The National Catholic Review

In “Testem Benevolentiae,” an apostolic letter sent to Baltimore’s Cardinal James Gibbons in 1899, Pope Leo XIII worried over some liberal tendencies of the Catholic Church in the United States that he called “the errors of Americanism.” One wonders these days if a modern, conservative variant of Americanism is infecting the church. Representative Paul Ryan’s recent take on Catholic social teaching seems to endorse the tradition but then deploys it as cover for a budget-balancing act that threatens to harm the nation’s most vulnerable. A number of Catholics, Mr. Ryan among them, find much to admire about the objectivism peddled by the late Ayn Rand, whose “rational egoism” liberates the individual from obligations to others.

Worst of all has been a noticeable coarsening of attitudes among some Catholics toward those who have come to rely on government aid to sustain themselves in these difficult times. This emerging resentment forgets that the nation’s modest social services are directed primarily at supporting children, the elderly, the disabled and those hurt by the recent recession.

It is not surprising that the most powerful currents of a cultural mainstream should influence the course of its tributaries. In 1997 then Archbishop Francis George remarked that U.S. citizens “are culturally Calvinist, even those who profess the Catholic faith.” Over time many U.S. Catholics have internalized some unacceptable American conceits, like the primacy of the individual and the free market and the inherent inefficiency of government. They have come to view with suspicion mediating structures, like unions and advocacy groups, that challenge America’s understanding of itself or its role in the world.

Some Catholics make an idol out of ideology or a fierce faith out of nationalism, elevating personal responsibility while diminishing communal obligations. Their “Americanism” pretends that personal charity can adequately replace the need for social justice and distorts the meaning of subsidiarity into nearly unrecognizable form. Unlike his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI has not directly addressed this modern mutation of Americanism, but he has called for better education among laypeople about church social doctrine and reminded them that it is their responsibility to bring the church’s social justice concerns into civic discourse.

Counter to mainstream American culture, the church teaches that a society should be judged by how well it addresses the needs of its poor and vulnerable members. It demands a preferential option for the poor, not the Pentagon, when moral documents like the federal budget are prepared, a point frequently noted by the U.S. bishops. The church does not accept the peculiar American premise that the poor are generally better off left to their own devices, lest their dignity be degraded by paternalism—a high-sounding slogan that can be used to abdicate collective responsibility.

When Representative Ryan began a well-publicized correspondence with Archbishop Timothy M. Dolan of New York, the two men lightly sparred over the modern role of Catholic social teaching. Mr. Ryan equated the Catholic concept of subsidiarity with the American tradition of federalism and used it to add a gloss of Catholic authenticity to his budget plan; Archbishop Dolan gently reminded him that solidarity remains another significant component of the Catholic tradition. It is one that persists regardless of the vicissitudes of the annual federal deficit or newfound political urgency to address the national debt.

Here is where Catholics can make their contribution to the current dialogue. Congressman Ryan’s concerns about a smothering national debt and an intrusive government are legitimate, but they cannot be allowed to produce near-term outcomes that in practice mean the abandonment of the vulnerable through deep cuts in food aid, health care and support for the unemployed.

As the nation attempts to balance the immediate needs of the least among us against the long-term demands of debt reduction, Catholics can bring their unique perspective to the table. Perhaps instead of surrendering to the new Americanism, they might “Americanize” the Catholic concept of the common good, helping to define how a just society with limited resources best sets spending priorities and seeks equitable sources of revenue. Certainly then the legitimate needs of the most vulnerable would not be sacrificed to protect the structural privileges of those who have enjoyed the greatest economic rewards in recent years. Certainly war-making would not be privileged over the basic needs of a sustainable civil society.

Catholics in America should value their faith’s contribution to the larger culture, not surrender its uniqueness as an impediment to a deeper and more personally fruitful assimilation. Unlike Ms. Rand, American Catholics cannot make a virtue of selfishness. Our path proceeds not from the gospel of prosperity, but the Gospel of Matthew.

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Alan Aversa | 4/27/2012 - 1:28am
I'm not sure how what you describe here is a "conservative variant of Americanism" when it appears to be "semi-Americanism" or just simply "American nationalism."

