John Paul II’s words offer guidance for budget debates

| April 26, 2011 | 0 Comments

As a society and as Catholics, we have a special responsibility to care for the poor and vulnerable in our midst.

Pope John Paul II, who will be beatified this weekend, offered one of his many reminders about this fact during a trip to New York early in his pontificate: “You must never be content to leave them just the crumbs of the feast,” he said of the poor. “You must take of your substance, and not just of your abundance, in order to help them. And you must treat them like guests at your family table.”

Unfortunately, as our elected representatives ponder remedies to cure serious state and federal budget problems, the poor and vulnerable are being squeezed from their spots around the table. These guests are being told they must do with less, even as they already struggle to meet their most basic needs.

It’s a situation that isn’t fair or just. And it isn’t what the church has in mind when it talks about a “preferential option for the poor” — a hallmark of Catholic social teaching that calls on us to make the needs of the poor and vulnerable a top priority.

Currently, lawmakers in Minne­sota and our nation’s capital are involved in a war of words and clash of philosophies over the best ways to solve both our state and national budget crises: Should government find ways to raise more revenue? Cut spending? Raise taxes? Give more tax breaks? Find a compromise among all these options?

Framework for decisions

At stake are a host of programs and services in areas such as health care, education, job training, child care, food assistance, and services to the mentally ill and disabled. Certainly, there is no easy budget fix, and it’s likely that members of the legislative and executive branches will have to strike a compromise in the end.

But any final budget proposal should be built within a framework that keeps three important questions in mind:

» Does it protect human life and promote human dignity?

People who are living in poverty and those who are disabled should have access to basic food, housing and health care services. The budget should have this as part of its “substance,” in the words of Pope John Paul, and shouldn’t constitute the “crumbs” that are leftover after the wealthy and special interests are fed.

» Does it support families?

Families form the backbone of our society and the church. When husbands and wives who are struggling financially have access to job training, child nutrition programs, community health services and affordable housing options, they are healthier and better equipped to raise healthy children and move down the path to self-sufficiency.

» Does it serve the common good and society’s long-term best interests?

Programs that help the poor climb out of poverty benefit the wider society as well. Job training for the unemployed can lead to new jobs that create additional taxpayers. Providing poor families access to subsidized community health care is cheaper to society in the long run than if those families make repeated visits to hospital emergency rooms as their only other option. A budget that seeks to benefit the common good has to look beyond the next fiscal year or two to accomplish that goal.

Money — including government funds — certainly won’t solve all the problems related to poverty. But government is an essential partner in finding solutions.

A word of caution is necessary for those who believe the church should stay out of state and federal budget policy discussions and focus solely on providing charity through parish outreach programs and agencies like Catholic Charities. They, too, face difficult budget constraints and don’t have the funds or infrastructure to tackle poverty on the larger scale that government can.

As Catholic bishops have said for a long time, state and federal budgets are moral documents setting priorities for where taxpayer resources should go. Where our money goes, it is said, there you will find our values as a society.

Caring for the poor and vulnerable should be a core value. No one group or agency can do it alone. It is only through the combined and collaborative efforts of government, churches and other charitable organizations that there will begin to be enough room for all the guests that should be welcomed at the family table.

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Category: Editorials, Spotlight