The Speaker of the U.S. House, John Boehner, chastised the American Roman Catholic Bishops at a news conference on April 17, 2012 for having scolded the House Republican budget for harming the poor while helping out the affluent. “At a time of great competition for agricultural resources and budgetary constraints, the needs of those who are hungry, poor and vulnerable should come before assistance to those who are relatively well off and powerful.” This statement is interesting, given that the Bishops were also chastising nuns for emphasizing poverty too much (at the expense of advocating an anti-abortion agenda). Nevertheless, the statement can be read as a moral declaration that sustenance is a human right not subject to budget cuts. This point is one rarely made in the U.S.
Treating food stamps, Medicaid, and housing assistance as just three of a multitude of government programs that are subject to cuts ignores the qualitative difference between keeping someone alive and bestowing a benefit on someone whose survival is not at issue. In other words, just as taxes do not start at $1 of taxable income, budget cuts could be set to cover all programs—domestic and military—above those that enable the poorest of the poor to survive.
In fact, it could be argued that increasing the safety net while limiting to that which is necessary for survival and decreasing budget lines above those programs are even more moral. Assistance to those who are relatively well-off should be weighed against making a dent in paying off (or not adding to!) the $16 trillion U.S. debt. Furthermore, there is something immoral about those who are well-off benefitting from governmental redistribution, especially if they are insisting on retaining their tax cuts. The combination of retaining tax cuts for the rich while cutting back on food stamps for the poor is perhaps the worst alternative, morally. I suspect that this is precisely what the bishops were getting at in invoking their moral authority.
Even so, it can be argued that a religious functionary such as a bishop is no more entitled to moral authority than is a functionary from another domain. Religion is not ethics. In the Hebrew Bible, Yahweh sends some rather unethical divine decrees, such as to kill innocent women and children. The Book of Job suggests that God’s power (omnipotence) cannot be limited—by definition—even by human ethical principles or mores. Furthermore, in the history of Christianity, the Roman Catholic Church bishops have engaged in some rather unethical conduct. The Crusades and the burning of heretics are just two examples. The Speaker of the House could thus have found support for insisting that the bishops take a look at a bigger picture.
At the same time, the Speaker’s particular argument—that cuts in food stamps were necessary to save the program, given the annual U.S. Government deficits—may be flawed. That spending cuts are conducive to decreasing a deficit does not mean that sustenance to the poor must or should be cut. Cuts in all programs above those that are geared to the poorest of the poor could take care of the deficit so cuts in food stamps would not be necessary for the federal government to be viable, fiscally speaking. The bishops could have called the Speaker’s bluff on the survivability of the food stamp program.
Michael McAuliff, “Republican Budget: John Boehner Says Bishops Miss Big Picture in Protesting GOP’s Proposed Cuts,” The Huffington Post, April 18, 2012.