Americanism is a heresy that, as Pope Leo XIII wrote in Testem Benevolentiae, "would have the Church in America to be different from what it is in the rest of the world."

Americanism holds (my emphasis):
that, in order to more easily attract those who differ from her, the Church should shape her teachings more in accord with the spirit of the age and relax some of her ancient severity and make some concessions to new opinions. Many think that these concessions should be made not only in regard to ways of living, but even in regard to doctrines which belong to the deposit of the faith. They contend that it would be opportune, in order to gain those who differ from us, to omit certain points of her teaching which are of lesser importance, and to tone down the meaning which the Church has always attached to them.

How does your "conservative variant of Americanism" advocate all these things?
Ana Blasucci | 8/11/2011 - 6:21pm
Is a "culturally Calvinist" Catholic automatically wrong?
The individual must have primacy, in government's eyes, or we're all a faceless mass to be arbitrarily tossed about.
Compassionate budgeting is noble, even to cultural Calvinists.
The latter however see taxes for what they are, i.e. legal armed robbery when imposed past the level permissible by the sense of the populace (not necessarily the level allowed by elected representatives).
Taxes are enforceable by arms if one pays only what he believes a reasonable portion of his earnings, if less than government demands.
Slavery is chiefly the usurpation of the value of one's labor so that it does not attach to himself.  Past a necessary minimum in line with the consent of the governed, taxes do the same.
Further watering down the currency is the kind of spending we have seen of late.  It necessitates the printing of vast sums; the classic recipe for currency devaluation.  Value is thus lost by private income and taxes paid.  Vicious cycle, anyone?
Might it be permissible for a Catholic to say that government should do what is mandated by the Constitution, and attend to real need that filters up through preliminary levels of subsidiarity, and little else?  Then there would be enough to take care of all genuine need, while our dignity, free will, and American spirit will be preserved.
As Catholics we are formed to consider the morality of a process by its results ("fruits"), but also by the inherent good, evil, or neutrality of the means.
With few and notorious exceptions (WWII, perhaps?), this should make for a heady dose of critical re-thinking any time raising the tax burden or more big deficit spending is on the table.
There is further no organic relationship of opposition to perceived government overreach to unconcern for one's fellows.  In fact, civic virtue is a pillar of the Calvinist legacy, so long as we're invoking the name.
David Gibboni | 8/4/2011 - 12:33pm
Why must the Editors always conflate support for the poorest among us with profligate spending by Congress? 

It is clear that this kind of 'sermon' is political opinion masquerading as a homily from the pulpit. 

