It seems sacrilegious to suggest the leader of the America's Catholic Bishops has made a deal with the devil. But his latest political gesture makes me wonder if he is in negotiations.

Timothy Dolan, the Archbishop of New York and president of the Conference of Catholic Bishops, sent a letter on Wednesday to House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan. The subject of the letter was the House Republican Budget, which Ryan wrote, and it was part of an ongoing dialogue between the two men. Dolan’s letter did not endorse the Republican budget per se. But it praised Ryan for his attention to the Church's values and, if you read the text, you can see why Ryan has (according to Politico) been brandishing it as a signal of support:

As you allude to in your letter, the budget is not just about numbers. It reflects the very values of our nation. As many religious leaders have commented, budgets are moral statements.
I commend your letter’s attention to the important values of fiscal responsibility; sensitivity to the foundational role of the family; the primacy of the dignity of the human person and the protection of all human life; a concrete solicitude for the poor and the vulnerable, especially those who are hungry and homeless, without work or in poverty; and putting into practice the principles of solidarity and subsidiarity, here at home and internationally within the context of a commitment to the common good shared by government and other mediating institutions alike.
[Emphasis mine]

It is entirely appropriate that Dolan cite the church’s interest in protecting the poor and vulnerable. Ask anybody who has spent time studying or working in low-income communities, and they will tell you about the critical role Catholic organizations and leaders play in providing financial, social, and medical services to people who desperately need them. And if you want to know about the Church's history of advocating government policies to help the poor and vulnerable, read an account of the New Deal or consult an expert like Michael Sean Winters:

As early as the 1919 statement of the Catholic bishops on social reconstruction after World War I ... the Catholic Church has stood, almost unanimously, for such measures as Social Security, ending child labor, unemployment insurance and other provisions of the welfare state. ... Catholic social teaching has at its heart several key principles ... [including] the principle of the Common Good, the idea that we are all in this together and that our public policies should reflect the aspirations of all for a decent life, not the goals of the few and monied interests that had brought the country to ruin in their reckless pursuit of profit in the previous laissez-faire structures of the 1920s.

Given this history, how can Dolan say anything remotely charitable about either the Republican budget or the man who wrote it?

To review what many of you know: The Republican budget would dramatically reduce federal funding for Medicaid. By 2021, Washington's contribution towards the joint federal-state program would more than be 40 percent lower. As a result, between 30.8 and 43.8 million fewer people would end up with government coverage, according to an analysis by the Kaiser Family Foundation.

Even if some of those people ended up getting private insurance, the overwhelming majority would likely end up uninsured. Meanwhile, the medical safety net of clinics and hospitals (many of them Catholic!) would see revenues plummet, making it more difficult for them to provide charity care. 

And that's to say nothing of cuts to food stamps, public housing, and other initiatives that serve the poor and disabled. In all, says the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, two-thirds of the budget's cuts would come from programs for low-income Americans.

The traditional Republican response, which Ryan apparently made in his initial letter to Dolan, is that such reductions are necessary in order to reduce deficits. Dolan indicates he also supports fiscal responsibility and praises Ryan for his pursuit of it. But here Dolan is either ill-informed (unlikely) or trying to obscure reality (likely). Such massive cuts to social spending are clearly not necessary to bring the balance into budget. Or, at least, they wouldn’t be if the Republicans weren’t simultaneously instating upon massive tax cuts that would primarily benefit the very wealthiest Americans

Does Dolan think it’s wrong to tax our society’s most prosperous and fortunate? I wouldn’t think so. Although my knowledge of Catholicism is limited, I am familiar with Luke 12:48: “For everyone to whom much is given, of him shall much be required.” 

I realize that the Conference of Bishops, like many Catholics, place great importance on abortion policy. This is why, for example, they resisted endorsing the Affordable Care Act, even though it will probably do more to help the poor than any public program enacted since the 1960s.

But it’s one thing to withhold support from an anti-poverty program because it would not sufficiently deter abortion. It’s quite another to sanction a budget, even indirectly, that would take assistance from the poor and vulnerable in order to let millionaires keep more of their money. Have pro-life politics have become so all-consuming that it’s ok to punish the already living?

Update: At the blog “Bold Faith Type,” several writers suggest that Dolan’s letter was deliberately cautious and far less of an endorsement than journalists, including myself, seem to think. “Dolan praises Ryan’s expressed commitment to Catholic social principles,” says Nick Sementelli, “but cautions that ‘assurances’ are not enough, and the bishops will be watching what effect the budget actually has.” Sementelli notes, as do others, that the letter came from Dolan individually and not the Conference of Bishops as a whole. (My original item blurred the distinction, in the headline and several other places. I’ve since clarified that.)

Sementelli and his colleagues know the Conference of Bishops, and Catholicism, better than I do. And their parsing of the letter makes sense to me. But I don’t think it undermines my argument. The projected impact of the Republican budget is not ambiguous or subject of serious intellectual controversy: The poor will take a substantial hit at the same time the rich get substantial tax breaks.

The president of an organization as dedicated to social justice as the Bishops claim to be should oppose the Republican budget, loudly and without hesitation. He should not be praising the budget's architect, no matter what that architect said about Catholic values.

And I find it hard to believe Dolan didn't understand the political signal he was sending. The Conference of Bishops is a sophisticated lobbying organization and Dolan, although new to the presidency, doesn’t appear to be a political novice. I wonder, among other things, if Dolan's letter was meant to undermine, or at least mitigate, the impact of a letter from Catholic scholars at the Catholic University of America criticizing Speaker John Boehner in advance of his commencement speech there.

Finally, lest anybody be confused, the "devil" here is a literary device. Notwithstanding my strong objections to the Ryan budget, I don't think Ryan is the personification of evil. I've tweaked language in a few places above in an effort to avoid any misunderstanding.