On Thursday, May 5, the nation’s Catholic bishops issued a dramatic appeal to the members of the U.S. Senate, and it wasn’t about abortion.
In a letter sent to all 100 members of that august chamber, the bishops urged the lawmakers to ensure that the upcoming federal budget doesn’t “rely on disproportionate cuts in essential services to poor persons.”
“The moral measure of this budget debate,” the letter said, “is not which party wins or which powerful interests prevail, but rather how those who are jobless, hungry, homeless or poor are treated,” the letter said. “Their voices are too often missing in these debates, but they have the most compelling moral claim on our consciences and our common resources.”
The letter’s specific target was the long-term budget “framework” proposed by Wisconsin Representative Paul Ryan, chair of the House budget committee, which purports to attack the national debt by slashing social spending. A “just” budget framework, the bishops wrote, “requires shared sacrifice by all, including raising adequate revenues, eliminating unnecessary military and other spending, and addressing the long-term costs of health insurance and retirement programs fairly.”
In other words: Raise taxes on the rich, cut military spending and don’t weaken Medicare, Medicaid or Social Security. Don’t cut unemployment benefits, welfare or affordable housing.
A nearly identical letter sent to members of the House in April, before their budget vote, specifically criticized Ryan’s plan to convert Medicare to a voucher program and turn Medicaid into block grants to the states.
Now, none of this breaks any new ground in Catholic social doctrine. Church teachings on economics have been pretty consistent since 1891, when Pope Leo XIII issued his landmark encyclical, “Rerum Novarum,” on the evils of unfettered market capitalism and the rights of working people and the poor. The doctrine has been periodically reaffirmed and updated, most recently by the current pope in 2009. The American bishops issued a lengthy “pastoral letter” in 1986, “Economic Justice for All,” that remains unmatched as a statement of the spiritual roots of social justice.
But the church as an institution hasn’t put much muscle behind it in the past few decades. On the contrary, the Catholic hierarchy has invested the lion’s share of its political capital in fighting abortion. It has allied itself firmly with conservatives because of the abortion issue, and to a lesser degree gay rights. The late Pope John Paul II, best remembered for his warmth toward Jews, moved the church far to the right during his 26-year papacy by appointing an entire generation of conservative bishops to replace the previous generation of Vatican II-era liberals. Leading American clerics have regularly attacked and bullied liberal Catholics like John Kerry and Mario Cuomo for their views on abortion. The rights of the poor have consistently taken a back seat.
This spring the church is pointing its guns in the other direction. Without naming names, it is taking direct aim at the Republican economic agenda — at a key moment when the issues are actually on the table. The bishhops’ letter talked about preserving funds for childhood nutrition and affordable housing and avoiding cuts in health care. It condemned draconian cuts to foreign aid that would eliminate life-saving food and medicines and abandon flood and earthquake victims to their fate. It mentioned raising taxes — which means, simply, taking money from those who can afford it rather than from those who can’t.
This criticism is particularly pointed because the Republican leaders most prominently identified with those policies, budget chief Ryan and House Speaker John Boehner, are both Catholic. By saying that the policies they’re championing are in violation of church teachings, the bishops are implying that they’re bad Catholics. If a believer is expected to respect the rights of the unborn, surely there’s an obligation to the born as well.
Judaism teaches this lesson, too: A portion of each person’s income is taken by law to support the poor. We will recite this lesson in synagogue in a few days when we celebrate the holiday of Shavuot, the ancient festival of the spring wheat harvest, the traditional anniversary of the giving of the Law at Mount Sinai, which falls on June 8. We observe Shavuot by reading the biblical Book of Ruth, the storied Moabite woman who became the ancestor of King David.
The story recalls how Ruth met her future husband when she went to his wheat field during the spring harvest to retrieve the gleanings. This is the grain that grows in the corners of the field and the sheaves that fall to the ground during harvest; it is left for the poor as their right. That is, a portion of your income is not yours but is redistributed to the poor. To keep it, to seek to extract the full profit from your enterprise, is a sin. Sharing your income with those who have less is not a matter of charity or generosity, but a legal obligation. This is the lesson we recite in celebration of the giving of the Torah and to honor the memory of King David, Israel’s greatest sovereign. This is the beginning of law and the meaning of sovereign governance.
I’d like to think that the bishops’ letters are the beginning of a new phase in America’s spiritual journey. I’d like to think they will tell Boehner and Ryan what they told Kerry: You may not preach sin and call yourself a person of faith. I’d like to think that rabbis around the country will be reading the bishops’ letter along with the Book of Ruth in synagogue on Shavuot. I’d like to think that a delegation of bishops and rabbis would pay a Shavuot visit to the House Republican leaders, Speaker Boehner, budget chairman Ryan and Majority Leader Eric Cantor, and read to them about the gleaning.
I’d like to think I could put money on this. But I won’t.
Contact J.J. Goldberg at firstname.lastname@example.org
Jonathan Jeremy “J.J.” Goldberg is editor-at-large of the Forward, where he served as editor in chief for seven years (2000-2007).