What will come from letter to Boehner on poverty policies?

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A letter from more than 80 Catholic academics to John Boehner could lead to a healthy political dialogue, but the question now is how, or if, the Speaker of House will respond to the criticism that his politics hurt the poor.

The letter came on occasion of Boehner’s commencement address at Catholic University of America, where he will also receive an honorary degree this weekend. “Your record in support of legislation to address the desperate needs of the poor is among the worst in Congress,” it reads. “This fundamental concern should have great urgency for Catholic policy makers. Yet, even now, you work in opposition to it.”

It then continues to explain how the Boehner’s House budget has “anti-life” implications, especially with the cutting of maternal and child health grants and the Women, Infant, and Children nutrition program. The letter came with a copy of the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, quotes both Pope Benedict and the bishops, and urges Boehner to join the Circle of Protection, defending programs for the poor.

Boehner’s response through his spokesperson, according to CNN: "The speaker will be delivering a personal, non-political message at the Catholic University of America that he hopes will speak to all members of the graduating class, regardless of their backgrounds or affiliations.”

Michael Sean Winters at NCR compares the letter to the 2009 protests of President Barack Obama’s commencement address/honorary degree at Notre Dame’s graduation. One significant difference is that the CUA signatories do not plan to disturb or protest this graduation. Certainly, not all who opposed Obama’s address and degree from Notre Dame disturbed the graduation, but they did make a lot more noise with their opposition.

While the letter to Boehner is “merely educational” and hasn’t prompted a response, the Notre Dame protesters forced Obama to address the abortion issue in his speech. Obama called for a debate about abortion characterized by “open hearts, open minds, fair-minded words.” These words became the title of a conference hosted at Princeton last fall between pro-life and pro-choice advocates.

Will the letter to Boehner have the same effect, sparking a national debate about the morality of the budget? It’s unlikely. The letter might generate some coverage over the weekend but not as much as the ND protests, and meanwhile, Boehner seems to refuse to engage in that conversation. I’m sure that his “non-political” message will be nice, but it seems he’s missing an opportunity to give a genuine testimony of how his faith informs his public life.

UPDATE: Faithful America created a petition in support of the academics' letter to Boehner.