February 08, 2005

The Catholic State of the Union

Oswald Sobrino from Catholics in the Public Square has highlighted a few excerpts from President Bush's recent State of the Union address and has discussed how they mesh with some Catholic moral and social teachings. The State of the Union address is basically a reflection on what the President has done so far, and what he intends to do from this point forward. It usually sets the tone of upcoming policy decisions. It's a fairly important statement, and I thought I would give it some consideration here. Since Catholics in the Public Square has already done a fine job of explaining how the State of the Union address met some standards of Catholic social teaching, I thought I would concentrate on how it fell short of some of those standards.

The Federal Budget

America's prosperity requires restraining the spending appetite of the federal government. I welcome the bipartisan enthusiasm for spending discipline. I will send you a budget that holds the growth of discretionary spending below inflation, makes tax relief permanent, and stays on track to cut the deficit in half by 2009. My budget substantially reduces or eliminates more than 150 government programs that are not getting results, or duplicate current efforts, or do not fulfill essential priorities. The principle here is clear: Taxpayer dollars must be spent wisely, or not at all.

There is nothing inherently wrong with cutting federal programs. In fact, if the goals of the programs can be accomplished at a lower level, the principle of subsidiarity demands that the programs be cut and that the goals of the programs be accomplished either at lower levels of government or by private citizens and private organizations. On the other hand, if the goals of these programs cannot be accomplished at lower levels, then the government would have a responsibility to maintain them.

So, the question is: What will Bush cut?

- He will cut $45 billion in health care for low income families and senior citizens over the course of ten years. By 2010, the amount cut would be enough to provide health care for 1.8 million children or 345,000 senior citizens.

- Food stamps will be reduced by $1 billion over ten years. This means that somewhere between two hundred thousand and three hundred thousand fewer low income people will receive nutrition assistance.

- Home heating and cooling assistance has been cut by $200 million. This development comes despite rising fuel costs.

- Education and training programs are facing serious cuts. Worker training programs have been reduced by $300 million, high school vocational education has been cut by a stunning $2.2 billion, and the Even Start literacy program has been eliminated. One should note that one of President Bush's proposed solutions to the present job crisis in this country was education and retraining -- but he has now cut worker training and high school vocational education by significant amounts.

- Veterans' care will require doubled co-pays for prescription drugs, and users of the Veterans Administration or other government health care will be charged $250 per year.

- Law enforcement grants will be cut from $2.8 billion to $1.5 billion.

- Grants for land and water conservation will be cut by $100 million.

- President Bush's budget will eliminate the Community Food and Nutrition Program, the migrant and seasonal worker training program and all Amtrak subsidies.

The government's responsibility is to preserve the common good. Chief among the responsibilities which flow from preservation of the common good are the protection of basic human rights and the enforcement of law. The $1.5 billion allocated for law enforcement grants will not be sufficient; in fact, the previous $2.8 billion was insufficient. Some of President Bush's other domestic cuts will affect basic human rights like the right to food, the right to education and the right to health care. His cuts in the areas of land and water preservation are not harmonious with Catholic teaching on environmental stewardship. The government has a responsibility to enforce the law, to provide for basic human rights and to protect the environment. By eliminating and reducing funding to programs which will do just that, President Bush raises serious questions as to whether or not he's serious about the responsibility of the government to the common good of the American people.

President Bush assures us that this budget will cut the fiscally irresponsible deficits in half by 2009, but the budget does not fully take into account the cost of the Iraq War, the cost of Social Security privatization or the cost of making his tax cuts permanent. National Public Radio reports that the programs eliminated and reduced in the President's budget account for approximately 6% of the deficit, while his tax cuts account for 50% of the deficit. He has nevertheless made clear that he intends to make these tax cuts permanent.

Finally, it must be noted that some of President Bush's shall we say, less than kosher, programs are now guaranteed at the expense of government programs which preserve the common good. For instance, there is every indication that President Bush and Defense Secretary Rumsfeld intend to once again urge Congress to grant them funding for nuclear proliferation. We should not be taking up nuclear proliferation in the first place, but we certainly should not be doing so at the expense of domestic programs for the common good.

The budget does eliminate some military production programs, but overall the Defense Department will receive an additional $19 billion, for a total of $419.3 billion -- which, as I said, does not include the cost of the Iraq War, left unmentioned in the President's budget.

The only conclusion that can be reached is that President Bush's budget is seriously flawed. It is inconsistent with Catholic social teaching -- and that's putting it mildly.

(Much of the above statistical information comes courtesy of the Daily Kos and from an e-mail sent by Elizabeth Sholes of California Church IMPACT).

Education & Jobs

To make our economy stronger and more dynamic, we must prepare a rising generation to fill the jobs of the 21st century. Under the No Child Left Behind Act, standards are higher, test scores are on the rise, and we're closing the achievement gap for minority students. Now we must demand better results from our high schools, so every high school diploma is a ticket to success. We will help an additional 200,000 workers to get training for a better career, by reforming our job training system and strengthening America's community colleges. And we'll make it easier for Americans to afford a college education, by increasing the size of Pell Grants.

