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Mixed Blessing

The Ryan budget and the raging battle within the U.S. Catholic Church.

To hear some people tell it, New York Archbishop Timothy Dolan virtually endorsed GOP Congressman Paul Ryan’s budget last week. “Paul Ryan Gets Boost From Catholic Bishops,” read a Politico headline, recounting the release of letters Ryan and Dolan had exchanged. “Dolan Blesses Ryan Budget,” lamented one liberal website. But Archbishop Dolan, who was elected president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) last November, did no such thing. The story published by the Catholic News Service, the official news arm of the USCCB, stated bluntly: “Archbishop Dolan took no stance on the House budget.” Why, then, all the confusion?

In order to understand the latest dust-up, it’s necessary to retrace some recent history regarding warring political factions within the Church. Traditionally, the Catholic Church has been a strong advocate for the poorest sections of society and the social welfare programs designed by government to provide for them. But for years, conservatives have been trying to undo this stance. One such conservative was Michael Novak, who in 1981 penned a tract called “Toward a Theology of the Corporation.” Another was George Weigel, the biographer of Pope John Paul II, who championed the late Pontiff’s 1991 encyclical Centesimus Annus—which contained a few stray sentences that seemed to support the Catholic embrace of capitalism. One of these sentences, not surprisingly, ended up in Ryan’s letter to Dolan: “By intervening directly and depriving society of its responsibility, the Social Assistance State leads to a loss of human energies and an inordinate increase of public agencies, which are dominated more by bureaucratic ways of thinking than by concern for serving their clients, and which are accompanied by an enormous increase in spending.”

To make their case, conservatives have tried to hijack one of the core concepts of Catholic social teaching: subsidiarity. This is the idea that social ills are best solved at the lowest level of social organization possible. Families should try and solve most problems, intermediate organizations such as unions and guilds and professional organizations should try to help deal with problems too big for the family, local government can try to solve those problems the family and intermediate organizations cannot cope with, and so on. As Pope Pius XI wrote in his encyclical Quadragesimo Anno in 1931: “It is a fundamental principle of social philosophy, fixed and unchangeable, that one should not withdraw from individuals and commit to the community what they can accomplish by their own enterprise and industry.” In his letter to Dolan, Ryan compared this principle to federalism.

The problem with all this is that subsidiarity is a two-way street. If lower levels of social organization fail to meet basic human needs, then the government must help. “Whenever the general interest or any particular class suffers, or is threatened with harm, which can in no other way be met or prevented, the public authority must step in to deal with it,” wrote Pope Leo XIII in his seminal encyclical Rerum Novarum in 1891. Moreover, subsidiarity is not the only Catholic principle at stake in these discussions. In his 1991 encyclical—the same one cited by Ryan in his letter to Dolan—John Paul II explained that “the principle of subsidiarity” requires the state to create “favourable conditions for the free exercise of economic activity, which will lead to abundant opportunities for employment and sources of wealth”; but he also wrote that “the principle of solidarity” requires the state to defend “the weakest, by placing certain limits on the autonomy of the parties who determine working conditions, and by ensuring in every case the necessary minimum support for the unemployed worker.”

Much of the Church continues to place plenty of emphasis on the latter principle. Indeed, the USCCB has expended considerable effort in recent months urging Congress not to balance the budget on the backs of the poor. In February, Bishop Stephen Blaire, chairman of the USCCB Committee on Domestic Justice, led hundreds of Catholic activists up to Capitol Hill to urge their congressmen to protect social programs that assist the poor and the vulnerable. In late April, the USCCB officially joined with other religious groups calling for a “Circle of Protection” for the poor in budget negotiations, and, in a press call announcing the effort, Bishop Blaire agreed that some of the proposed cuts were “anti-life,” especially the cuts in funds for poor women and children. Then, on May 5, Bishop Howard Hubbard of Albany, who chairs the USCCB committee on international justice and peace, joined Bishop Blaire in a letter to all U.S. senators that set forth their concerns about the budget. They were, they wrote, “deeply concerned about the human and social costs of substantial cuts to programs that serve families working to escape poverty, especially food and nutrition, child development and education, and affordable housing programs.” Around the same time, more than 80 Catholic academics wrote to John Boehner in advance of his graduation address at Catholic University. “From the apostles to the present, the Magisterium of the Church has insisted that those in power are morally obliged to preference the needs of the poor,” the academics wrote. “Your record in support of legislation to address the desperate needs of the poor is among the worst in Congress.”

Dolan’s vague letter, then, is best understood not as an endorsement of the Ryan budget but as a bid to keep doing what has become his specialty as USCCB president: finding a way to keep both factions, left and right, happy. Dolan “gets his point across,” says Rocco Palmo, whose blog “Whispers in the Loggia” is a must-read for Church-watchers. “But he also makes sure that no one feels like they lost.” Palmo notes that Dolan defeated Tuscon Bishop Gerald Kicanas to win the USCCB presidency. Once he won, he was required by the organization’s bylaws to relinquish a job he loved, chairman of Catholic Relief Services. Whom did Dolan appoint to the post? Bishop Kicanas, the man he had just defeated. Nobody lost.

To be sure, the contents of the letter to Ryan weren’t just a product of Dolan’s need to appease both sides in the intra-Church struggle. It was also a classic example of a style of ecclesiastical document that the Vatican employs in complicated situations. “I deeply appreciate your letter’s assurances of your continued attention to the guidance of Catholic social justice in the current delicate budget considerations in Congress,” Dolan wrote, commenting not on the budget, but on Ryan’s letter, and not upon any policies, but upon Ryan’s “continued attention.” This style of writing aims at “studied ambiguity,” a Vatican diplomat explained to me, noting that the people who write such letters are trained to think in terms of centuries, not sound bites. “So you always need to be able to say fifty years on, ‘Well, of course we never meant that,’” the diplomat said. Dolan, who worked at the Vatican embassy to the United States in the 1980s, and then from 1994 until 2001 worked in Rome as the rector of the North American College, is thoroughly familiar with this most Roman way of dealing with complex situations.

All of this led to some confusion in the American press over what exactly the archbishop had intended. But make no mistake: Dolan, in spite of whatever cordial style he employed, and in spite of whatever pressures he feels to accommodate both the left and the right inside the Church, is not likely to sell out the core Catholic values that Republicans seem bent on attacking. Dolan is, after all, a Church historian by training: His doctoral dissertation looked at the career of Archbishop Edwin O’Hara who was a great champion of catechesis, instructing the faithful in the basic tenets of the faith. Upon his election last November, Dolan cited Archbishop O’Hara as one of his role models, specifically mentioning his commitment to basics. Ultimately, because of this commitment to basics, Dolan will not stand by while the GOP eviscerates those programs that assist the poor and the vulnerable. The Catholic Church, with its vast array of hospitals, shelters, and schools, knows firsthand how nutritional and educational and health programs really do make a difference in the lives of the poor. Most importantly, at the heart of the Church is a gospel that instructs the faithful to care for “the least of these” and sets such care as the price of admission to sanctity and to heaven. No matter how Paul Ryan tries to convince himself that Rome and Rand can be reconciled, they can’t. Ayn Rand despised the poor. The Church is called to treasure them.

Michael Sean Winters writes the blog Distinctly Catholic at the National Catholic Reporter. His biography of the Reverend Jerry Falwell will be published in January 2012.

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