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Holy Callousness

April 29, 2012

Rep. Paul Ryan’s claim that his budget, which slashes billions from programs to support those hardest hit by the recession, best embodies Catholic teaching, especially the preferential option for the poor, deserves close scrutiny, because it is a model for enlisting religion in the cause of neglecting the most vulnerable in society.  He demonstrates how conservative religionists twist their faith to anoint injustice.

First, he stigmatizes the poor for their poverty; it’s the first step in denying any collective responsibility for their plight. But the charge that most government support goes to “the undeserving poor” is a grotesque lie. More than 90% of aid, according to a study by the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, goes to the “people who are elderly, seriously disabled, or members of working households — not to able-bodied, working-age Americans who choose not to work.”  Cutting off aid to these people will not save them from the mythical “dependence” on government; it will push them into severe deprivation they are powerless to do anything about.

“Dependence” is a double barreled weapon for those pushing for cuts in government aid.  It not only personalizes a problem best understood as an institutional one –– an economy that doesn’t work where nearly 1 in 3 families, 45 million people, have barely enough to get by.  At the same time it demonizes government efforts to help those in need, asserting that those efforts “crowd out” the work of others.  It’s nonsensical to believe that other institutions are straining at the bit to alleviate poverty, but are held back because someone else is working on that as well.  Nor is there any discussion of the ability of non-governmental organizationsto even begin to address the

"When did we see you hungry?" - Matthew 25:37

pervasive deprivation in our society.  And Ryan is silent on the huge positive impact of these programs in reducing poverty –– the food stamp program alone cut poverty by 8% in 2009, sparing close to 4 million people further misery.  The billions in cuts Ryan calls for would eliminate aid for millions of those people.A chorus of Catholic voices has rebutted Ryan’s claim that his budget is in line with the church’s teaching, repudiating his stance as “morally indefensible” and the misuse of the Catholic faith “to bless an immoral agenda.”  “We join with other Christian leaders,” the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops declared, “in calling for a ‘circle of protection’ around our brothers and sisters at home and abroad who are poor and vulnerable.”

Ryan’s claim that government should stop helping the poor is unequivocally repudiated by Catholic social teaching.  The classic statement of that teaching by the Bishops, Economic Justice For All (1986), declared ,“The way society responds to the needs of the poor through its public policies is the litmus test of its justice or injustice…[G]overnment has a moral function: protecting human rights and securing basic justice for all members of the commonwealth.”

Stigmatizing the poor and discrediting government are part of a larger effort to amputate the ties that bind us, to reduce our

No society, just isolated individuals.

commonwealth to a group of unrelated, isolated individuals.  Ryan and his ilk want to actualize Margaret Thatcher’s declaration that “there is no such thing as society,” just individuals and families.

Without a government that expresses and embodies our connectedness, our sense of shared humanity will wither.  When that happens the poor and vulnerable will bear the miserable brunt of our callous neglect, but all of us will feel the shriveling of our souls.  The Ryan budget is a giant step toward that collective uncaring.


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  1. Bob! Thank you for this great article. It is so well crafted and resourced/cited that I feel like I learned a lot just from reading it! It is very shocking and disappointing that individuals are able to twist the realities or original intentions of a religious teaching. In some ways in seems that Catholicism has been affected by the ramifications of the Protestant Reformation and the diversification of religion in the US. Especially in the US, individuals feel quite entrepreneurial with religion, even in attempting to convince poor people to wait for(ever) their day of justice. It is critical that people of the religious left become more vocal in articulating why their policies are akin to religious ideology.

    Thanks again,

  2. This was somewhat painful for me to read. I have lived through and witnessed a broad spectrum of economic struggle. On many occasion, government assistance provided a much-needed boost to set things right again. Although attempts to end such programs and to stigmatize their recipients is not new, offering a religious support for these attempts horrifies me. The blessing in it is the reminder to us in the religious world that these are our issues. It may help to reaffirm our commitments and to push us into action.

    Thank you for keeping our eyes open to the harsh realities.

  3. JessicaP permalink

    It was your mock-interview that led me to want to read this column. Excellent, excellent job. It not only is so very informative, but it also expresses the subtle moral argument of our side – that we are meant to be in community – so very well. I cross-posted it on my facebook today. I hope you keep writing after class is over.

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