I agree with President Bush on these things, but I see a schism between what he's saying and what he's actually doing. For instance, it is true that the standards of high school education are higher because of the No Child Left Behind Act, but it is also true that because the Bush Administration has underfunded No Child Left Behind these standards cannot be met by many high schools. Under No Child Left Behind, schools are punished for being unable to meet standards that they cannot possibly meet without adequate funding.

Also, as I have already mentioned, President Bush is cutting funding to worker training programs and high school vocational education. How does he intend to do that and "help an additional 200,000 workers to get training for a better career"? What he's saying here in the State of the Union address and what he's doing in the new budget cannot be reconciled. I agree with President Bush in theory about what needs to be done about education and job training -- now, if only he would do it.

Health Care & Liability Reform

To make our economy stronger and more productive, we must make health care more affordable, and give families greater access to good coverage and more control over their health decisions. I ask Congress to move forward on a comprehensive health care agenda with tax credits to help low-income workers buy insurance, a community health center in every poor county, improved information technology to prevent medical error and needless costs, association health plans for small businesses and their employees, expanded health savings accounts, and medical liability reform that will reduce health care costs and make sure patients have the doctors and care they need.

Again, much of what President Bush is saying here is inconsistent with his budget. If President Bush wants to make health care more available, why is he cutting $45 billion in health care for low income families and senior citizens? The schism between what he's saying and what he intends to do is confusing and troubling.

I think most people can agree that medical liability reform is needed, but there are a variety of ways to go about effective medical liability reform. President Bush's proposal for medical liability reform would, in effect, punish the victims of medical malpractice by limiting their ability to pursue justice. In many cases, the Bush proposal for medical liability reform would create a situation in which caps on monetary awards would keep victims from even being able to cover the medical costs which result from malpractice. Respect for the dignity of human life demands that justice be done in cases of medical malpractice, and it certainly demands that the victims should at least be able to pay resultant medical costs. It should also be pointed out that while President Bush has presented the illusion that medical liability is somehow primarily responsible for the rising cost of health care, such is not the case. There are many complex factors contributing to this problem, all of which must be addressed in order to ensure the basic human right to health care.

Energy & Environment

To keep our economy growing, we also need reliable supplies of affordable, environmentally responsible energy. Nearly four years ago, I submitted a comprehensive energy strategy that encourages conservation, alternative sources, a modernized electricity grid, and more production here at home -- including safe, clean nuclear energy. My Clear Skies legislation will cut power plant pollution and improve the health of our citizens. And my budget provides strong funding for leading-edge technology -- from hydrogen-fueled cars, to clean coal, to renewable sources such as ethanol. Four years of debate is enough: I urge Congress to pass legislation that makes America more secure and less dependent on foreign energy.

It is encouraging to hear President Bush's plans to protect the environment and provide responsible energy, but once again, his budget contradicts his words. His budget cuts grants for land and water conservation by $100 million. The budget eliminates several Department of Energy programs. This schism between the State of the Union address and the new budget really needs to be addressed.

One area that needs work is the area of nuclear energy. First, we still don't know what we're going to do with nuclear waste in the long term -- disposal of nuclear waste creates the potential for natural and man-made disasters. Secondly, it has been demonstrated that America's nuclear power plants are not sufficiently secured, leaving open the very real potential for a terrorist attack. Not only would such an attack cause unfathomable environmental devastation, but it would pose a grave risk to human life. In order to protect the dignity of human life from terrorists, in order to preserve the common good and in order to be good stewards of the environment, all of the many problems with nuclear energy must be addressed.

The Federal Marriage Amendment

Because marriage is a sacred institution and the foundation of society, it should not be re-defined by activist judges. For the good of families, children, and society, I support a constitutional amendment to protect the institution of marriage.

No one can dispute that President Bush is in fundamental agreement with the Catholic Church regarding the institution of marriage. Most Catholics would see President Bush's support for the Federal Marriage Amendment as totally consistent with the Church's social teaching. However, while it cannot be disputed that the Church opposes same-sex marriage, how best to present that opposition in civil society is still marked with a big question mark.

The question in my mind is this: Does the Federal Marriage Amendment contradict the principle of subsidiarity? Remember, subsidiarity means "that the functions of government should be performed at the lowest level possible, as long as they can be performed adequately." The looming question for Catholics who oppose gay marriage is whether or not it can be adequately prevented at lower levels of society. If it can, the principle of subsidiarity demands that it be prevented at the lower level.

It seems to me that this can be accomplished at the lower levels of government. Individual states can pass amendments to their state constitutions prohibiting same-sex marriage to prevent state courts from overturning existing laws (such was done by eleven states in the November election), and the Defense of Marriage Act passed by Congress ensures that no state will be forced to recognize gay marriages from other states. Unless and until the Supreme Court declares the prohibition of same-sex marriage unconstitutional, the prevention of gay marriage can be accomplished by individual states and should not, according to the principle of subsidiarity, be accomplished by the federal government. It is therefore my contention that the Federal Marriage Amendment represents a violation of the principle of subsidiarity, and thus is inconsistent with Catholic social teaching.

