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Catholics battle over moral implications of budget politics

Published: Wednesday, June 20 2012 4:33 p.m. MDT

Sister Simone Campbell, executive director of Network, speaks during a stop on the first day of a 9-state Nuns on the Bus tour, Monday, June 18, 2012, in Ames, Iowa. The group of Roman Catholic nuns say they’re not opposing any particular candidate but that their fight is with a Republican proposed federal budget they say hurts the poor and needy. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

Charlie Neibergall, ASSOCIATED PRESS

Related: Catholic group drops support for Obama administration's contraception plan

"Nuns on a bus" may sound like part of a joke, but the Catholic nuns behind Network — a "social justice lobby" now on a multi-state bus tour — are deadly serious in opposing Republican budget policies, which they argue harm "people who are already suffering."

Network's two-week bus tour through nine states, which began June 18, highlights their opposition to budget cuts proposed by House Budget Committee Chair Paul Ryan, R-Wis., a committed Catholic.

Ryan would cut Medicaid and CHIP spending dramatically. In 2022, Ryan would spend $332 billion on these programs combined, compared to baseline budget projections of $628 billion, according to the Congressional Budget Office. Some of this savings comes by shifting Medicaid to block grants and then restricting budget increases to inflation and population growth, resulting in 3 percent growth per year rather than the current 7 percent.

Some observers suspect the nuns' anti-Ryan bus tour aims to divert attention from the U.S. Conference of Bishops' "Fortnight of Freedom," which begins Thursday and straddles the same dates as the nuns' bus tour.

The bishops' project, with with rallies reaching from Connecticut to Colorado, is focused on the Obama administration's health insurance mandates, which they argue would require them to pay for services that violate core teachings.

Archbishop Timothy Dolan put it bluntly on May 22 while appearing on CBS This Morning. "The White House is strangling the Catholic Church," he said. Catholic organizations, including several archdioceses and universities, have filed lawsuits against the Obama administration.

The competing events highlight an ongoing tension between the Vatican and the leading U.S. organization of Catholic nuns, the Leadership Conference of Women Religious. In April, Rome rebuked the nuns' organization for "radical feminist themes" and for staying silent on disputed church doctrines such as abortion and same-sex marriage.

The events also take place on a political landscape where the Catholic vote is seen as up for grabs in key swing states, especially in rust belt states such as Ohio and Pennsylvania. Thus, a quiet struggle over the essence of American Catholicism is taking place against a political backdrop — with Ryan and his budget at the center of the storm.

The church and the poor

When Ryan spoke in April at Georgetown University, a Jesuit school, nearly 90 faculty members signed a letter objecting to his budget policies, challenging his "continuing misuse of Catholic teaching to defend a budget plan that decimates food programs for struggling families, radically weakens protections for the elderly and sick, and gives more tax breaks to the wealthiest few."

"The Catholic Church since the time of Jesus has argued that we have an obligation to feed the hungry," said Jesuit Father Thomas Reese, one of the leading critics of Ryan at Georgetown, in an interview with the Deseret News.

Reese said the Catholic Church became active in social justice at the end of the 19th century. "The church started speaking out for the working classes whom they saw as being exploited in the industrial revolution," he said. "In the U.S. the Catholics saw poor Irish immigrants, Italians and Poles."

Reese said that just as the church sides with Hispanic people today, it sided with Catholic immigrants during the Industrial Revolution.

"Then comes the Depression, and there the bishops came up with a program for reconstruction that previewed the New Deal," Reese said. They called for minimum wage, equal pay for women, national health care — things that would become part of the New Deal."

With more than a century of social advocacy, the church would "naturally object to a budget like Ryan's that has draconian impact on programs for the poor," Reese said.

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