As a practicing — and an obviously very imperfect — Catholic, I have had more than a few disagreements with the leadership of my church. For example, I still find it both irrational and indefensible that talented, magnanimous and charismatic women are denied the opportunity to serve as priests. (It is not as though there is an overflow supply of male candidates with similar qualities.)
The church hierarchy’s widespread failure to stop criminal sexual acts by priests against defenseless children and then, when made aware of those crimes, to give priority and resources not to comforting and making whole the victims, but instead to damage control of the institutional church and to covering up for the clerical abusers is unforgivable. The toll: thousands of lives tortured and broken, surrendering of much of the church’s moral authority, and a price tag in settlement of abuse claims and legal fees of nearly $2.7 billion.
But I cherish and admire much about the church. The late Cardinal James Hickey was archbishop of Washington, where he increased tenfold the number of people being fed, clothed, sheltered and counseled by the archdiocese. When there was grumbling from some of the more affluent in the pews that too much of the church’s limited revenues was going to people and neighborhoods who were not even Catholic, Hickey offered this by way of rebuttal: “We serve the homeless not because they are Catholic, but because we are Catholic. If we don’t care for the sick, educate the young, care for the homeless, then we cannot call ourselves the church of Jesus Christ.”
Which brings me to the recent letter from the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops to every member of the House of Representatives on the human dimensions of the federal budget debate that has preoccupied Washington.
Signed by Bishops Henry Hubbard of Albany, N.Y., the chairman of the Bishops Committee on International Justice and Peace, and Stephen Blare, chairman of the Committee on Domestic Peace and Human Development, the letter was clear and unambiguous that “a central moral measure of any budget proposal is how it affects ‘the least of these’ (Matthew 25). The needs of those who are hungry and homeless, without work or in poverty should come first.”
Toward that objective, “a just framework for future budgets cannot rely on disproportionate cuts in essential services to poor persons.” Then followed the expressed “fear that some proposed changes to Medicare and Medicaid could leave more elderly and poor without the assurance of adequate and affordable health care,” because block grants could give states more flexibility, “but leave them with inadequate resources as costs grow or more people need health care in future recessions.”
If Medicare were converted “into a voucher program, (it) could shift rising health-care costs to vulnerable seniors and those who are poor without controlling these costs.”
Remember, these are the same Catholic bishops who, because of their uncompromising opposition to legalized abortion, have been accused by many Democrats of being committed allies of the Republican Party. But Republicans could not have been cheering the letter’s last paragraph, which asserted “the moral measure of this budget debate is not which party wins or which powerful interests prevail, but rather how those who are jobless, hungry, homeless or poor are treated,” because “they have the most compelling moral claim on our consciences and our common resources.”
For speaking out in this Easter season, the bishops deserve at least one and a half cheers.
— Mark Shields is one of the most widely recognized political commentators in the United States. The former Washington Post editorial columnist appears regularly on CNN, on public television and on radio. Click here to contact him.