In April, some Catholic bishops were highly critical of the budget plan put forward by House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan. In a widely reported letter to Congress, the bishops called the Ryan-drafted budget “unjust and wrong” on the grounds that, in their view, it violated clear principles of Catholic social teaching. More specifically, the bishops said the Ryan budget is flawed because, again in their view, it would impose harmful spending restraint on programs targeted to the poor without cutting defense spending or raising taxes. Like President Obama, these bishops called on leaders in Congress to enact a “balanced” plan of deficit reduction.

Within days of making their criticisms public, the bishops were joined by a large contingent of Catholic academics in denouncing the Ryan budget as antithetical to Catholic social teaching.

To his credit, Chairman Ryan—a Catholic himself—didn’t simply ignore the criticism and move on. Instead, he chose to engage his critics in a conversation by offering, in a speech delivered at Georgetown University, a detailed defense of his budget based on his understanding of what Catholic social teaching calls him to do as an elected leader in the United States Congress.

And so, for the first time in recent memory, Catholics and the broader public have an actual and potentially useful debate under way addressing what the sound and widely shared principles of Catholic social teaching have to say about the federal budget, our out-of-control national deficit, and programs for the poor.

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A Trip Down Memory Lane

It’s worth remembering that this is not the first time that the bishops have weighed in on such questions.

Republicans took control of Congress in the 1994 midterm election and quickly began working on a welfare reform measure. Some Catholic leaders, including many U.S. bishops, reacted with alarm at what was being contemplated, most especially the proposal to convert the main cash welfare assistance program into a fixed block grant to the states with time limits on eligibility. As the debate proceeded, the bishops became increasingly vocal in their public criticisms of the effort, and many Catholic academics joined them in denouncing the legislation as it moved through the legislative process. One Catholic leader predicted that passage of the Republican-inspired welfare reform plan would be “a national catastrophe.”

In the end, the legislation did clear Congress and was signed into law by Democratic President Bill Clinton.

Did catastrophe ensue, as predicted? No.

Far from being a failure, welfare reform was a remarkable success, in human and not just budgetary terms. It was instrumental in moving millions of American households off of cash welfare assistance and into paying jobs. In 2011, the average monthly cash welfare caseload was just under 2 million people, which is less than half of the normal monthly caseload in the 1980s and early 1990s. According to the Congressional Budget Office, low-income households experienced an 80 percent jump (in inflation adjusted dollars) in earnings from jobs between 1991, when states began experimenting with welfare reform, and 2005. Higher earnings for these households more than made up for the lost cash welfare assistance from the states.

Welfare reform still has its critics, but there’s no support from any point on the political spectrum for going back to the pre-1996 status quo that some Catholics were guarding so jealously in 1995 and 1996. All sides now seem to recognize how badly misguided those pre-1996 policies were.

Welfare and the Family

The mistake that some Catholic leaders made in 1995 and 1996 is the same mistake some seem to be making today, which is to equate more federal spending on programs for the poor with the morally superlative approach from the perspective of Catholic social teaching.

Such thinking is oddly negligent of a pillar of Catholic social thought, namely, that no institution is more vital to a healthy society than intact families, with married fathers and mothers raising their children together. Unfortunately, over the past half century, we have witnessed the near total destruction of the family in low-income neighborhoods all across America—neighborhoods in which federal anti-poverty support is ubiquitous. Today, out-of-wedlock births are the norm in these communities, not the exception, with more than 70 percent of African-American children born to unwed mothers.

The hard truth is that the implosion of the nuclear family has coincided precisely with the ramping up of federal low-income assistance programs since the 1960s. Why? Certainly the breakdown of the family is a complex social phenomenon, with many causes. But there’s little doubt that large-scale federal assistance to low-income households with single parents and dependent children has contributed to the destruction. In effect, the federal government has underwritten massive irresponsibility on the part of low-income fathers. They don’t need to act responsibly because the federal government has woven together a massive financial assistance system for single mothers with kids. The result is that multiple generations of low-income Americans have now grown up in neighborhoods almost entirely bereft of a responsible male presence.

This is not a success story to be defended at all costs, especially from the perspective of Catholic social teaching.

There also seems to be a considerable lack of understanding among Ryan’s Catholic critics of the actual state of federal spending commitments for these programs. Listening to them, one might think that the government has been on a long-term campaign to squeeze programs for the poor and reduce or even eliminate their funding. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, spending on these programs has exploded over the past three decades. Ron Haskins of the Brookings Institution recently testified that spending on the ten largest federal programs for the poor increased from $126 billion in 1980 to $626 billion in 2011. That’s a $500 billion jump in spending, in real terms (after controlling for inflation). The idea that the entirety of this massive run-up in outlays is off-limits and should not be subject to budgetary scrutiny defies common sense.

