at the heart of the Church’s social doctrine. Every responsibility and every commitment spelt out by that doctrine is derived from charity which, according to the teaching of Jesus, is the synthesis of the entire Law (cf. Mt 22:36-40) (2009, 2). Since human beings are recipients of God’s grace, we are called upon to become instruments of God’s charity (2009, 5). Benedict proposes a foundational concept.

Social doctrine is built on the foundation handed on by the Apostles to the Fathers of the Church, and then received and further explored by the great Christian doctors. This doctrine points definitively to the New Man, to the “last Adam [who] became a life-giving spirit” (1 Cor 15:45), the principle of the charity that “never ends” (1 Cor 13:8). It is attested by the saints and by those who gave their lives for Christ our Saviour in the field of justice and peace (2009, 12).

The Papal Encyclical Caritas In Veritate is Benedict XVI’s study of Christian charity from the perspective of justice and the common good, and is also a reflection on the fortieth anniversary of Paul VI’s social encyclical Populorum Progressio. Released in the summer of 2009, Benedict perceptively approaches the moral aspects of the looming international financial crisis.

This presents us with choices that cannot be postponed concerning nothing less than the destiny of man, who, moreover, cannot prescind from his nature. The technical forces in play, the global interrelations, the damaging effects on the real economy of badly managed and largely speculative financial dealing, large-scale migration of peoples, often provoked by some particular circumstance and then given insufficient attention, the unregulated exploitation of the earth’s resources: all this leads us today to reflect on the measures that would be necessary to provide a solution to problems that are not only new in comparison to those addressed by Pope Paul VI, but also, and above all, of decisive impact upon the present and future good of humanity (2009, 21).

The Pontiff sets forth on a daunting intellectual journey though topics of multinational corporations, intellectual property, social welfare systems, the mobility of labor, immigration, respect for life, and food security, in addition to other pressing current issues. Benedict analyzes the matter of nutrition in the least developed countries, He sets out the great Last Judgment drama of Matt 25:35-7, is “an ethical imperative for the universal Church, as she responds to the teachings of her Founder, the Lord Jesus, concerning solidarity and the sharing of goods.” Benedict proposes approaching the problem of food insecurity from a long-term perspective, “eliminating the structural causes that give rise to it and promoting the agricultural development of poorer countries” (2009, 17).

In the “majority world” countries, Benedict sees the need to strengthen different types of businesses, “especially those capable of viewing profit as a means for achieving the goal of a more humane market and society” (2009, 47). Benedict also finds that those living in poorer countries are in peril of usury and despair. Furthermore, the economic downturn has caused increased poverty in richer nations. Even during economic hard times, “micro-finance can give practical assistance by launching new initiatives and opening up new sectors for the benefit of the weaker elements in society” (2009, 65).

The very idea of Christian compassion as found in the biblical texts is, nonetheless, incomprehensible outside of an understanding of the magnanimous gift of God’s grace. Benedict XVI gives the concept a full expression

Charity is love received and given. It is “grace” (cháris). Its source is the wellspring of the Father’s love for the Son, in the Holy Spirit. Love comes down to us from the Son. It is creative love, through which we have our being; it is redemptive love, through which we are recreated. Love is revealed and made present by Christ (cf. Jn 13:1) and “poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit” (Rom 5:5). As the objects of God’s love, men and women become subjects of charity, they are called to make themselves instruments of grace, so as to pour forth God’s charity and to weave networks of charity (2009, 5)

So, when somebody wonders about Catholic teaching on matters of economic justice, it is well explained by the bishops and Pope Benedict XVI. This is an necessary contribution to what should be a reasonable discussion of national priorities.


Benedict XVI. Caritas in Veritate. Encyclical Letter. 2009.

_________. Deus Caritas Est Encyclical Letter. 2005.


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