Catholic Social Teaching, Conservatism, and the Economy

“The Lay Commission on Catholic Social Teaching and the U.S. economy” was one of the five groups mobilized to give influential criticism on the Bishop’s 1986 letter, Economic Justice for All.  The commission was led by former Treasury Secretary William Simon and Vice Chairman Michael Novak and composed of thirty business and government leaders including J. Peter Grace, chair of President Reagan’s Commission on spending cuts in the federal government, as well as Alexander Haig, former Secretary of State under President Reagan.  The text (Catholic Social Teaching and Movements by Marvin Mich) asks “to what extent did the lay committee “hear what the bishops were saying.  I think it is plainly apparent that all the Bishop’s criticisms of America’s economic system went in one ear and out the other.  One particular criticism from the Simon and Novak approach particularly confuses me.  It says “they argue that more important than any flaws in the current economic system is the larger breakdown in the moral/cultural traditions upon which our political and economic systems ultimately rest.”  This statement makes no sense at all.  The “flaws in our current economic system” that they speak of are a direct result of the “larger breakdown in the moral/cultural traditions”, which they mistakenly deem as being more important.  The two are not mutually exclusive.  One is not more important than the other.  One is dependent on the other.  Why has our federal tax system gotten significantly less and less progressive since 1960?  In 1954 our top marginal income tax rate was 91%.  Now it is just 35%.  What is the justification for the rich paying the same rate as the poor on the payroll tax?  What is the reason for dramatic cuts to the estates tax and capital gains tax which are taxes paid by the wealthy?  These are “flaws in our current economic system” that can only be explained by a fundamental breakdown in our moral principles.  Less progressivity in the tax code tells us that our government favors the rich over the poor.  How exactly can “The lay Commission on Catholic Social Teaching and the U.S. Economy” not find that immoral?  By refusing to acknowledge that Catholic Social teaching has valuable insight on fixing the flaws of the American capitalist economy, the commission is refusing to recognize that there is a moral dimension to the marketplace.

Now I do not think the criticisms of this commission are any surprise given the fact that it was composed of conservative business and government leaders.  Conservatives will stand by their unwavering ideological standards whatever the cost, even if they go against the principles of economic justice as well as just basic common sense.  Most recently, they have pledged not to raise taxes, refusing even to close loopholes, even though it has always remained a fact that in order to reduce our federal deficit it will take a combination of both wise tax increases and wise spending cuts, not just one or the other.  The Republican Party is also amazingly opportunistic and inconsistent when it comes to abiding by Catholic principles.  They’re all friendly to the Catholic bishops when it comes to relatively unimportant social issues like abortion and birth control, but when these same bishops try to give counsel on the economic problems that plague our nation they conveniently refuse to listen.

Take our great Speaker of the House John Boehner, for instance, commenting on the Catholic Bishop’s response to Paul Ryan’s proposed budget plan.  The Bishops have pointed out that the proposed budget fails to meet “moral criteria”.  They have written a series of letters addressed to lawmakers on Capitol Hill, arguing that the proposed spending cuts disproportionately hurt the poor (which they do by the way)  In one document they write, “Just solutions … must require shared sacrifice by all, including raising adequate revenues, eliminating unnecessary military and other spending, and fairly addressing the long-term costs of health insurance and retirement programs. The House-passed budget resolution fails to meet these moral criteria.”   All John Boehner can say is “”I want them to take a bigger look,” and the bigger look is, if we don’t make decisions, these programs won’t exist, and then they’ll really have something to worry about.”  Um, Mr. Boehner it is you who refuses to take “the bigger look.”  The fact is the Ryan budget gets 62% of its spending cuts from programs that help lift poor people out of poverty.  Here is another fact, Mr. Boehner.  It DOES NOT, I repeat DOES NOT have to be this way.  The fact is, by all standards of moral decency and common sense, America can and should reduce its deficit without making these radical cuts and hurting the most vulnerable Americans.  How about making the tax code more progressive, which they staunchly refuse to do?  For starters, tax capital gains at a higher rate.  Why not make the top marginal rate somewhere between 45 to 50%?  Analyze each tax expenditure and reform the ones that need fixing.  Raise and reform the estate tax.  These are just some of the more sensible and moral proposals that will reduce our deficit.  I intend to expand and give more details in a later post.  But suffice it to say, as usual, Republicans, rather than deal with reality, prefer to stick to their flawed ideology no matter the cost to the American people.  I should be fair though.  This is a characteristic of most politicians, not just Republicans.  Obama’s budget proposal is not perfect either and I will also address that in a later post.  But it is so easy to pick on Republicans because they are so arrogant and insufferable when it comes to defending their positions on certain issues, positions that are often not in touch with reality.  For instance, let’s take the case of Mr. Congressman Paul Ryan defending his budget.  He recently claimed that his Catholic faith inspired his 2012 budget proposal.  That’s laughable.  Honestly, how stupid does this guy think we are?  The Catholic bishops expressly condemn his budget based on Christian principles, like preferential option for the poor, and he’s trying to save face by saying that his Christian faith guided him in its construction?  He’s not even a Christian.  His biggest influence is the philosopher Ayn Rand who “says that each person should pursue the values that achieve your own individual self-interest and happiness.” (Sider 46)  Ryan has been quoted as saying that Ayn Rand is “the reason I got involved in public service.” (Sider 46)  And he’s trying to convince us he’s a follower of Jesus?  Give us a break.  But, honestly, can you expect anything less from a politician these days?

Sider, Ronald. Fixing the Moral Deficit: A Balanced Way to Balance the Budget. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2012. Print.

Mich, Marvin. Catholic Social Teaching and Movements. 7. New London, CT: Twenty-Third Publications, 1998. Print.

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