Rep. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.) (Alex Brandon/AP)
Rep. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.)
(Alex Brandon/AP)

It’s always good to check in with Rep. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.) from time to time. The former chair of the House Ways and Means Committee whose untenable ethical lapses forced him to give up the powerful tax-writing post isn’t shy about sharing his views. So it was fitting that our conversation Tuesday in his Capitol Hill office took place on the same day Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) released his budget.

As you might imagine, Rangel doesn’t think much of the House Budget Committee chairman’s plan to zero out the federal deficit by 2023. But it was his remarks on the silence of the church, Rangel’s catch-all for religious institutions, but the Catholic Church in particular, in the face of budget cutting that affects the poor that were most compelling.

“I forgot why we give tax exemptions to churches and spiritual leaders,” Rangel, a Catholic, said. “I think it was because they serve a function for our country. In other words, I think it’s because capitalism makes no provisions for protecting the vulnerable, the sick and the aged — at all.…So, when the lobbyists come up to support the capitalistic system, who’s supposed to come up to support the values? Where do they come from for the American people?”

Rangel then told me about a meeting he had earlier in the day with a pharmaceutical lobbyist seeking the congressman’s support on pirating, intellectual property and trade issues with India. Rangel said he used the opportunity to ask the man “how does he deal with the inequity that the poor cannot purchase the drugs [that] foreigners get at a cheaper price?” The lobbyist said he didn’t know and that “it’s too complex,” Rangel said.

“And I figured after he left, that wasn’t his job,” the congressman continued. “His job was to provide the maximum amount of money for his shareholders. He has no challenge to take care of poor people….” And this led back to his initial question about who supports lobbies in support of the poor and of the values of the American people.

So whose job would it be if it’s not the ministers, the rabbis, the priests? And their voice is actually silent. And when they really express themselves it’s on same-sex marriage and what a woman can and cannot do. What medication she can take. And here we are waiting for white and black smoke to come up and there the entire church is being morally challenged. The poor are enlarging. The disparity between the rich has never been this wide in this country and is wider than in most countries. And they [are] up to Rome living in a style that you can’t imagine…. And the moral question of the poor, the sick, the aged, the uneducated is left to whom? I don’t know.

Rangel came back to the silence of the Catholic Church later as he talked about Republican opposition to President Obama’s agenda.

The church mandate is taking care of the lesser among us. That’s all the president talks about. They call him a socialist. No, he’s Matthew. If you’re hungry he wants to feed you, the government. If you’re uneducated he wants to educate you. If you’re sick he wants to give you health care. If you have no shelter he wants affordable housing. That’s all Matthew. And the church is talking about things that don’t relate to God’s children.

There hasn’t been total silence from the church. When Ryan introduced a version of his budget last year, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops sent a letter to Congress slamming it. “As pastors and teachers, we remind Congress that these are economic, political and moral choices with human consequences,” the letter read in urging Congress to reconsider cuts to nutritional programs for the poor. “These cuts are unjustified and wrong.” Dana Milbank listed other acts of Catholic opposition to Ryan’s budget at the time.

My conversation with Rangel took place a little more than 24 hours before the world would see that puff of white smoke and learn the name Jorge Mario Bergoglio. The Archbishop of Buenos Aires turned Pope Francis (for St. Francis of Assisi) is a Jesuit who, The Post’s Anthony Faiola reports, “has emerged as a champion of social justice and the poor who has spoken out against the evils of globalization and slammed the ‘demonic effects of the imperialism of money.’” Perhaps this is the man who will break the Catholic Church’s silence Rangel insists persists.

In a follow-up email yesterday, Rangel took a wait-and-see attitude. “I have always believed that we have a moral obligation to protect the least among us,” he said. “It is my hope that Pope Francis, who now has the highest moral authority, will guide the church into becoming the voice for the poor, elderly and the sick — broadening its focus beyond advocating against same-sex marriage and abortion.”

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Jonathan Capehart is a member of the Post editorial board and writes about politics and social issues for the PostPartisan blog.