I have a great respect for the Roman Catholic tradition in political and social thought, and believe that some of the most interesting and “provocative” contemporary commentators depend very heavily on that tradition.  I saw this morning the letter written by some prominent Catholic academics to Speaker John Boehner, discussed in one context by Rick Garnett and another by Fr. Robert Sirico .

The central contention of the letter is this:

Mr. Speaker, your voting record is at variance from one of the Church’s most ancient moral teachings. 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. Your record in support of legislation to address the desperate needs of the poor is among the worst in Congress. This fundamental concern should have great urgency for Catholic policy makers. Yet, even now, you work in opposition to it.

We’ve all heard about the preferential option for the poor, but, as Fr. Sirico points out, it’s hard to draw a direct line from that principle to one, and only one set of policies.
To jump so seamlessly from the Magisterium’s insistence on the fundamental and non-negotiable moral obligation to the poor to the specifics of contingent, prudential, and political legislation is wholly unjustified in Catholic social teaching. One suspects that the moral theologians who signed this letter know that. It would be good for them to say so.

Surely they know what the American Bishops stated in their own 1986 Pastoral Letter, “ Economic Justice for All ” : “There are also many specific points on which men and women of good will may disagree. We look for a fruitful exchange among differing viewpoints.”

Reasonable people of goodwill can disagree, sometimes fruitfully.  The letter seems not to acknowledge that, and, indeed, hardly seems interested in engaging Speaker Boehner at all.  If there’s anything I’ve learned from my thirty-plus years as a student and teacher, it’s that accusations of the sort contained in the letter are conversation-stoppers, not conversation-starters.

My advice to my colleagues who signed the letter: if you want to engage the Speaker, try to explain to him why the policies he favors are worse for the poor than those you favor.  Will they not lead to greater economic growth and hence more resources in which we can all share?  Will they discourage generous responses to those in need among individuals, congregations, and parishes?  Will they fail in their attempt to avoid burdening our children and grandchildren with even more debt?  Will they fail to keep other government programs sustainable?

I realize that it’s easier just to assume the moral high ground than to descend to the nuts and bolts of policy.  But, in my experience, taking the moral high ground in a conversation like this rarely produces anything other than irritation among those who are made to suffer the lecture.

UPDATE:  For a different view of the meaning of the preferential option, see this brief piece by George Weigel.

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