There has recently been much talk about whether Rep. Paul Ryan’s budget is faithful to the principles of Catholic social thought—or is instead a libertarian rejection of the church’s commitment to the poor. In response to the Ryan budget, the chairs of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops Committee on Justice, Peace, and Human Development, Bishops Stephen Blaire and Richard Pates, have written that “the needs of those who are hungry and homeless, without work or in poverty should come first.... Just solutions, however, 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.” In a later interview, Blaire said, “The budget is not just a financial document; it is a moral document: Are you cutting services to the poor and leaving the military alone?”

Yet other bishops—for example, Ryan’s former ordinary in Milwaukee, Cardinal Timothy Dolan—have praised Ryan as a strong Catholic, and some have gone considerably further. Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput, one of the country’s most thoughtful bishops, has raised questions about those who have challenged Ryan’s claim that his budget is authentically Catholic. In a recent interview Chaput said, “Jesus tells us very clearly that if we don’t help the poor, we’re going to go to hell. Period. There’s just no doubt about it. That has to be a foundational concern of Catholics and of all Christians. But Jesus didn’t say the government has to take care of them, or that we have to pay taxes to take care of them.”

Although that last sentence is literally true, its use in this context is deeply misleading. Jesus also didn’t tell his disciples to count on the government to respect religious liberty, forbid abortion and same-sex marriage, or provide the lion’s share of the budget of Catholic Charities across the United States, but today these are all expectations of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB). A lot has changed since Jesus’ day, including the rise of democratic governments, which citizens rightly expect to play an essential role in the achievement of the common good, particularly in protecting the weakest among us, who are threatened in a me-first culture. As Pope Benedict XVI has said, economic life “needs just laws and forms of redistribution governed by politics” (Caritas in veritate, 37).

We should not be shocked that a bishop can make a mistake in explaining Catholic doctrine. As renowned canon lawyer Ladislas Orsy, SJ, argued in The Church Learning and Teaching, each bishop receives at his episcopal ordination a charism ensuring the help of the Holy Spirit in witnessing to the Word of God, but this doesn’t guarantee that he will make no mistakes in exercising his charism. And because in our tradition the bishops in communion with one another are the final arbiters of doctrine, it is all the more important that they be theologically well informed.

It’s always possible for bishops, like anyone else, to be misquoted in the press, but a pattern of public statements by several high-profile bishops seems to point to misunderstandings of two basic elements of Catholic moral theology. This becomes clearer if we continue with the next sentences in Archbishop Chaput’s discussion of Ryan’s budget:

Those are prudential judgments. Anybody who would condemn someone because of their position on taxes is making a leap that I can’t make as a Catholic.... You can’t say that somebody’s not Christian because they want to limit taxation. Again, I’m speaking only for myself, but I think that’s a legitimate position. It may not be the correct one, but it’s certainly a legitimate Catholic position; and to say that it’s somehow intrinsically evil like abortion doesn’t make any sense at all.

Intrinsic evil and prudence are the key notions here. Fifty years ago, the quite technical concept of intrinsic evil was mostly confined to the writings of professional moral theologians. Today it appears in just about every episcopal statement on public policy in the United States. An action is intrinsically evil if it is always and everywhere morally wrong. (Recall that most evil actions are not always evil and depend on context: taking a life is acceptable in defense of one’s own life; stealing a car is acceptable if it’s the only way to get a dying person to the hospital.) The problem is that the standard of intrinsic evil seems to have become a litmus test for what is essential Catholic moral teaching. Perhaps I misunderstand him, but in the passage I’ve quoted the archbishop seems to be arguing that because neither reducing taxes nor cutting government assistance to the needy is an intrinsic evil, neither can be described as contrary to Catholic teaching.

The problem here is that, while some actions are both intrinsically evil and extremely important (abortion being one obvious example), other actions—for example, masturbation—have traditionally been considered intrinsically evil but are far less important. And while torture is both extremely important and intrinsically evil according to church teaching, few bishops are calling for stricter legal standards against torture, even after the excesses of Abu Ghraib.

It is therefore a serious mistake in Catholic moral theology to conclude that the category of intrinsic evil creates a bright line between matters of greater and lesser moral importance. Pope John Paul II cautioned against this very error in Veritatis splendor (53): “The fact that only the negative commandments oblige always and under all circumstances does not mean that in the moral life prohibitions are more important than the obligation to do good indicated by the positive commandments.” Somehow many of our bishops seem to have become convinced of the contrary: that if something isn’t intrinsically evil, it’s necessarily less important, and we may not even be sure that the tradition holds it to be wrong.

What has led so many bishops to this position? Although every bishop I’ve ever asked says he doesn’t allow such things to influence his thinking, my own guess is that the nasty reports to Rome of episcopal “error” by a small number of militant Catholics have pressed many bishops to retreat from the plains of moral ambiguity where everyday life occurs into the canyon of unassailable moral certainty. And in this process, theologically challenged lay Catholics hold their bishops to a standard of doctrinal purity that Pope Benedict himself has rejected. Recall that Benedict made twice-divorced French President Nikolas Sarkozy an honorary canon of the pope’s cathedral, St. John Lateran, in spite of Sarkozy’s public support of prochoice policies. In the United States, meanwhile, many bishops won’t even allow prochoice politicians to speak at Catholic colleges in their dioceses—not even to speak about, say, environmental policy.

