In their most recent letter concerning the budget, Bishop Blaire and Bishop Pates reiterated their longstanding position regarding evaluating the effects of Congress’s budget decisions.
As you prepare to consider legislation that addresses deficits and spending, I reiterate the following moral criteria to guide these difficult budgetary choices:
1. Every budget decision should be assessed by whether it protects or threatens human life and dignity.
2. 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.
3. Government and other institutions have a shared responsibility to promote the common good of all, especially ordinary workers and families who struggle to live in dignity in difficult economic times.
A just framework for future budgets cannot rely on disproportionate cuts in essential services to poor persons; it requires shared sacrifice by all, including raising adequate revenues, eliminating unnecessary military and other spending, and addressing the long-term costs of health insurance and retirement programs fairly
I wholeheartedly agree with the criteria and have written as such promoting the Circle of Protection and USCCB Domestic and International Justice Committees approaches. The criterion of “Matthew 25” is a way to consider the future consequences and thereby judge the justice or injustice of a particular budget (the devastating consequences of the Ryan budget and the Romney proposal are detailed in the analysis of the links provided). Instead of once again going through the concrete and conclusive data on the effectiveness of programs like SNAP, I’d like to take return to Aquinas because there is another angle to the Matthew 25 criterion. In particular, in my theological opinion, his focus on circumstances give us another avenue for evaluating the situation in which this budget is being developed and from which to demonstrate that the approach proposed in the Ryan budget is morally wrong.
First, how does circumstance function in Aquinas?
Using Aquinas is tricky, one must be very careful that in using him within our contemporary context we respect his own context. In particular, we have to be careful not to read Aquinas through the lens of Descartes, the Enlightenment or Kant and reinterpret Aquinas’ statements on intention, will, and circumstances as if it has a Cartesian bend. (Daniel Westburg addresses this and also offers the gentle over arching reminder, “The Thomistic doctrine on action should be seen as entirely consistent with the biblical principle that one may not do evil so that good may come,” in his essay “Good and Evil in Human Acts” in in the Ethics of Aquinas).
So how are we should we understand circumstances and how they are related to questions of the intention and whether it is a good kind of action itself? Aquinas’ moral theory simultaneously focuses on both unity and the distinct elements of human action. While circumstances to not always alter the moral evaluation of an act (I-II, Q18, a10)– in De Malo Q2, A6 he explains “that is called a circumstance which surrounds an act, as it were, outside of, not within the substance of the act being considered,” and after examining the three aspects of circumstances to be examined,“which are all contained in the following verse: ‘who, what, where, by what aids, why, how, when.”Fittingness and context are important to the determination of whether or not a circumstance is relevant – does the circumstance (the what, where, by what aids, when, how) impact upon the determination of prudence.
Offering examples of how circumstances, intention and the kind of thing it is to do are all important to Thomistic moral evaluation, philosopher Brian Davies, OP offers the following example:
Suppose I read the Summa theologiae with care and a desire to learn. That too might be regarded as a good thing to do and it seems that I do it with a good intention. But what if I am doing it while someone is dying of hunger beside me and begging me for food which I can easily provide? Then, Aquinas would hold my action is not good because of the circumstances in which it is performed. (238).
Attending to the questions necessary to determine appropriate circumstances and building off of Davies illustration, it is my contention that the current circumstances of unmet need is significant to the moral evaluation of a budget proposal or approach. I am not simply arguing that because of the difficult economic situation and high unemployment it is unjust to cut social programs like SNAP, TANF, and Housing Assistance because cuts will do harm to those currently receiving those benefits. That is true, but beyond that, it is unjust to consider cutting these programs because as they stand now there remains a significant unmet need among the poor in our society. Budget proposals (and the subsequent votes) rooted in an approach which prioritizes the deficit and debt in a significant reality of unmet need is morally wrong by virtue of circumstance.
Let’s begin with SNAP (food stamps) – there has been significant attention to the rise in the SNAP budget and what an “acceptable level” of said budget would be. SNAP is designed as an automatic stabilizer. As an automatic stabilizer, it is able to both effectively respond to changes of need when the economy contracts without new legislation. This is in addition to the effective economic impact SNAP provides stimulating the economy itself. From the perspective of Catholic social teaching, the size and budget of SNAP should only be a concern with respect to eligibility. The only morally acceptable way to shrink the SNAP budget is when fewer people are hungry in need of food stamps. Even with the increase in SNAP participation and its budget, there is still a significant percentage of unmet need.
After falling to a low of 54 percent in 2001 and 2002, SNAP’s participation rate among eligible people has increased in recent years, reaching 72 percent in fiscal year 2009.
Effective outreach has increased SNAP participation and lessened the stigma attached to food stamps. The goal however should be that all who are eligible for food stamps receive them. Unmet need is a morally significant circumstance – particularly in light of Matthew 25.
For Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF), the Center for Budget Policies and Priorities estimates only 27% of eligible families receive it.
According to Housing and Urban Development report,
The population of unassisted very low-income renters increased by 11.0 percent during 2007–2009, from 11.57 to 12.83 million. During the same period, incidence of worst case needs in this group increased from 51.0 to 55.2 percent.
A similar analysis could be done of the recent Unemployment Insurance reports, which also has unmet eligible need.
There are many scholars who work in Catholic social teaching who have been attempting to challenge the inaccurate assumption that we simply cannot afford to provide basic services to the poor and vulnerable. These have included theologians, economists, and others all of whom challenge the underlying ideological assumptions behind claiming the deficit is itself the problem rather than a side effect of a jobs problem (as well as of the host of ethical issues and fraud within the financial sector). Generally, we highlight the clear and consistent message from Catholic social teaching; today I have tried to make another complementary case. In chorus with all of those statements, the level of unmet need serviced by these programs makes any proposal or approach which cuts their budget morally wrong. And by necessity then, given that reality, it fails the Matthew 25 test identified by the USCCB Committees on Domestic and International Justice.
(NOTE: Part 1: Check out An Actual Budget Cannot be Morally Neutral at catholicmoraltheology.com)
Clarification: For the sake of specificity – the last sentence should read: In chorus with all of those statements, the level of unmet need serviced by these programs makes any proposal or approach which cuts their budget - without devising and proposing any other realistic and morally just means of meeting this level of need - morally wrong
(Matthew 25 Criteria refers to Matthew 25:31-46 account of the last judgment whereby Jesus instructs that we will be judged based on what we have or have not done for the least among us.)