Two-tier morality? Catholic Bishops' anti-poverty advocacy lags
These and other Catholic groups, as Fred Rotondaro, chair of the board of directors of Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good, and a fellow at the Center for American Progress, pointed out, “do wonderful things for the poor, they do marvelous things. But what they do is alleviate the suffering; what the Bishops have failed to do is attack the causes of poverty in America.” For Catholic social justice advocates like Rotondaro, charity of the kind defined by Father Grecco is essential, but needs to be complimented with advocacy for justice in the political realm by the USCCB leadership.
How much advocacy?
Currently, the USCCB does advocate on federal poverty and social safety net-related legislation, with a staff of five, through its Domestic Social Development office (The Pro-Life Activities office, by contrast, has a staff of eight.) Kathy Saile, the director of the Office of Domestic Social Development at the USCCB, argued to Remapping Debate that USCCB lobbying efforts last summer, during the fight over raising the country’s debt ceiling, were influential in protecting programs for the poor from being included among the budget cuts that will automatically go into effect if Congress does not find other means of deficit reduction before January 2013. During the debate, several bishops, including Stephen Blaire, chairman of the USCCB’s Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development, met with Republican and Democratic Party leaders in both the House and Senate to make the case for exempting low-income programs from this “sequestration” procedure.
This year, Saile said, “as legislative opportunities arrive they [the Bishops] will insert themselves and engage themselves in that process,” especially in response to potential cuts to food stamps and the child tax credit. When Remapping Debate asked if the efforts pursued by her office are essentially reactive, rather than constituting a broad, affirmative strategy to fight poverty, she replied, “I mean the Catholic Bishops don’t set the agenda for Congress.” The larger principles and social justice ideas — “the big picture,” as Saile describes it — come from a second front in the USCCB’s advocacy: Bishop’s letters.
Bishop Blaire, in his role chair of the domestic justice committee, has sent several such letters since early March to all representatives and senators in Congress, as well as to the heads of committees that have control over specific pieces of legislation. Blaire’s volley of letters anticipated, and then responded to, the House Budget Committee’s proposed cuts to low-income programs, that, if enacted, would total over 3.3 trillion over ten years, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. The tenor of all the letters reflected, as Blaire told Remapping Debate, the fact that “these are difficult times when we are trying to find financial adjustments for our country, but we want to raise up the importance of not doing this on the backs of the poor.”
In his letter of Mar. 6, for example, Blaire along with his counterpart Bishop Richard Pates, the chairman of the USCCB’s Committee on International Justice and Peace, wrote: “The moral measure of this budget debate is not which party wins or which powerful interests prevail, but rather how those who are jobless, hungry, homeless and poor are treated. Their voices are too often missing in these debates, but they have the most compelling moral claim on our consciences and our common resources.” Following through on these moral commitments, Blaire and Pates reasoned, may require “raising adequate revenues, eliminating unnecessary military and other spending, and addressing the long-term costs of health insurance and retirement programs fairly.”
Though Steve Krueger, the national director of the Catholic Democrats supports the letters sent by Blaire, he points to an incident in the spring of 2011, when, having received a similar letter from Bishop Blaire and Bishop Howard J. Hubbard, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.), the chair of the House Budget Committee, sent a response, not to Blaire and Hubbard, but to USCCB president and then-Archbishop Timothy Dolan. Ryan forcefully rejected the thrust of the recommendations, arguing that his budget proposal was dedicated to “end[ing] the mortal threat of exploding [federal] debt,” a task requiring significant cuts to “entitlement spending,” like Medicare and Medicaid. Dolan replied with a conciliatory letter that, while mentioning the “specific concerns” of Blaire and Hubbard, suggested that within Catholic principles, “people of good will might offer and emphasize various policy proposals that reflect their experience and expertise.” Rather than standing with his USCCB colleagues, Kruger says, Dolan’s letter undercut the force of Blaire and Hubbard’s initial advocacy. Ryan, at least, found the letter supportive: the House Budget Committee still has a copy of both the Ryan and Dolan letters posted on its website.