The Death Penalty

Because one of the main sources of our national unity is our belief in equal justice, we need to make sure Americans of all races and backgrounds have confidence in the system that provides justice. In America we must make doubly sure no person is held to account for a crime he or she did not commit -- so we are dramatically expanding the use of DNA evidence to prevent wrongful conviction. Soon I will send to Congress a proposal to fund special training for defense counsel in capital cases, because people on trial for their lives must have competent lawyers by their side.

Although I am primarily pointing out the inconsistencies with President Bush's State of the Union address and Catholic teaching, I feel that I must point out an instance in which he is showing significant signs of mature development. By urging the expansion of DNA evidence to prevent wrongful conviction, and by suggesting a proposal to fund special training for defense counsel in capital cases, President Bush has shown a significant change in opinion regarding the use of the death penalty. His opinion is still not perfect by any means, but it has moved toward greater consistency with Catholic social teaching. As Catholics committed to the fullness of Catholic social teaching, let us continue to urge the President to come to an understanding of the death penalty in which it should only be used when protection of the common good demands it. Due to our modern prison system, such cases "are very rare, if not practically nonexistent" (Catechism of the Catholic Church, #2267).

Syria & Iran

To promote peace in the broader Middle East, we must confront regimes that continue to harbor terrorists and pursue weapons of mass murder. Syria still allows its territory, and parts of Lebanon, to be used by terrorists who seek to destroy every chance of peace in the region. You have passed, and we are applying, the Syrian Accountability Act -- and we expect the Syrian government to end all support for terror and open the door to freedom. Today, Iran remains the world's primary state sponsor of terror -- pursuing nuclear weapons while depriving its people of the freedom they seek and deserve. We are working with European allies to make clear to the Iranian regime that it must give up its uranium enrichment program and any plutonium reprocessing, and end its support for terror. And to the Iranian people, I say tonight: As you stand for your own liberty, America stands with you.

President Bush's language regarding Syria and especially Iran is very troubling. President Bush is accusing Iran of the same things he used to justify war with Iraq: pursuing weapons of mass destruction (particularly nuclear weapons); sponsoring terrorism; and the commission of human rights abuses against the Iranian people. One will note the use of the word "government" in reference to Syria's leadership and the use of the word "regime" in reference to Iran's leadership -- "regime," the same term used for Saddam Hussein's government. His direct address to the Iranian people is also very troubling. Is he advocating for the "liberation" of Iran? All signs indicate that he is.

As American Catholics, we must state unequivocally that we will not support any further acts of aggression by our government in the Middle East, nor any warfare whatsoever unless the standards of Christian just war doctrine are manifestly observed. We must remind President Bush that, practically speaking, further military intervention in the Middle East would be impossible without military conscription (the draft) -- and we must remind the President that he and his Republican Party promised the American people that they would not call for conscription.

In the event that the President and Congress do call for conscription in a war that is clearly unjust, American Catholics should be prepared to conscientiously object to the war(s) by refusing to take up arms against our global neighbors -- even if it means civil disobedience.

As Catholics, we must also urge our government officials to respect nuclear disarmament even as they call upon other governments to do so. It is hypocritcal to expect Iran or any other nation to give up nuclear weapons if we are not also prepared to do so -- and yet the President and Defense Secretary Rumsfeld continue to seek funding for the expansion of our nuclear arsenal. Finally, our government must consistently apply its policy on nuclear disarmament. It is manifestly ridiculous to ask Iran to give up its nuclear ambitions while Pakistan, India, Israel and many other nations maintain their nuclear programs without being challenged by our government.

Full Justice -- Not Just Some

As Catholics, we are called to respect the fullness of Catholic social teaching. While we can applaud our elected officials for embracing parts of a social justice ethic, we must not be satisfied with partial observance of social justice norms.

In this critique of the President's recent State of the Union address, I have pointed out inconsistencies with Catholic social teaching. Perhaps the most serious inconsistencies are our ambitions toward nuclear expansion and our aggressive overtures toward Iran and other nations in the Middle East. These inconsistencies with the principle of peace and disarmament and the principle of global solidarity are inseparably tied to respect for the dignity of human life. I have also demonstrated inconsistencies with six other principles of social justice: common good and community; the option for the poor; societal rights and responsibilities; the role of government and subsidiarity; economic justice; and stewardship of God's creation.

It is good that President Bush's approach to preborn and elderly human life is consistent with Catholic social teaching. It is also good that President Bush's approach to immigration is harmonious with Catholic social teaching. Whenever President Bush or any elected official is consistent with an authentic social justice ethic, we should support them in that and encourage them to continue with that consistency. However, we cannot settle for partial fidelity to social justice. We cannot even settle for half. We cannot stop until a complete ethic of social justice is embraced. We cannot call someone truly, completely pro-life if he or she is expanding the nuclear arsenal and very strongly implying a desire to commit another unjust act of aggression. We can commend them for their protection of preborn and elderly human life, but we can't tell them that it's enough and not expect them to protect all human life.

My hope is that all Catholics will seriously reflect on the possible inconsistencies of all elected officials with Catholic social teaching and encourage them to pursue a straighter path to holiness, both individual holiness and holiness for society at large.