With the ubiquitousness of all of our modern technology, we sometimes forget how out of sync we can get with the natural rhythms of life… All of our machines: our automobiles that allow us to traverse once great distances in time periods measured in minutes not days, our electronic communication devices that enable us to be in constant contact with one another in even the remotest of areas, and of course our air conditioning, a phenomenon that I – as a descendent of ancestors who hailed from a cool island set high on the apogee of our globe – am most particularly grateful for. One hot spell like the first of the summer – such as the one we just passed through – is all it takes to jar us into recalling just how much our modern way of living has impacted the way we move, the way we live, the way we think. It seems sometimes that the possession of all of the accoutrements of modernity lends itself to a sort of schizophrenic way of living – that unless we elect to go “crunchy” and live “off the grid” as it were – we are doomed to live in a connected world of isolation; one that moves too quickly even as time appears to be dragging by. So many of us are balancing what often seem like barely reconcilable opposites: by way of example, for me on a professional level, I use contemporary technologies of wireless and satellite communication to spread principles based upon ancient wisdom thousands of years old; and on a personal level, I strive as best I can to live out the mandate that Jesus gave us in Matthew 25 – to care for the least of my brothers and sisters – in ways both a concrete and personal….all in a society whose technology seems to conversely alienate us from each other even as it connects us in ways our ancestors could scarcely imagine. This is not to say that the technology-dense circumstances of our modern day living has rendered our human agency meaningless: our machines might make our lives simultaneously more complex and more simple, but at the bottom line, it is still our own choices that drive our decisions and actions in this life. Now while modern technology has certainly impacted the pace of our lives, I don’t want to imply that life before the advent of the World Wide Web was without its own complexity. One example I can think of comes from my own personal history, and it took place not quit in the Stone Age but not too far after that when I finally declared my Major in my sophomore year at Manhattan College. I attended that school for many reasons, but one most particularly because it was my father’s Alma Mater, and it had given him a terrific education in business and accounting which enabled him to eventually open up his own accounting practice and become quite successful. I think that when I first went to the school, the assumption was that I would follow in a similar path. I often smile to my self when I think back on what my fiscally and politically conservative Certified Public Accountant Dad must have thought when I told him that I was going to be taking a major in Peace Studies!
But actually – in retrospect – the stretch between my father’s career and my decision to dedicate my professional life to the promotion of the values of peace and justice are not as far apart as they might seem at first blush, for you see the majority of my father’s clients came from the world of not-for-profit human services and healthcare – and the majority of those he worked with were Catholic. Growing up, this allowed me to be introduced to a tremendous amount of good and dedicated women and men – leaders in their respective fields – whose professional lives were devoted to the care of the most vulnerable of persons. In their professional, and fiscal – and sometimes political – lives, many of these men and women were quite conservative; they understood that despite the best and most lofty intentions, the care of human persons – especially in their most vulnerable state – requires resources and capital, both human and monetary. And yet – at the end of the day – these human service executives and financial professionals still understood that as Christians the ultimate bottom line requires us to never abandon the least of our brothers and sisters, but instead requires us to use the resources at our disposal to find a way to meet their human needs.
I was thinking recently about all the wonderful Catholic human services professionals that both my father’s career – and my own here at Catholic Charities – has allowed me the privilege of knowing over the years when I was reading about some of the dust-up that has erupted surrounding the House of Representative proposed Federal Budget, which was passed back on March 29th. Titled “The Path to Prosperity”, the House budget proposal advocates significantly reducing Federal spending on non-military programs – such as housing support for homeless people, the elderly, the disabled, children living in poverty, health care, financial market reforms, Medicaid, domestic and international food programs, and child tax credit refunds – all in an attempt towards significantly reducing the country’s $15 trillion budget deficit; additionally the budget calls for simplifying the tax code by closing loopholes and lowering the corporate and individual tax rate from 35% where it is currently to 25%. The response to the proposed House budget on a political basis was predictably swift and severe with the White House labeling it a radical Trojan Horse that was really nothing more then “thinly veiled social Darwinism”, but what I thought was particularly fascinating about reaction to this budget was the multiple responses that its publication generated among scholars and practitioners of Catholic social teaching. This was undoubtedly the case because the Chairman of the House Budget Committee and principle drafter of the “The Pathway to Prosperity” – Republican Wisconsin Representative Paul Ryan – had appeared on various talk shows and in several interviews to say that his proposed budget sprang from the teachings of his Catholic faith, and that the animating principle behind the budget’s significant cuts in Federal non-military spending were rooted in his understanding of the Catholic principle of “subsidiarity”, which he defined as relegating decision making and action to the most local level – thereby severely limiting, in his view, government’s role in helping the poor and vulnerable.
