WASHINGTON, D.C. — The White House delivered a record $4.75 trillion “Budget for a Better America” for fiscal year 2020 to Congress March 11 and it continued a defining trend to boost military spending and border security while making deep cuts in most other federal agencies.
It was quickly dismissed by many members of Congress as being unrealistic. Congress routinely shapes the budget to reflect priorities that usually differ from the chief executive, although a president’s preferences have not always been ignored.
With divided government — Democrats in charge in the House and Republicans in the Senate and White House — the budget debate from now through the start of the fiscal year on Oct. 1, and perhaps later, may become contentious as congressional committee hearings shape how tax dollars are spent.
However it unfolds, Catholic advocates plan to be part of the process.
Regular visitors to Capitol Hill expressed concern to Catholic News Service over the recent trend to promote Pentagon spending while reducing appropriations for environmental protection, housing, education, nutrition, foreign development and humanitarian aid, and other human needs.
They stressed that they plan to advocate for a budget that promotes human dignity — as they consistently have for decades.
“We look at it (the budget) through the lens of Catholic social teaching, not by the issue. We look at the moral and ethical components of issues, how they affect the well-being of human beings and how they impact the poor,” explained Bishop Frank J. Dewane of Venice, Florida, chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development.
“A budget is a moral document,” he continued. “We’ve said that lots of times. There’s a human dimension to the budget and sometimes we forget that.”
Dewane and others representing the USCCB plan to testify at budget hearings and send letters to key House and Senate committee chairmen in the coming months to ensure that the Catholic Church’s stances are known.
Dewane cautioned that the budget must not simply become “a math exercise.”
“It’s one of human promotion. It should be about recognizing the human person. Human dignity is not something we grant. Every person has human dignity and the budget is a way to recognize and not squelch or destroy the human dignity of God’s creation,” the bishop said.
The Church’s position has met with pushback at times, largely from members of Congress who have said the U.S. must address its growing $22 trillion debt and the best way to do that is to cut spending.
Still, the USCCB and other organizations have challenged that view, noting that the drive to increase military and homeland security spending continues to the detriment of other important federal programs that face deep cuts.
“What we do say and what the bishops’ conference says is if you are concerned about the growing national debt, you can’t balance the budget on the backs of the poor,” said Bill O’Keefe, executive vice president for mission, mobilization and advocacy at Catholic Relief Services.
O’Keefe told CNS the same principle applies in providing humanitarian and development assistance around the world.
“Because as a Catholic community we value the human dignity of all people, we want to see the moral appropriation of foreign assistance, the type that CRS and the USCCB are advocating for, to grow and meet the need and not to shrink,” O’Keefe said.
Foreign assistance programs total about 1 percent of the federal budget.
Others, including Lucas Swanepoel, vice president of social policy at Catholic Charities USA, said the nation faces a moral choice as it mulls how it responds to human needs.
“We can invest in things that destroy, divide and kill or I think we can invest in things that educate, heal and feed people. It’s what we’re called to do in Matthew 25,” Swanepoel said.
Matthew 25 recounts three parables told by Jesus including one about how to respond to “the least of these,” including the poor, the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, the imprisoned and the stranger.
Beyond working with members of Congress, Catholic Charities and other organizations regularly share information with people in parish pews about the benefits of programs that address human needs from disaster aid to elderly services. Despite a growing economy and rising stock markets, the need remains significant in the U.S.
The U.S. Census Bureau reported 39.7 million Americans, about 12.7 percent of the population, remained in poverty in 2017, the most recent year statistics are available.
It’s not just church-affiliated organizations that advocate to legislators and share information on budget concerns. Nonprofits such as the Coalition on Human Needs and Network, the Catholic social justice lobby, have invested significant resources and time to address widespread unmet needs.
“If we see church and ourselves as people of faith, we will be dedicated to the best of our church, which is Catholic social teaching,” said Presentation Sister Richelle Friedman, director of social policy at the Coalition on Human Needs. “If we remind ourselves that Catholic social teaching calls us to respect the dignity of every person, we remember that our first priority needs to go to people who are poor and vulnerable.”
While Friedman isn’t tasked with representing church teaching when she visits congressional offices, the positions the coalition takes largely align with that teaching.
At Network, Sister Simone Campbell, executive director, posed a simple question when describing federal spending priorities: How does a particular appropriation promote “the good of the community?”
“What the federal budget should be about is the quality of life in the United States and our relationships around the world,” she told CNS.
Campbell, a member of the Sisters of Social Service, said she finds inspiration for her work in Pope Francis’s 2015 encyclical Laudato Si’, on Care for Our Common Home, in which he stated that all of humanity has “a claim on all of the resources in our amazing world.”
“It’s not just the few, it’s all,” she said. “And the disproportionate attention to increasing the wealth of the few over the needs of the many in the budget is clearly immoral.”
Such questions are not easy to resolve. Shelley Inglis, executive director of the Human Rights Center at the University of Dayton in Ohio, urged members of Congress to remember the country’s core values, which are reflected in Catholic social teaching.
“We are all responsible for contributing to the greater good of everyone,” she said. “We can’t lose sight of that concept.”
“The discussion around the budget is an important way we can go back to basic thinking about where our values lie and what those values mean in decisions in how we invest in people globally and in our own social capital, our own people and our own society for the common good.”