While the worst of Hurricane Sandy is over, we’re not in the clear yet and repairing the extensive damage will take a long time. My prayers are with everyone who has been harmed.
I’m thankful that the President and governors of both parties are working together to respond to the destruction. Protecting hard-hit communities at times like this requires careful coordination among federal, state and local governments, as well as all-hands-on-deck efforts by volunteers, charities and faith groups.
After Hurricane Katrina, religious congregations sent legions of volunteers and enormous resources to rebuild New Orleans and the Gulf Coast and care for displaced families. Whatever the extent of Sandy’s destruction, I’m sure the faith community will rise to the occasion again.
The question is whether the government will hold up its end of the bargain after future disasters. The House Appropriations Committee proposed to cut FEMA’s budget by $269 million over the past two years, and the agency – which has been highly effective under President Obama — faces an automatic $900 million cut early next year if Congress doesn’t strike a deal to avert the budget sequestration that Congressional Republicans demanded during the debt default showdown.
In a GOP presidential primary debate last year, Mitt Romney said federal spending on disaster relief is immoral when there is a budget deficit, and such work should be handled by the states or even privatized. Perhaps sensing the political fallout, his campaign backtracked somewhat from these remarks yesterday. Whether he really changed his mind is anybody’s guess.
One thing is certain though. At a time when state budgets can’t pick up the slack and climate change makes natural disasters more destructive, cuts to resources like FEMA are pure folly – and they won’t make a dent in the deficit either.
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When Faith in Public Life and FPL Action Fund were founded, we had a clear vision – to change the values debate and help the faith community advance the common good. We also had an example of how not to go about it – the Religious Right’s incendiary rhetoric and blatant partisanship.
I was reminded of that contrast by last weekend’s Values Voter Summit, the Religious Right’s annual gathering with Republican politicians. Rather than a constructive interaction between faith leaders and politicians, it was a partisan showcase for the GOP’s most radical elements. The imaginary “war on religion” was a predominant theme. Anti-Muslim bigotry abounded. Democratic voters were portrayed as dependent on government handouts.
Earlier in the week, diverse faith leaders showed what an authentic religious contribution to political debates looks like. Speaking at the National Press Club, the Circle of Protection called on both parties to address poverty more directly in their campaigns. They also unveiled video statements about poverty submitted to the group by President Obama and Mitt Romney. The event was a welcome addition to an election focused overwhelmingly on the middle class, but it’s also not enough for candidates to just say they care about poverty. They need to stand up for policies that actually protect the poor, and we shouldn’t be shy about publicly pressuring candidates to offer better policy solutions.
Romney’s statement at a fundraiser that he thinks 47 percent of Americans have a victim complex and refuse to take responsibility for themselves revealed a very different mindset than he shared with the Circle of Protection. It’s hard to claim you’ll make helping the poor a priority when you see them as morally deficient people who will never support you. This contradiction isn’t limited to Romney. As the Values Voter Summit showed, it afflicts the Religious Right as well.
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The political world anxiously awaits President Obama’s convention speech on Thursday, but I’m most looking forward to an address the night before.
Sister Simone Campbell, executive director of NETWORK, a national Catholic social justice lobby, will give an address at the Democratic convention in prime time on Wednesday night. Given that Simone led the Nuns on the Bus tour this summer that focused on the myriad ways the Ryan budget harms struggling families, I expect she’ll speak to this issue once again and lay out a constructive alternative vision.
While that might ring familiar to those of us in the faith community who follow this debate closely, most Americans haven’t heard this moral message from a faith leader on such a national stage. If the American people dismiss the tax and budget debates as merely partisan questions, the risk of a tragic outcome increases. People need to know that the well-being of families, seniors and children are in jeopardy, and they need to hear about it from someone with more credibility than politicians.
Following a Republican convention riddled with dishonest claims about Democrats, the President, and the economy, President Obama needs to resist the temptation to fight fire with fire – especially given his campaign’s previous use of misleading attacks (albeit to a far lesser extent than Romney’s). Faith leaders often decry the lack of civility in politics, but this time around I’m concerned foremost with simple honesty. If the Democrats decide that “getting tough” and fighting back requires sinking to the GOP’s level of prolific dishonesty, our democracy will be badly damaged. Undecided voters are just now tuning in to the campaigns. There’s no better time to change the tone.
