A few weeks ago St. Louis Archbishop Robert Carlson decided to get all up in Mr. Obama’s face when the President, quite logically, issued health care guidelines guidelines that would require many Catholic hospitals, schools and charities to include contraception in their employees federally mandated preventative health care insurance. The Bishop got himself so worked up that he authored a pastoral letter that he required to be read aloud in every parish in the archdiocese. Nor was he mollified when the President modified his rule so that most church entities could escape even this indirect support for those parts of women’s health care that irks the institutional Church (as opposed to actual Catholics who overwhelmingly use birth control).
The bishop condemned the guidelines because he claimed that it would, by forcing the church to indirectly fund birth control, contravene the principle of “religious freedom” – in spite of the fact that birth control is, in terms of actual dogma, rather a peripheral issue. As Gary Wills points out:
Contraception is not even a religious matter. Nowhere in Scripture or the Creed is it forbidden. Catholic authorities themselves say it is a matter of “natural law,” over which natural reason is the arbiter-and natural reason, even for Catholics, has long rejected the idea that contraception is evil.
In essence the Archbishop was trying to play Big Daddy and tell us all that we have to observe Catholic Church preferences no matter the cost to the individual or the nature of our personal beliefs.
There is, however, a central tenet in current Catholic social teaching that is under political attack. That teaching goes by the name of the “preferential option for the poor” and was fully articulated by Pope John Paul II in 1991 in his encyclical Centesimus Annus. Although the current pope has attacked the Latin American liberation theology in which the principle was first described, he was careful to affirm the basic principle:
… love for widows and orphans, prisoners, and the sick and needy of every kind, is as essential as the ministry of the sacraments and preaching of the Gospel.
Sure, Benedict XVI also includes the unborn among the vulnerable classes (although he didn’t explicitly extend the protection to sperm and ovum), but the important point is that he supports the continued highest elevation of efforts to protect the poor and helpless.
It’s also a fact that this week the Republican Party has introduced a budget, the Ryan Budget, that gives to the wealthy – an average $187,000 tax break to each millionaire, in fact. It manages to do so by taking from the poor, decimating safety-net programs such as food-stamps, Medicare, job training progams, educational aid – you name it, it disappears.
At the same time, the Missouri Senate passed a budget that supports education at the expense of the welfare of blind citizens. It strips $28 million from a health care program that provides care to those needy blind Missourians who do not inhabit the extreme depths of poverty necessary to qualify for Missouri’s Medicaid. This budgetary contortion comes on top of continued cuts to the state’s social programs over the past few years. At the same time the same legislators have seen fit to cut corporate taxes – cuts to the state’s already very low franchise tax, for instance, cost the state $85 million dollars in needed revenue.
I think we call this robbing the poor to give to the rich. Note that this reverse Robin Hood maneuver is the preferred sport of today’s fringe-dwelling Republican Party. And also note it’s the opposite of the “preferential option for the poor,” one of the most important of the Catholic social teachings.
So, to sum up, the facts are these: If Archbishop Carlson (and the rest of his confreres) are serious about standing up for the Church’s teachings, specifically about the protection of the vulnerable, we should expect to see the pastoral letters hitting the parishes right away. To be even more explicit, we should be hearing their condemnations of the entire Republican party, the perpetrator of these budget atrocities, anytime now. And until we do, I know just how much respect and credence I’m going to grant the fathers of my erstwhile church when they sit in their tax-exempt churches, collect tax-dollars to fund their good works, and whine about their “religious liberty.”
Addendum: Just be clear, I’m not talking about some statement from the bishops that they don’t think the GOP budget strategies are very nice – I’m talking about having the church fathers fight for the preferential option for the poor with the same fervor they bring to their anti-abortion jihad. When I hear about a priest denying a catholic GOPer communion because of the GOP war on the poor, I’ll believe that the church stands behind all its teachings, not just the ones that best conform to the prejudices of a group of authoritarian, celibate males.