"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.
Ryan's budget would shift Medicaid to a block grant, with increases restricted to population growth and inflation. This means roughly 3 percent annual increases, rather than the current 7 percent, according to the Bipartisan Policy Center.
While reasonable minds can differ on how programs should be constructed, Reese said "a budget is a moral document, represents the values of a nation very concretely. One of those values should be concern for the poor and the sick and the needy."
Bishops on the budget
Shortly before the Georgetown confrontation, the U.S. Conference of Bishops issued a statement widely interpreted as a rebuke of Ryan, who had just announced his latest budget proposal.
"A central moral measure of any budget proposal is how it affects 'the least of these' (Matthew 25). The needs of those who are hungry and homeless, without work or in poverty should come first," the letter read.
The Bishops' letter then waded into specifics, arguing "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."
The last phrase could be interpreted as an escape clause for Ryan's supporters, as their argument is that reining in entitlements, especially middle class entitlements, is the necessary prerequisite to securing the safety net.
"It seems like we have to do something like what Ryan has proposed, though maybe not exactly and maybe not as quickly," said Peter Lawler, a professor of political philosophy at Berry College in Georgia and a Catholic.
Arthur Brooks, President of the American Enterprise Institute and also a Catholic, explained why the bishops may be uncomfortable with the budget.
"The bishops have expressed a lot of discomfort with Paul's (Ryan) budget because of a biblical preference for the poor," Brooks said. "That is completely understandable, especially given the culture in which they have come to see the welfare state as the primary way we help the poor."
In attacking Ryan, critics have more to work with than the budget itself. There is also the company he keeps. Ryan's critics point to his longstanding enthusiasm with the controversial novelist, atheist and libertarian Ayn Rand, as evidence that his worldview is not truly Christian.
"There is no better place to find the moral case for capitalism and individualism than through Ayn Rand's writings and works," Ryan said in 2005 at the Atlas Society while speaking at an event celebrating Rand's career.
Ryan told the same gathering that Rand's work "inspired me so much that it's required reading in my office for all my interns and my staff," according to transcripts at the Atlas Society website.
"That's not Catholic," Lawler said. "Ayn Rand is nuts. No Catholic can agree with that. No Catholic can agree that we are deep down selfish individuals. No Catholic can even agree with Glenn Beck that 'social justice is an oxymoron.'"
As Ryan's budget came under sharper attack from the Left, his affinity for Rand became a lightning rod for criticism, leading him to distance himself from her.
"I reject her philosophy," Ryan told Robert Costa at National Review in April. "It's an atheist philosophy. It reduces human interactions down to mere contracts and it is antithetical to my worldview. If somebody is going to try to paste a person's view on epistemology to me, then give me Thomas Aquinas."
In a May 4 town meeting, Ryan further distanced himself from Rand. "Just because you like someone's novels doesn't mean you agree with their entire worldview philosophy," Ryan told the audience, describing Rand's atheist worldview as "completely antithetical to mine."
"Rand did mount an admirable moral defense of capitalism, but not (in my view) a complete one, particularly in areas such as altruism, faith and the poor," Brooks said. "I think one can praise her important moral insights about individual freedom and dignity without signing up for the whole objectivist program.
"Congressman Ryan is no Randian," Brooks said. "He takes his responsibility to the 'least of these' very seriously."
Ryan's prudential vision
"Ryan's doing it out of necessity, doing what we have to do to not end up like Greece," Lawler said. "Ryan and the liberal Catholics just disagree on the facts, on what we can afford. There is no Catholic position on this one way or the other. All this is really a matter of prudence."
Ryan defended his budget's religious implications in a May 4 interview with the Catholic Register. "Pope Benedict said it — we're living in untruth," he said. "We're living at the expense of future generations. We're telling our children that because we can't live within our means, they are going to pay our bills: 'You are going to have diminished futures; you're going to have an extra burden on your backs that we didn't have.' That, to me, has severe moral implications."
Ryan's own defense centers on growing an economy with enough surplus to provide for the poor.
"You can't lift people out of poverty if you don't have a growing economy," Ryan said in a public discussion after the Georgetown speech. "And we have to put in policies that we believe will do the best to maximize economic growth."
"A hallmark of the president's government-centered agenda is that policy after policy takes from hardworking Americans and gives to politically connected companies and privileged special interests," Ryan said at Georgetown.
"As we end welfare for those who don't need it, we strengthen welfare programs for those who do," Ryan added. "Government safety-net programs have been stretched to the breaking point in recent years, failing the very citizens who need help the most."
Brooks offered some support to Ryan.
"Nothing imperils the poor more than a debt crisis and failing economy." Brooks said. "Look at Greece and Spain. Those suffering the most are the poor themselves, who are left with little relief and no opportunity. There is nothing merciful to the poor about running our economy over a cliff."
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