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It’s no secret that many bishops, including Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York, are incensed with the Obama administration over contraception coverage requirements under the Affordable Care Act. Bishops have missed few opportunities to blast the president as hostile to religious liberty – a meme that Mitt Romney has eagerly picked up on in a campaign ad that depicts President Obama as waging a “war on religion.”
But the selection of Rep. Paul Ryan – an intellectual darling of the conservative movement who embraces Catholic teaching to defend his policies – has complicated the Catholic narrative during these final months heading into the election.
In April, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops sent a flurry of letters to the House of Representatives criticizing Ryan’s GOP budget proposal for its “unacceptable cuts.” Bishop Stephen Blaire and Bishop Richard Pates, chairmen of the domestic justice and international justice and peace committees at the U.S bishops’ conference respectively, told Congress that “a just spending bill cannot rely on disproportionate cuts in essential services to poor and vulnerable persons.” The House budget proposal “fails to meet these moral criteria,” they wrote.
“Catholic bishops say GOP budget proposal fails moral test,” read a Religion News Service headline picked up in several national publications. Catholic theologians and justice leaders also weighed in with a strong critique of Ryan’s Tea Party-inspired ideology. When Ryan gave a major speech at Georgetown University, a letter from nearly 90 faculty and priests at the Jesuit university challenged Ryan for his continued “misuse of Catholic teaching” and said Ryan’s budget “appears to reflect the values of your favorite philosopher, Ayn Rand, rather than the Gospel of Jesus Christ.”
Since Mitt Romney tapped Ryan as his vice presidential pick there is renewed attention on Catholic voters. So what are bishops doing now that the stakes are raised, and the Catholic author of a budget blueprint they have denounced in unambiguous terms could be a heartbeat from the presidency? Three bishops, including the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, have essentially defended Ryan in glowing terms.
“A great public servant,” Cardinal Dolan gushed in the conservative National Review. Praising Ryan’s “solicitude for the poor,” the U.S. bishops’ president waxed eloquent about the lawmakers’ command of Aquinas and their intimate conversations over dinner. Cue the violin? Moderate and progressive Catholics who in recent years have worried that bishops are in danger of being perceived as the “Republican Party at Prayer” aren’t sure whether to chuckle or cry about Cardinal Dolan’s upcoming benediction at the Republican National Convention.
Bishop Robert Morlino, Ryan’s bishop in Wisconsin, defended him as a good Catholic family man victimized by those who have “unfairly attacked his reputation.” A strange response given that Ryan’s many Catholic critics are challenging his policy ideas, not taking gratuitous swipes at his character. Bishop Morlino also went on to offer some curious interpretations of Catholic teaching by enshrining the “right to private property” as among the “most fundamental issues for the formation of a Catholic conscience.” Is this the Donald Trump version of Catholic teaching?
According to the Vatican’s Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church:
Christian tradition has never recognized the right to private property as absolute and untouchable. On the contrary, it has always understood this right within the broader context of the right common to all to use the goods of the whole of creation: the right to private property is subordinated to the right to common use, to the fact that goods are meant for everyone… this principle is not opposed to the right to private poverty but indicates the right to regulate it.
Bishop Morlino also throws in a favorite right-wing scare word – socialism! – to a list of “intrinsic evils” that voters must confront. Who besides the most reactionary of ideologues on the right consider socialism a grave threat to our nation today? (For a more detailed theological critique of Bishop Morlino see David Cloutier’s piece at Catholic Moral Theology).
Plenty of Democrats and President Obama are surrounded by former Wall Street titans who now serve as economic advisors. Despite conservative demagoguery over the Affordable Care Act, the law provides a vast new market for insurance companies. One expects Rush Limbaugh to hyperventilate about the bogeyman of socialism, but Catholic bishops should not be wading into these paranoid waters.
Don’t forget this is the same bishop who caused a stir back in April when he defended a group of ultra-conservative priests facing criticism from parishioners by warning the critics that they risked formal church censure unless they stopped spreading “rumors and gossip.”
Adding his voice to the Ryan fan club, Archbishop Aquila of Denver wrote that those who have corrected Ryan on the grounds of Catholic teaching are making claims that are “unfounded and unreasonable.” The archbishop went on to conclude:
Paul Ryan is concerned that America will soon be bankrupt, and so we must make hard choices. If he is right, and we ignore the message because the consequences seem compassion-less, our sentimental affections may cripple the ones our Lord loves the most — our children.
Funny, I don’t remember these dire warnings from bishops when debt ballooned under President George W. Bush as Iraq war spending rose.