We won't fall for it.
C Walter Mattingly | 8/3/2011 - 10:38am
Well put, Deacon K. We all, as Catholic Americans, are required to become informed by looking at our recent history and determining if powerful unions have helped or hindered our greatest corporations, such as GM, which in the early 70's was the world dominant auto manufacturer, and Caterpillar, the world dominant heavy equipment manufacturer, both severely threatened by mostly Japanese competition, and the resultant disparities in their fortunes.  The fortunes of such former economic urban powerhouses as Detroit, our educational costs and performance disparities, and similar instances seem to have influenced the opinion of many Americans, as you note above regarding Joe, enabling the Tea Party, for example, to rise above the image of certain factions to portray them as a frenzied splinter group but one closer to the pulse of America's problems. We are required by our faith to determine what will truly help the disadvantaged in our society in the long run. Would making vouchers available to the inner city poor, for example, help or hurt the prospects of our inner city citizenry? I would hope we could address these issues here and in other Catholic forums from a praxis perspectived: what has/will work, what doesn't/hasn't?
Robert Killoren | 8/2/2011 - 9:59am
I'm glad to see this commentary continue because it is a crucial one. Joe, you have a lot of good quesions and make some excellent points, and you perhaps represent a majority of Catholics in the pews. I'll repeat JPII's thoughts again, Catholic social teaching is not an ideology but a theology. This theology is Christ-centered because Christ is God's word/voice telling us what God thinks we should do to make the world a better place. To me this means not looking to political parties or the media for the truth. You won't find it. Political parties operate on extremes because the associated rhetoric is what motivates most voters to come to the polls. If you examine closely what the two parties agree on you'll find that there is an amazing overlap of similar beliefs "in the middle gound." Yet there are grievous errors among the ideologues who populate the extremes of both parties. Catholicism is not an either/or proposition but a both/and. Our God is one and three, Christ is divine and human, humans are good and sinful, in our faith we say "we believe" but always need to follow it with "help our unbelief." Catholics believe that salvation comes from faith and good works, Catholic belief comes from revelation in word (the Bible) and revelation in flesh (Christ himself as we know him through the traditions of those who experienced the person of Christ, which have been faithfully handed down from one generation to the next). In social teachings this balance remains. We believe in subsidiarity (a decentralized social structure that protects the rights of individuals and families to make life decisions) and solidarity (recognition that we must always tilt our decisions toward seeking the common good even if that means self sacrifice). Catholics believe strongly in the rights of those who labor to organize to protect the human dignity of work and not let workers become a commodity to be bought, used, and thrown away. But it also believes that workers must work and not ride on the backs of others. We believe that unions are good when they protect workers from exploitative employers, but also that they can abuse the right to unionize when they become controlled by organized crime or put their members priviledges above the common good. On and on... I'm sure you get the picture. This does not make the Church wishy-washy. To the contrary it forces Catholics to think harder, examine circumstances more closely, and make truly informed decisions. Often times this makes Christians a sign of contradiction to those who do not believe, and Jesus warned us that we would be looked down upon or even persecuted because of it. If we are for Christian values we will be looked down upon by the left and the right. We all need to regularly examine our political values in light of the Gospel.
JOE BLISS | 8/1/2011 - 9:03am
Your Editorial repeats a definite bias to anything politically conservative.
Contrary to what you may believe my conservative views can be traced back to my
early Catholic education in the 30s and 40s.
WE all have a responsibility to help each other and accept our individual responsibilities. The liberal commitment to solving all problems by spending more and more money not only does not work but it creates problems for the poorest in our society. You do not help people by convincing them that the government is the answer to all problems. This is not Christian or responsible. What has made this country great for so many of the poorest is the opportunity to improve ourselves.
I wish you would address the non-christian bias of the political liberals in our society.
We have a President who is devoted more to his reelection than to solving problems in our economy. Where is your outrage at his poor leadership.
Helena Loflin | 7/31/2011 - 2:23pm
Bravo, America Magazine! Well stated. Thank you!
john fitzmorris | 7/30/2011 - 11:57am
Wow! I am glad someone said it and I am not surprised that it was America. I have noticed the distrubing presence of Catholics lining up on the side of privilege entrenchment - that is what this whole manufactured "crisis" is really about. The deficit was caused in large measure not by spending on welfare programs and Pell Grants but by two wars, an unfunded drug mandate and and irresponsible tax cuts. and it is the extension of those privilege entrenching tax cuts that are the true objective of Ryan. Thanks to America for bringing Catholic social justice to shine its light on the debate. 
C Walter Mattingly | 7/28/2011 - 2:22pm
Vince, by Tom Paine's statement, Greece should be on top of the world with the most active citizens and strongest republic, rather than citizens retiring at 53 on government pensions (perhaps they are active bowling) and currently being bailed out of national bankruptcy by other Euro countries, not signs of a strong republic. I would agree with you that spending large amounts of dollars on education could be a good thing. We certainly do that; as recently as 2003 more per student than any other OECD country, although now with the recent depreciation of the dollar we are just among the very top spenders. With our poor 3rd quartile results, however, I would question that we are getting what we pay for. And while I agree we spend far too much on defense, especially retiree health benefits that haven't risen in cost to recipients in 15 years, at least we get what we pay for, our armed forces being universally recognized as the best in the world. I agree we should be honest about this. We spend too much, as you say, on defense-can we afford to pay for lifelong retirement for 38 year olds, or for 68,00 troops in Germany?-and we spend far too much on education considering the lousy results we have in national public education prior to the college level. We need to figure out ways to cut back and get as good or, in the case of education, better, with the same or less expenditure.
Vince Killoran | 7/28/2011 - 10:40am
Roy, you old existentialist-I'm glad to read of your fondness for Dostoevsky!

