Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

A Moral Conversation About the Federal Budget

Michael J. Gerson


May 20, 2011
by Michael Gerson

This is a transcript of a radio address broadcast on KDCR radio in Sioux Center, Iowa.

Any federal budget is filled with decisions that have moral implications.  But this does not mean that Christians can make simplistic moral judgments.  Politics is the realm of prudence.  Many decisions do not distinguish good from bad.  They are the weighing of relative goods.  A public official might need to balance environmental protection with maintaining jobs, or the creation of roads and parks with the demands of fiscal stewardship. 

I’ve argued in the past that some budget issues are clear matters of conscience.  Cutting AIDS and malaria treatments would have a grave and measurable human cost.  It is neither just nor necessary to target the most vulnerable—particularly since such spending is a tiny portion of the total budget. But most federal budget decisions do not fall into this category.  Christians should recognize and appreciate the complexity of governing—and the honest struggles of those who govern. 

A good example is Representative Paul Ryan of Wisconsin.  As Republican Chairman of the the House Budget Committee and the main author of the Republican budget, Ryan has taken his share of criticism. But Ryan is also a strong believer, a faithful Catholic.  And he takes the social teachings of his church seriously. So Ryan recently wrote a long letter to the president of the Conference of Catholic Bishops, Archbishop Timothy Dolan.  It is a compelling statement, outlining a set of moral issues we sometimes ignore. 

Ryan argues that a failure to take fiscally responsible actions now might lead to the situation faced by Europe, where governments have been forced to deal with their debt crisis by making hasty and drastic cuts in benefits for the retired, sick and poor. Difficult budget decisions taken in the near term, Ryan contends, would prevent much harsher choices down the road.   Ryan points out that his budget does not eliminate the social safety net.  In fact, it reduces support for the wealthy in Medicare—through means testing—in order to concentrate resources on the poor and sick.   Ryan believes that this approach to Medicare reform is consistent with a “preferential option for the poor.”  

Ryan makes some other moral points often forgotten in the budget debate.  Rising debt puts upward pressure on interest rates, making it harder for businesses, non-profits and individuals to borrow.  A confusing tax system, filled with loopholes for the wealthy, undermines economic growth. 

And Ryan argues that inaction on entitlement reform has a moral cost. “Entitlement spending,” Ryan writes, “will soon take up 100 percent of federal revenues, leaving literally no dollars for defense, education, infrastructure, or even administration.  Medicare’s funds will be exhausted in 9 years.  No course is more heartless and unjust than to ignore the unraveling of the safety net which retired workers rely on for income and health care.”

People may disagree with parts of this economic analysis.  But Ryan is making a serious attempt to root his proposals in the tradition of Catholic social thought.  And this was recognized in Archbishop Dolan’s response to Ryan’s letter. Dolan, of course, does not specifically endorse the Republican budget, stating he is a pastor instead of a politician.  But he praises Ryan’s commitment to fiscal responsibility, along with his attention to the family and to the needs of the poor.    

This is just the kind of dialogue we should be having in American politics: wrestling with foundational issues, recognizing that our policy prescriptions may differ, disagreeing in a spirit of civility, and finding common ground where possible.  This is all too rare in our political system.  But Paul Ryan and Archbishop Dolan have given us an example.

Michael Gerson is nationally syndicated columnist who appears twice weekly in the Washington Post and is the author of Heroic Conservatism (2007) and the co-author of City of Man: Religion and Politics in a New Era (2010).   


“To respond to the author of this Commentary please email:
Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”