This brings us to another point: prudence, which led Pope Benedict to honor Sarkozy in spite of their doctrinal differences. Prudence is regularly overused in addressing economic justice and underappreciated in discussing life issues. Thomas Aquinas taught that prudence is the virtue that allows us to take concrete action as we live out our moral principles. At its best, prudence allows us to foresee what will occur and judiciously decide how best to put our principles into practice. Laws distinguishing between first-, second-, and third-degree murder arise out of prudence in applying the principle “thou shalt not kill.” Similarly, it took prudence for the bishops to move from the principle that all abortions are morally wrong to their support for a health-care reform bill that would have incorporated the Hyde Amendment, which allows the federal government to pay for abortions in the case of rape or incest. And yet the leadership of the USCCB later claimed that it was only principle, not prudence, that led them to reject the Obama health-care law on the grounds that it would fund abortions.

While prudence is nearly invisible in the bishops’ teaching about life issues, it is too often used to trump all doctrinal concerns in discussions about economics. In the interview quoted above, Archbishop Chaput seems to be suggesting that because it requires prudence to determine how much tax revenue to raise in order to help those in need, there can be no Catholic criticism of Paul Ryan’s circular argument for lower taxes. When the discussion is about spending, Ryan argues that the government can no longer afford to help the needy as much we do now. Yet when the discussion is about the tax policies that determine what we can afford, Ryan insists that we should never raise taxes, no matter how low they are already. This is the content of Grover Norquist’s anti-tax pledge, signed by Ryan and 95 percent of the Republicans in Congress. Federal income-tax receipts as a percent of GDP have been lower the past couple of years than they’ve been since the 1950s. We “can’t afford” to help the poor only because we’ve decided to lower income taxes instead. And, as Bishop Blaire reminds us, even without raising taxes, more money could be spent on programs for the needy and less on the military if our priorities were what they ought to be.

What about Ryan’s concern for the size of the national debt? Isn’t this a good reason to cut government expenditures? We’ve all heard it argued that the national debt will swamp our grandchildren. But if debt were Ryan’s real concern, why would his plan spend the savings from budget cuts on further reductions in income taxes? Even Fox News admits that the Ryan budget would add $3 trillion to the national debt over the next decade.

Then there’s the claim that lower taxes for the rich will result in more jobs, which will end up helping the poor. Jobs are indeed the long-term solution for the able-bodied poor, but during the economic slump the wealthy have moved much of their money into safe, non-job-producing investments. For example, the monetary value of the world’s (largely unchanging) supply of gold has doubled from $4 to $8 trillion since the financial crisis began. The wealthy undertake job-creating investments only when they judge it will make them wealthier—not simply because Congress gives them a windfall tax break unrelated to job creation. Today firms and investors are holding back, sitting on the sidelines with trillions in cash. They don’t want to start making refrigerators that will only sit in a warehouse until economic activity heats up later. Giving the wealthy more wealth by means of tax breaks will not create more jobs in the current economic climate.

Ryan has also claimed that reducing government help to the poor is actually good for them, because it reduces dependency. In fact, far fewer of the poor are dependent than right-wing rhetoric suggests—most of the able-bodied poor are eager to find a regular job—but dependency is indeed a danger in helping others, and we must be savvy about it. Still, how does the dependency argument justify the dramatic cuts Ryan proposes in assistance to those too old, too young, or too sick to work? Or cuts in retraining programs that help the able-bodied poor qualify for a job so that they can support themselves and their families?

Finally, there is the claim that government should leave care for the poor to the churches and the private sector. Of course we should not depend on the government to do it all. But it is a right-wing illusion that private donations will take up the slack if the government reduces assistance to the poor and vulnerable. Across the nation, 62 percent of Catholic Charities’ budgets and a similar proportion of Lutheran Social Services’ budgets come from state and national governments, not from private contributions. Cut government aid significantly and these agencies will have much less to work with.

Thus we find that the five arguments most often made in support of Ryan’s economic plans—budgetary constraints, the national debt, job creation, welfare dependency, and a shift to private charity—don’t really explain his policy priorities. Something else must be going on.

From the Catholic perspective, society, market, and government each have an essential role to play in securing the common good. Paul Ryan’s budget arises from his underlying political philosophy, tersely formulated in the assertion that “government is the problem.” Notwithstanding recent attempts to revise his personal history, he made clear in a 2005 speech to the Atlas Society what originally motivated his interest in politics: “The reason I got involved in public service, by and large, if I had to credit one thinker, one person, it would be Ayn Rand. And the fight we are in here, make no mistake about it, is a fight of individualism versus collectivism.” As the theologian Vincent Miller has argued, Ryan’s political philosophy is completely at odds with the principles of Catholic social thought, which rejects both individualism and collectivism as deeply inadequate accounts of authentic human flourishing.

One final clarification is needed. Describing a handful of moral issues as “non-negotiables” furthers our misunderstanding of Catholic moral theology because it reinforces the two errors identified above. First, it implies that for these few issues both the underlying moral principle and a particular plan for the political implementation of that principle are morally binding on all Catholics. Second, mistaking certainty for importance, it implies that Catholics can demote other similarly fundamental moral commitments that all the modern popes have insisted on—for example, the role of government in protecting the poor and ensuring the right of workers to organize.

Intrinsic evil and prudence are both fundamental realities in the moral life. But it is a serious mistake from the perspective of Catholic moral theology to use intrinsic evil as the litmus test for what’s truly important, or to use prudence as a cover for public policies that distribute benefits to the prosperous at the expense of those who can’t meet their own needs.


This article has been funded by a gift from Margaret O'Gara and Michael Vertin in honor of James O'Gara.

Daniel K. Finn teaches economics and Christian ethics at St. John’s University and the College of St. Benedict and is the director of the True Wealth of Nations research project at the Institute for Advanced Catholic Studies. His latest book is Consumer Ethics in a Global Economy: How Buying Here Causes Injustice There.

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