A few years ago, Peggy Noonan and I debated E.J. Dionne Jr. and James Carville at Boston College over the role of Catholicism and Catholic voters in American politics. Tim Russert moderated, and the debate proved livelier than most such discussions (with a disproportionate share of the “lively” credit going to Carville). So it’s not surprising I would take exception to Dionne’s column Monday regarding House Speaker John Boehner’s commencement address at Catholic University of America (CUA).
Dionne posited, first, that liberal Catholic academics’ criticisms of Boehner on social justice grounds did not garner the attention given to conservative pro-life Catholics who protested President Obama’s commencement address at Notre Dame two years ago. Setting aside the difference in magnitude of coverage generated by any speech from a president of the United States vs. one by a speaker of the House, Dionne’s premise about a double standard in the media was as wrong as the premise in the liberal academics’ letter on social justice.
As an alumnus of CUA and a member of its board of trustees, I was disappointed that The Post dedicated the first eight paragraphs of its news story after the speech to concerns raised by CUA graduate students in social work and 83 professors from Catholic universities around the country who wrote letters critical of Boehner (specifically, spending cuts in the House budget), while failing to mention that the 2,000 students present gave him a standing ovation. Online searches of the coverage suggest that this was the norm.
Dionne dedicated much of his column to quoting the letter from the professors, including a nasty shot that “Your record in support of legislation to address the desperate needs of the poor is among the worst in Congress.” To some liberal Catholics, social justice is measured almost solely in terms of federal spending. Their formula is simple — those who advocate higher taxes and more spending are for more social justice than those who advocate lower taxes and less spending.
I understand why many Catholics measure compassion by how many Americans are on food stamps, and individuals and families in need of legitimate government assistance should get it. But many of us measure compassion by how many Americans can be moved from food stamps and other government programs to self-sufficiency through what Pope John Paul II called “the dignity of work.” Given the record of the Obama administration and the Democratic Congress the past two years, if more federal spending created more jobs, we wouldn’t be stuck at 9 percent unemployment.
One of the reasons CUA honored Boehner is his tireless commitment to the Consortium of Catholic Academies in Washington, which keeps inner-city Catholic schools in the District operating. Over the past decade, he’s raised millions of dollars to provide children from poor families, regardless of religion, a chance to attend better schools. He also co-authored the bill to save the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship program (enacted as part of the budget continuing resolution) to help meet “the desperate needs of the poor” for quality education.
Liberal critics often discount both the role of charity in helping meet the needs of the poor (and public opinion and behavioral research consistently show that self-identified conservatives donate a higher percentage of their income to charity than do self-identified liberals), and the importance of local and state programs. Subsidiarity is an important tenet of the Catholic Church, which is the belief that, as John Paul II said, “a community of a higher order should not interfere in the internal life of a community of a lower order, depriving the latter of its functions, but rather should support it in case of need and help to coordinate its activity with the activities of the rest of society, always with a view to the common good.” In the realm of political debate, conservatives apply this as federalism.
Devout Catholics can argue about how the church’s teachings on social justice are best reflected in a federal budget, but there’s no argument when it comes to the church’s teaching on the intrinsic value of human life. Yet Dionne posited a moral equivalency between a congressman proposing less spending on social programs (so that they might be saved for future generations) and a president who: reinstated taxpayer subsidies for foreign nongovernmental organizations that promote and perform abortions overseas in his first week in office; enacted a health-care reform bill opposed by Catholic bishops and others on the grounds that federal dollars would be used to fund abortions; and narrowed Bush administration regulations enforcing the “conscience clause,” which allows Catholics and other health-care workers who find abortion morally abhorrent to abstain from providing such services without their hospital being denied federal funding.
The professors and social work students had every right to object to Boehner’s policies, and Dionne has every right to laud them for it. But their protests dominated the coverage, and I suspect that most of my fellow alumni were in spirit with those students who gave Boehner a standing ovation rather than with the protesters.
The writer is a former counselor to President George W. Bush and a former chairman of the Republican National Committee.