We need to start taking our responsibilities as citizens more seriously. More democracry, more public sphere & civil engagement; we've drifted to the privitized world of market populism with a veneer of "communitarianism" that has no real bite to it as it leaves capitialism free to wreck havoc on communities.

Debt? Sure, we have lots-some good (education, green technologies, public health) and some bad (huge defense spending & tax breaks). Lets me honest-and smart-about this.  Tom Paine argued that nations should carry sizeable debts as a sign that citizens are active and bulding a strong republic.

Josh DeCuir | 7/28/2011 - 9:58am
I am a moderate conservative who has never read Rand and will never read her.  I believe that the size and scope of our federal government, with its crushing amount of debt piled up, is a vital threat to the communitarian ties of our communities.  The federal government has encroached on housing, schools, and health care, among other areas, and has left all these areas of our life weakened.  Certainly the federal government has a vital role to play, but it cannot play that vital role if it tries to do all and everything; it is certainly hard to believe that the poor and vulnerable will be left better off by ignoring the spending spree of politicians of BOTH parties.  We must re-assess the role government has played and its impact on the common good.  My conservative critique of spending and debt is rooted, I believe, in my Catholic (and specifically Jesuit) education and spirituality. 

So, America, where is your plan for saving the poor and vulnerable from the dire effects of run away spending and piling debt?  You criticise but do not recommend.
Roy Campbell | 7/28/2011 - 8:56am
And just where should the nanny state mentality cease and desist, my friend?  With our dear leaders directing that we must buy health insurance (for our own good, of course!), that we must fund abortions and contraceptives against our beliefs, that we must bail out manipulative banks and financiers who have helped others to crush our econominc vitality, etc?  Where does the madness end?! 

I am reminded of my favorite author, Feodor Dostoevsky, and his famous story of the Grand Inquisitor:  the socialist-leaning sheep trade their awesome and divinely granted freedoms (spiritually, politically, economically, etc) for an assurance of a slice of bread.  Do you see any parallels to contemporary Western Civilizations? 

Indeed, one should not be a chump economically.  Instead, one should stand up for freedom of conscience - before our great nation devolves into a nation of Dostoevsky's sheep. 

Some would say that materialism already reigns here in America, that we ARE sheep, and that genuine spiritual life is becoming a distant memory in our land.  Heaven forbid! 

Heaven forbid that Dostoevsky's warning comes true in America - as it already has in many Western European nations!  PS  My family lived there for 7 years.  We've seen the resultant empty churches as people "eat, drink, and be merry" across the pond.  Where materialism reigns, there is little room for the spirit to thrive.

We are spiritual beings, not sheep.  Stand up for real freedom, my friend, instead of a demonically prideful progressive intellectualism (Dostoevsky's "Crystal Palace" in England!) that can attack the spirit so profoundly.
Vince Killoran | 7/27/2011 - 10:27pm
Bet on social security and not the stock market for your retirement Roy-it's more of a sure thing.

As for  a "return to the time-tested tenet of self-reliance in economic matters to the greatest degree possible," it's a myth-unless you are referring to the short, brutish life at the tender mercies of factory & mine owners who could fire you at will (especially after an industrial accident). We were supposed to have left that behind a long time ago. There's nothing manly in being a chump.

I think I'll stick with the "general welfare" clause since it actually is in the Constitution. Strict constructionists and original intent folks are engaging in bad history with little common sense.
Roy Campbell | 7/27/2011 - 9:54pm
Actually, Ed, it is probably best for future generations of Americans to return to the time-tested tenet of self-reliance in economic matters to the greatest degree possible.  I tell my 27 year old son not to count on Social Security, and my wife and I do not consider this program in our own retirement planning either.  Yes, we've paid into the system for decades, but we all know that there is really no lock box! 

I am not a Tea Party guy, but show me in the Constitution where it is up to Congress to manage and provide Medicare and Social Security payments, and please don't cite the "general welfare" clause nonsense.