The response to Ryan’s assertions by those in the academia who study Catholic social teaching were swift, and Ryan was sent no less then three separate letters – one from a group of 59 Catholic social justice leaders, religious and clergy, and the other two from professors of Religious Studies at both Georgetown and Marquette University – critiquing what they cited as Representative Ryan’s misuse of Catholic social teaching in a document that decimated needed Federal funding for programs that assist the poor and vulnerable. The letters took particular issue with what was deemed Ryan’s misunderstanding of the Catholic principle of subsidiarty. First formally developed in the Papal Encyclical Rerum Novarum in 1891 by Pope Leo XIII as a bulwark against collectivism, the principle consists of not one, but two main components: as Representative Ryan asserted, the first component of subsidiarity does indeed assert that the level of human organization closest to the human person (the individual, the family, the local community) should be encouraged to carry out those social functions they can best fulfill, however as a corollary component of subsidiarity, larger levels of human organization (such as the state or federal government) should provide assistance to the smaller units to ensure human necessities are met when the smaller units are unable to fulfill those necessities on their own. In this way, what subsidiarity really asks is that societal assistance be provided at “the lowest level possible”, but also at the “highest level necessary” in the words of theologian Meghan Clark. In addition, all three letters made reference to the fact that in Catholic social teaching the principle of subsidiarity is always inexorably linked to the principle of solidarity – especially solidarity with the poor and vulnerable. For his part – in response to these criticism, Representative Ryan responded by saying that his proposed budget does incorporate solidarity by recognizing a role for government in providing a basic safety net for the poor, but that it attempts to restore a balance between solidarity and subsidiarity by placing the onus for providing for the poor and vulnerable on individuals, families, local communities, religious organizations and charities first– he also added that the Church’s preferential option for the poor should not be mistaken for a “preferential option for big government.”
As someone who’s professional career is dedicated to spreading the principles of Catholic social teaching more broadly, I think that the on-going debate that has been generated regarding Representative Ryan’s citing of Catholic social teaching as an inspiration for his proposed budget – and the corrective letters sent by the practitioners and academics who study and try to embody that teaching in their work and their lives every day – is ultimately a good thing. As Representative Ryan himself admitted, the teachings of the Social Magisterium of the Church as to how to best advance the Common Good are matters of prudential judgment where people of good will can differ. It does not escape me, however, that I write this blog post in the week when we celebrate the coming of the Holy Spirit – the Pentecost – the Birthday of our Church. In their role as teachers of the Faith, our Bishops have a specific responsibility regarding the promotion of Catholic teaching and its interpretation, a role that we believe that Jesus’ promise that the Holy Spirit will come sanctifies. It is for that reason that we Catholics should take particularly seriously the concerns of the United States Bishops Conference regarding the proposed budget in the “The Pathway to Prosperity”. In a letter sent to every Member of the House of Representatives on behalf of the Bishops’ Conference, Bishop Stephen Blaire, Chairman of the U.S. Bishops’ Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development explained that the budget which was passed fails a “basic moral test” in that the “needs of those who are hungry and homeless, without work or in poverty should come first. Government and other institutions have a shared responsibility to promote the common good of all, especially ordinary workers, and families struggling to live in dignity in difficult economic times”; while acknowledging that the country’s budget deficit was a serious concern, the Bishops reminded Congress that the first priority for their actions was the “proposition that first, Congress must do no harm.”
Wise words from the Bishops. And as I close this blog post, my mind wanders back to those folks I mentioned earlier – all of those wonderful leaders and financial professionals in Catholic human services that I have been afforded the privilege to know. As I said before, many if not most of these women and men were quite personally and fiscally conservative, they knew well the scarcity of resources – human and financial; they understood the dangers of out of control deficits and spending money that you do not have – however, I am also sure that they understood the essentialness of the services that they provided to those in their care, and the essentialness of placing first the needs of the vulnerable as we sort out our spending priorities. They would recognize the wisdom of the Bishops admonition that – as we proceed as a country in sorting our collective priorities – our first order of business is to “first, do no harm”.
And that, my friends, is the bottom line.