As budget priorities have become a central focus in the 2012 election, Christian politicians and leaders have engaged in a debate over how to apply biblical principles to government budgets. The recently passed House Republican budget, the brainchild of Budget Chair Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), has become a central focus in this debate. Many politically liberal Christians argue it is not biblical due to cuts in programs for the poor.
Ryan said in an interview on CBN last week that the budget is consistent with some of the teachings of his Catholic faith. Faith in Public Life (FPL), a liberal Christian advocacy organization, released a statement, signed by 59 religious leaders, taking issue with Ryan's claim.
"We are deeply troubled that Rep. Paul Ryan – chairman of the House Budget Committee – is defending a budget proposal that makes dangerous cuts to food stamps and other vital protections for the most vulnerable as compatible with the teachings of his Catholic faith," the FPL statement said. "Simply put, this budget is morally indefensible and betrays Catholic principles of solidarity, just taxation and a commitment to the common good. A budget that turns its back on the hungry, the elderly and the sick while giving more tax breaks to the wealthiest few can't be justified in Christian terms."
In particular, Ryan mentioned the Catholic tenets of "subsidiarity," the principle that large, complex organizations should not deal with problems that can be dealt with by small, simple organizations, and "preferential option for the poor," the principle that the needs of the poor should be considered before the needs of others. The Republican budget is consistent with these principles, Ryan said, by reducing the role of the federal government in civic society and eliminating programs that keep the poor dependent on government.
Religious leaders who signed the FPL statement said Ryan misunderstands subsidiarity.
"Subsidiarity recognizes that those social institutions closest to the human person – families, communities, churches – can effectively respond to human needs. But subsidiarity, according to Church teaching, also insists that government has a responsibility to serve the common good when these institutions are unable to address the more systemic issues of poverty, inadequate health care, environmental degradation and other societal challenges."
The statement did not directly address Ryan's understanding of "preferential option for the poor."
Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) also enjoined the debate over Catholic teaching and the federal budget Friday with a letter to Cardinal Timothy Dolan, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. She asked Dolan to ask Congress to "give priority to the poor and vulnerable" in the House budget.
"As many of my colleagues, I came to Congress guided by a strong Christian faith and desire for a system of politics that is focused on the common good. It is that faith that still guides me today, and I remain committed to framing public policies which bring about social justice in our nation and in our world," DeLauro wrote.
In particular, DeLauro mentioned the funding levels for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly known as "food stamps," and Medicaid, a government health insurance program for the poor, as areas of concern.
In a recent interview with The Christian Post, Ron Sider, an evangelical theologian who is politically liberal, also criticized the House Republican budget for cutting, or reducing the rate of growth, of programs for the poor.
"Sixty-two percent of all the cuts [House Republicans] want to make in federal spending comes from programs that empower the poor, while at the same time giving millionaires tax cuts. I think that's wrong," Sider said.
Some of the signatories of the FPL statement include Stephen Schneck, director of the Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies at Catholic University of America; the Rev. James F. Keenan, S.J., founders professor in Theology at Boston College; and Dr. Francis Schüssler Fiorenza, stillman professor of Roman Catholic Theological Studies at Harvard Divinity School.