Your vision for America is quite different than mine.  I'd like to see men be men once again - not the wimps that socialist European policies engender.
ed gleason | 7/27/2011 - 4:59pm
Roy Campbell says his grandfather refused unemployment for two years. Someone should have told your grandfather that his previous employer paid an unemployment tax just so money would be there for grandpa. I hope he didn't reject half his social security check because the employer kicked in half. jeeeze... please don't spread this 'story' to next generations.
Mary Sweeney | 7/27/2011 - 4:35pm
John Wooding, you have hit the nail on the head.
Benjamin Alexander | 7/27/2011 - 11:39am

"Having worked in government", "Having 'earned' a salary that depended upon coercing people out of their money and resources through taxes, because somehow that's more noble than the marketplace..."

Trudy Beckschi | 7/27/2011 - 10:13am
When all is said, where would the Roman Catholic Church be today without the generosity of ALL Americans? I dare challenge anyone, anywhere: Americans and America are the most generous. If that is Americanism at work then let us get down on our knees everyday and thank our Lord for our country. Amen!!!! 
Michael Appleton | 7/27/2011 - 10:03am
This is a truly outstanding editorial and one that ought to be read from every pulpit in America.  We are not the Church of Ayn Rand, but of Rerum Novarum. Well done!
Roy Campbell | 7/26/2011 - 7:37pm
No, Vince.  The authors didn't "hit a nerve" at all.  Some of us are simply trying to appeal to our well-intentioned but misguided brethren in the Faith (whom we love) in a thoughtful manner, fully recognizing that such efforts are often in vain.  Besides, how can any clear thinker object to the extraordinarily compelling remarks of Walter Mattingly.  Cheer up, Vince!
Vince Killoran | 7/26/2011 - 7:00pm
"[T]he church teaches that a society should be judged by how well it addresses the needs of its poor and vulnerable members."

I agree with the editors. Sorry Walter M. et al. but the USA comes way down on the list in terms of addressing poverty, militarism, environmental needs, health care, etc. (but Walter has a point-our leaders are better than Stalin). We can (and sometimes) much good; but the hubris of  "exceptionalism"  often blinds citizens and politicians alike.
C Walter Mattingly | 7/26/2011 - 5:15pm
The nerve America hit here is a reluctance of some here to countenance a descent from the freedoms and liberties American democracy and free market system produced into a government dominated, socialist-oriented mediocrity. Joe Stalin certainly recognized American exceptionalism and the free market that produced its strength and contributed to democratic freedoms, much to his chagrin, as it hampered his drive for world domination. That exceptionalism (excellence)  also helped save Germany twice, once from itself and again from the Soviet empire. It is the same excellence that enabled a generous George Bush to save 1.25 million Africans from death by aids, considered the greatest humanitarian act in modern African history, and indeed enabled the country to produce and develop most of the research and drugs that have assuaged this scourge. This is preferable to many to someone whose spiritual guru calls upon God to curse America, and whose political inspiration is a socialist guru such as Saul Alinsky, who dedicated his book to Lucifer, whom last I heard has met with Church disapproval. 
Vince Killoran | 7/26/2011 - 3:00pm
Thank you for reminding us how the twin pillars of American exceptionalism and free market ideology do not comport with Catholic social teaching. It's clear from the responses here that you've hit a nerve. 
NORMA NUNAG | 7/26/2011 - 2:50pm
Great editorial!  It is also good to remind ourselves that our individual talents are gifts given to us to be used for the common good! 
John Lyons | 7/26/2011 - 2:29pm

Dear editors of America: which political party has had a monopoly of power for 50 years over a major US City like, oh, say, Chicago or Detroit, Philadelphia or Washington DC - all of which also have a major Catholic presence and yet astonishingly, have also always had a huge underclass of generational poverty?

One would think from the tone of the editorial and the axiomatic assumptions of many commentators with respect to which political party "loves the poor" and which actually helps the poor cease being poor.... that the above cities are Republican bastions in dire need of a Democratic party take over.