In all of these cases, there is the obligatory reference that the bishops are not backing any candidate and would not dare engage in partisan politics. It seems that some bishops are either tone deaf to how their cheery defense of Ryan is interpreted by reporters and Catholic voters or their disgust with President Obama is so strong that they are comfortable making quasi-endorsements in this election. Either scenario is distressing.
It’s not unreasonable to ask if bishops will spend even half as much institutional energy educating Catholics about Ryan’s deeply un-Christian economic plans as they have on flogging the Obama administration over contraception coverage.
Letters to Capitol Hill are important, but most voters don’t read them. Unlike the two-week “Fortnight for Freedom” religious liberty campaign, launched with special Masses and great fanfare in dioceses across the country, I’ve seen little effort to amplify the bishops’ documented concerns about Ryan’s plans to slash government programs that protect the most vulnerable.
At the bishops last national meeting in June, they punted on a statement about the economy and poverty until after the election. Catholic bishops have used parish bulletin inserts and national postcard campaigns to warn about perceived threats to religious liberty and a supposed expansion of abortion rights in recent years. How about one bulletin insert to educate parishioners about economic proposals that are deeply hostile to Catholic teaching? There is nothing pro-life or Christian about Ryan’s plans to slash programs that help pregnant women, feed hungry children and protect the elderly.
The chasm between the U.S. bishops’ conference clear moral critique of the Ryan budget and the cozy embrace some bishops are now giving Ryan is not unexpected given the hierarchy’s conservative drift and increasing reluctance among some prelates to speak boldly on matters besides abortion, same-sex marriage and contraception. However, it does send mixed messages to Catholic voters.
In 2008, Bishop Joseph Martino of Scranton, PA (now retired) stormed into a civil conversation about the election that focused on the U.S. bishops’ Faithful Citizenship election year statement and thundered: “No USCCB document is relevant in this diocese. The USCCB doesn’t speak for me.” Bishop Martino issued his own election year statement focused on abortion.
The “prince-in-every diocese” nature of episcopal politics makes it challenging for bishops to always speak in consistent tones. But those bishops now offering a veneer of political cover to Paul Ryan – while helping to fuel a meta-narrative that President Obama is hostile to religious liberty – should think carefully about how they could be sacrificing the church’s moral credibility in public life on the altar of partisan politics.
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Pundits talk about vice presidential candidates in terms of political calculations, but in the final analysis it’s about choosing a deputy who will help carry out your agenda and the leader you trust the most to govern the country in your absence. By picking Paul Ryan as his running mate, Mitt Romney spoke volumes about the values and priorities that would shape his presidency.
In contrast to Romney’s deliberate vagueness about policy, Ryan has explicitly spelled out the GOP agenda over the past two years in the form of his federal budget plans. Faith leaders across the spectrum have vigorously opposed these immoral plans.
By now you’ve probably heard the details of Ryan’s budget: It replaces Medicare with a voucher scheme that doesn’t cover costs and ends guaranteed access to healthcare. It takes food assistance and healthcare away from struggling families. It permanently hamstrings our ability to make crucial investments that benefit us all. Why? In order to pay for trillions in tax cuts to the richest Americans. If he were serious about paying down the debt, he wouldn’t be funneling so much money to people who don’t need it.
President Obama described Ryan’s vision as “thinly veiled social Darwinism.” The Catholic bishops said his budget “fails a basic moral test.” Romney owns this agenda now, and it will give him major problems with people of faith.
Romney quickly said he isn’t going to campaign on Ryan’s budget. Instead, he’s pushing the shamefully dishonest charge that President Obama removed work requirements from welfare programs. This attack resurrects the old, misleading argument that Democrats make poor people dependent on government by giving them handouts while Republicans believe jobs are a better solution to poverty. This claim is essential to Ryan’s ignorant theological argument that draconian cuts to the safety net are consistent with compassion toward the least among us.
But I doubt this attack will help Romney and Ryan with religious voters either. Catholic nuns and Franciscan leaders have responded by publicly inviting Romney to accompany them as they work with people at the margins. If he continues his demagoguery, faith leaders will step up and forcefully challenge him, just as they have repeatedly rebuked Ryan for his immoral budget priorities.
By choosing Paul Ryan as his running mate, Romney increased the likelihood that voters will understand that this election is a choice between very different visions for our nation’s future. He also ensured that the faith community’s advocacy for compassion, justice and fairness will echo loudly this fall.
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