Nearly fifty years of Great Society-inspired programs to eliminate poverty—and trillions of federal dollars—have not made a dent in reducing poverty in the U.S. In fact, as of 2010, 46.2 million Americans continue to live below the official poverty line according to the U.S. Census Bureau, the highest level recorded in the 52 years of the Bureau’s existence. Among other things, Congressman Ryan is aiming to challenge this very inadequate status quo.

Ryan’s Clarifying Contributions

The jousting between some bishops and Congressman Ryan is good not only because it has ignited a fruitful discussion of pressing issues in the public square, but particularly because of what it contributes to three closely related matters of Catholic self-understanding in the twenty-first century, and of genuine commitment to the poor and to future generations of Americans.

First, Congressman Ryan’s efforts to advance his views on sound budget policy and to defend them on moral grounds has richly illustrated the role of the Catholic layman immersed in the “res socialis,” the social reality in which the Church is called to be a leaven for humanity and to which the patrimony of Catholic social teaching is directed. Congressman Ryan is not a theologian, nor does he claim to be one. He understands, however, that one need not possess a doctorate in theology to attempt to apply the principles of Catholic social teaching to the social reality in the political sphere. He further, and correctly, understands that it is precisely and most specifically the role of lay men and women like himself to explore and generate such applications in practice. He has understood and is attempting to live a key tenet of the Church’s understanding of the role of the lay faithful. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church explains, “It is not the role of the Pastors of the Church to intervene directly in the political structuring and organization of social life. This task is part of the vocation of the lay faithful, acting on their own initiative with their fellow citizens.”

Second, Ryan’s very public attempt to apply these principles to the federal budget have drawn helpful attention to a specific, and often misunderstood, dimension of moral thought, namely, the distinction between the level of principles, and the level of prudential application of those principles. Ryan’s proposed federal budget entitled “The Path to Prosperity: A Blueprint for American Renewal” contains page upon page of prudential judgments that, if implemented, would affect (not eliminate) funding for social programs such as food stamps, housing for the elderly, and people with disabilities. Unlike matters where absolute moral norms come to bear (such as abortion or euthanasia), the moral realm of prudential judgment (such as applications of the principles of Catholic social teaching) is open to differing approaches and even opposing interpretations. Some Catholic bishops have opined on specific aspects of Ryan’s proposed budget. Their views should be given serious and respectful consideration by the Catholic faithful and indeed by the broader American public; their views on these matters should not, however, be given the same weight as when they formally and authoritatively teach on matters of faith and morals or render moral judgments in specific matters under their jurisdiction.

Finally, and most importantly, Ryan has drawn much overdue attention to the fact that in many areas of social policy, the Church must rethink the most adequate applications of Catholic social teaching in frank and honest dialogue with contemporary social reality, a dialogue whose point of departure is the honest recognition—to quote Ryan’s “Plan for Prosperity”—that “a system designed for mid-20th century demographics and economics is ill equipped to deal with the unique pressures of the 21st century.” It is more than evident that, as Ryan deftly asserted in his Georgetown speech, far too many Catholic thinkers have identified “preferential option for the poor” with a reflexive assumption that more governmental spending is better than less. But surely the facts as we now know them should put to rest such simplistic thinking. It is manifestly not in service of the “common good” to ignore and allow to fester the looming fiscal crisis now facing the country. The American population is aging rapidly, and costs for the nation’s main entitlement programs are set to explode in the next two decades. Mounting deficits and debt are pushing the nation toward a very predictable and devastating fiscal crisis of some sort (though it is impossible to know when or how exactly it will unfold). Given these facts, one would think that Catholic leaders would be reminding the nation’s elected officials of their moral obligation to take action to avert a serious economic calamity that everyone can see coming—a calamity that would almost certainly hurt the poor more than anyone else. Indeed, if nothing is done and a crisis does in fact occur, today’s leaders will almost certainly be heavily criticized for their failure to act when they had the opportunity to do so—including by some who today are defending the programmatic status quo.


Catholic social teaching is a treasure—a genuine roadmap for building a just society. It should be treated with utmost seriousness by the faithful. But it doesn’t displace the need for sound judgment by lay leaders and doesn’t provide cookie-cutter solutions to society’s problems. With the exception of the protection of human life and the sanctity of marriage, there is plenty of room within the Church’s social teaching for different points of view.

Indeed, there may well be sound arguments against the Ryan budget. Those arguments should be made based on reason and fact, and forcefully advanced in public forums. That’s how public policy debates should be conducted. What we should not passively tolerate, however, is the outright and doctrinaire dismissal of the Ryan plan on the grounds that it contradicts many long-held and arguably specious convictions of some Catholic thinkers.