By MARSHA MERCER
House speaker John Boehner usually gets attaboys from Catholics. He made the “No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act” a priority and pushed the bill through the House May 4.
Just a week later, though, the Ohio Republican became the target of withering criticism from Catholics who charge his policies hurt impoverished women and children and clash with church teachings.
More than 75 academics at Catholic colleges and universities signed a letter Wednesday calling Boehner out for his voting record and the 2012 budget he “shepherded” through the House. Boehner, a Catholic, graduated from parochial schools and Xavier University in Cincinnati. Several professors from Xavier signed, as did some from the University of Dayton in Boehner’s home state.
“Your record in support of legislation to address the desperate needs of the poor is among the worst in Congress,” the letter said. Ouch.
The House-passed budget “guts long-established protections for the most vulnerable members of society. It is particularly cruel to pregnant women and children, gutting Maternal and Child Health grants and slashing $500 million from the highly successful Women, Infants and Children nutrition program,” according to the Catholic educators.
As if counseling a wayward undergrad, the academics wrote that they hoped Boehner’s visit to the Catholic University of America as commencement speaker Saturday would “reawaken your familiarity with the teachings of your Church on matters of faith and morals as they relate to governance.”
Republicans traditionally have claimed “moral values” as their private domain, and voters who cite moral values as most important in voting choose Republicans for president. The GOP so far has been able to define moral values very narrowly, mainly abortion and gay marriage. Democrats have rarely fought on the values field. It’s been a while since even Democratic politicians championed the cause of the poor. Middle class, yes. The poor, not so much.
The scathing criticism of Boehner and implicitly of House Budget chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., also a Catholic, suggests a shift that could matter in the 2012 elections.
The Ryan budget passed by House Republicans cut entitlement programs for the poor and elderly without raising taxes on the wealthy and without curbing tax breaks for oil companies. While neither the House budget nor the anti-abortion bill has a chance in the Senate, the passage of both signals that House Republicans mean business.
Religious leaders across the political spectrum have begun speaking up about the moral value of caring for the most vulnerable in society.
“What would Jesus cut?” was the provocative question in a full-page ad in Politico last month paid for by progressive religious groups.
A diverse coalition that includes the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, National Association of Evangelicals, Bread for the World, Salvation Army and National Council of Churches has called for a “circle of protection” around the poor during the budget process.
They recognize the need to tame the federal deficit, the leaders said, “but not at the expense of hungry and poor people.” The choices facing Congress are economic, political -- and moral.
“As Christians, we believe the moral measure of the debate is how the most poor and vulnerable people fare. We look at every budget proposal from the bottom up – how it treats those Jesus called the ‘least of these’ (Matthew 25:45),” the religious leaders said.
In a letter May 5, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops urged senators to protect “the needs of the poor, working families and vulnerable people” while trimming the budget.
“Access to affordable, life-affirming health care remains an urgent national priority,” the bishops declared. “Cost cutting proposals should not simply shift health care costs from the federal government to the states or directly to beneficiaries.”
The bishops also warned that 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…”
For his part, Boehner, who’s trying to satisfy Tea Party fiscal conservatives, has called the $14.1 trillion debt a “moral threat” to the country. Not to address entitlement programs “would be an economic and moral failure,” he has said.
He vows to continue opposing any tax increases and says Congress must cut trillions in spending before it increases the debt limit.
What would Jesus cut? The 2012 battle over moral values has begun.
© 2011 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.