In reality of course, the Democratic Party has had a monopoly on political power, in alliance on the local, social level with all the religious orders and Archdioceses of our Church who are run by folk who would be flattered with the descriptive "progressive" and yet.... the captive population is still poor!

How is that possible? All the smartest, most morally upright folk in the world, working together in the most intelligent and cool political party on earth, applying all the best policy preferences and the best bureaucracies money can buy.... have what to show for their 40+ years of efforts?

High crime, failing schools, broken families, crumbling infrastructure, racially segregated neighborhoods.... and yet these are the people who tell us that we're the racists? These are the people standing in judgment of our home schools, of our ideas of government and who claim they alone are 'for the future"?

William Atkinson | 7/26/2011 - 2:29pm
While studing Abrahamic theology to include Jewish, Christian and Muslim religions, and not being heavily influenced by European/Greek/American cultures it appears that Catholic emphasis (and eventually American political influence) is heavily bent on individuality rather than on family and community.  It wasn't always that way, but catholic magisteriums notably direction toward individual clerical and celibate lifestyle has influenced, especially Roman Catholic culture to place primary incidence of relationship on individualizm rather than on family and community,  As we venture into 21st century and looking forward to many future centuries, the Roman church's lead and direction by individualism will forever negate the God given word and message of primary importance of Fathers, Mothers, children and neuclear family as the rock of Gods community and leaders of social governance.  Roman Catholic Church needs to reverse itself and put its primary leadership in hands of family structure and community culture and eventually devoid itself of un-natural life style like found in its current leadership and heavy emphasis on individualizm and culture of single person priority over that of family and community.   
ROBERT NUNZ MR | 7/26/2011 - 1:10pm
Having worked in government, one knows quite well that there are times it is inefficient, as also provtization of government ervices.
The assertion that gocvernmen tservices kep people in poverty is a canard, a favorite in these days when the left/right tension is over government size..
The bottom line here (as far as Catholic teaching goesm as far as I  can  see) is the comon good and preferential option for the poor.
IMO Mf. Alexander's post smacks more of Ryan/Rand than the Gospel  on the issue of responsibility.
Benjamin Alexander | 7/26/2011 - 10:44am
So frustrating reading this stuff on this website sometimes. Yes, some of us believe in the inherent inefficiences of government, and that doesn't make us anti-Catholic. These are empirical claims well-supported by public choice and Austrian economics. These aren't myths, these are realities supported by evidence. They are also responsive to the fact that increasing government roles in society correlates positively with keeping people in poverty, something that some people love to do (it keeps a voting bloc in chains!).

But you know, that's apparently against Catholic dogma? Learning from experience?  

I'm with America mag when they think we need to treat gay people better, etc. and be willing to understand feminist insights into theology. Fine. But the anti-market pablum that passes as theological thought on this page is exploitative and manipulative.

