US Catholic Faith in Real Life

Poor spending choices: Catholic values and the U.S. budget

By Kevin Clarke | Print this pagePrint |
Getting our nation’s budget priorities in order will require a show of solidarity.

Thanks to Wisconsin Republican Rep. Paul Ryan, somewhat arcane Catholic concepts like subsidiarity and solidarity are enjoying rare media celebrity as TV news anchors and Catholic-challenged journalists try to make sense out of all this Catholic social teaching stuff. The debate Ryan inspired raises some interesting questions about those encyclical bookends of subsidiarity and solidarity, particularly the latter. How far are people of good will intended to extend themselves in bringing the challenge of solidarity to its fullest cultural and practical expression?

In the debate over the 2013 budget, the U.S. bishops and their partners in an interreligious campaign to promote an aspect of Catholic teaching, the preferential option for the poor, are relying on solidarity to shore up a “circle of protection” around the U.S. social safety net and foreign assistance programs. As austerity hawks close in, most of the tall talk of shared sacrifice revolves around the roughly 12 percent of the annual budget currently earmarked for relieving want and need in the United States and around the world.

In recent years the American public has been persuaded to accept the notion of the “undeserving poor,” that is, a supposed army of public aid recipients too lazy or too cunning to go out and find work. It is this crowd that Ryan imagines in his budget grandstanding, blaming an overabundance of public assistance programs for the ascendancy of a discontented, lazy rabble instead of a thrifty working class.

Ryan argues that government aid is in fact a disservice to such folk, since it perpetuates their indolence, and it is on this cultural peg that he hangs his understanding of subsidiarity. But this perspective, part of an Americanization of Catholic culture, owes more to John Calvin or Ayn Rand than to Ryan’s Catholic upbringing.

It also promotes a mythology that has little resemblance to the reality of the nation’s family assistance programs. In the real world, public aid is hard to qualify for and far from generous. Most aid programs, such as food stamps and housing assistance, are designed around the needs of children, not adults. There is nothing comparable to the European dole; it is hard for single, able-bodied adults in the United States to receive assistance.

It’s true that subsidiarity properly looks askance at an overdetermining role of government. But the church also maintains a positive notion of subsidiarity that compels higher level—i.e., government—intervention when it is necessary. You don’t advise a community that is overwhelmed by famine or unemployment that it needs to see to its own bootstraps; you extend assistance from the authority most capable of providing it.

And that is where the other big “S,” solidarity, comes into play. Individual taxpayers can hardly be expected to happily assume responsibility for another family’s want if they do not feel a connection to them. This connection is precisely what a vibrant sense of solidarity provides.

Solidarity asks that we do not reduce our brothers and sisters to political props, that we do not belittle them because of their need and the burdens they carry. It asks that we understand that the golden rule is not rhetorical pap for children, but a reminder that time and fortune have a way of humbling all of us. The need you detest in another may be the one you endure yourself someday.

Solidarity is demanding, certainly. It asks us to look beyond our families and our communities and the petty, artificial boundaries of nation, ethnicity, and religion to see our responsibility in the need next door and on the next continent. It unravels a thread of compassion and hope that connects us all in the mystical body of Christ, a thread that each of us may end up hanging from ourselves one day.

Solidarity is a good Catholic word to add to the cultural discussion here in the United States as we negotiate budget priorities that will help define the justness of our society and an American statement of the common good.­ 

This article appeared in the July 2012 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 77, No. 7, page 39).

Image: Tom Wright