Also, personal responsibility and freedom in politics doesn't mean one doesn't have moral responsibilities to society or to others. It means that the moral role falls on individuals with their own time and talents, not coercively on others with their time and talents.
C Walter Mattingly | 7/26/2011 - 9:02am
America is right to suggest that some Catholics, and many Congressmen, are committed to an ideology. America (the country, not the magazine) itself is founded on an ideology, and it is refreshing to some of us that we have elected officials who explain to us their principles largely in accord with founding principles and then when elected do what they said they were going to do, in this case, cut spending and hold the line on taxes. Compare that with the current political opportunist holding the highest office who says he will limit himself to public financing of his campaign, until he realizes he can get the bucks and buy the office for himself, that he will put the subject of health care before the American people on Cspan and not ram through a package put together behind closed doors, then seeing he has both houses reneges on his committment and does exactly what he committed not to do; who sanctimoniously condemns others for scaring terrorist kingpins with waterboarding to save innocent American lives, then sanctions a bullet through the head of an unarmed and non-resistive terrorist kingpin captive, etc. Even should you disagree with the conservative position on the debt, it is encouraging to some of us to have representatives true to their word to counteract this man who confuses his own constituency, which hasn't fully realized that what primarily drives him is his reading of the polls and what will get him votes, not the agenda of their ideology. Witness his turn on support of gay marriage. He waited until it was becoming a net vote positive for him, then had an epiphany that his position had "evolved" and he suddenly supported it. 
America goes on to state that Rep Ryan has been influenced by the idea of individual responsibility represented by Ayn Rand. That is correct, and that perspective has its roots in the bible (man shall earn his bread, etc) and in America from the early colonists on, when John Smith, faced with starving colonists willing to be supported by others, who declared that those who didn't work 6 hrs a day would not get food. Suddenly, work started getting done and the starvation was warded off. And Jefferson, with his "aristocracy of merit," not birth, etc. But what America failed to note was that  Ryan's plan was tempered to further help  the ill and the poor with more resources devoted to them than the healthy and more prosperous.  We should perhaps here also note that conservatives as a group are more generous to the poor in personal donations of everything from money to blood donations (See Bleeding Heart Tightwads, 12/08, NY Times) than the decidedly less generous liberal democratic contingent. This should surprise no one, as conservatives generally believe in  the individual's responsibility to help the less fortunate as part of the ideology of "some Catholics" whom America here impugns. 
America also seems to confuse the "coarsening" of attitudes toward many of the chronically unemployed in the US with this groups' dismay in the destruction of the African American family by misguided dole programs documented by the liberal democrat Patrick Moynihan years ago. Now we have a majority of black children with no father at home, rampant obesity (not limited to this population), and, as Moynihan pointed out, a family social structure greatly impaired. This "coursening" is simply a recognition of what tends to work and what doesn't. Opposing this phenomenon is a moral "coarsening?" 
Thus far, we have had two budget proposals submitted, one by President Obama back in February, which was a green light to further fiscal devastation on the order he had previously created, which was defeated in the democratically controlled Senate 97-0, with not a single democrat foolish enough to support it, and a balanced budget amendment, passed in the house but defeated in the senate, 51-46. And the president complains about the House concessions to raise the debt limt he receives to cover his trillions in deficits mainly because it has real spending cuts which his party will not countenance. Perhaps the most insightful response is simply to point out what Senator Barack Obama said when he was asked to raise the deficit for the previous administration:
"The fact that we are here today to debate raising America's debt limit is a sign of leadership failure. It is a sign the US government can't pay its bills." It was true then; it is so much more true now. Only this time, unlike Senator Obama's refusal to compromise and raise the deby limit, Congress is offering the concession of supporting raising the limit, tied to a path to change this destructive course.
A question for our editors here. Could America more fully engage the different approaches to moving the country forward? For example, does America believe that Catholic education has value? Is America in favor of or opposed to vouchers to extend the benefits of parochial school education that have so well served parochial school attendees President Obama and Justices Sotomayor and Thomas to the inner city poor? Amazingly in a Catholic magazine, I haven't seen this addressed. If I missed it, my apologies. Also, since the evidence indicates those conservatives who agree with Moynihan about the damage welfare transfers create in our inner city communities are as a group not personally less, but rather more, charitably generous than their liberal counterparts, isn't it past due time for America to engage the real question: what is the best way to utilize limited resources to help all Americans?  Its reportage of the Jesuit New York high school experiment, Christo Rey, was a wonderful small step in that direction.
GUY DI-SPIGNO | 7/26/2011 - 1:30am
Roy Campbell has said it nicely.  What is interesting is to listen to the Jesuit and Catholic left blindly support the DNC and unions while Jesuit institutions and other Catholic Universities seek exemptions to collective bargining and union recognition for institutions they run.  One can only agree with the NLRB ruling that some of the Universities are too secular to claim the religious exemption keeping them union free. 
Tom Maher | 7/26/2011 - 12:07am

The theme of alienation to American culture repeats itself again in this editorial.   America magazine once again is extremely negative and condemning of American culture.

America magazine's alienation against  America, American culture and American institutions fails to give its editorials an updated appreciation, awareness and insight on the  many unique stengths and blessings  of American society and culture.   The cultural stregths of American society often provide powerful means of addressing American the social  problems but are unknown to the editors of America magazine.   The reader is not well served by the anti-American and counter-culture bend.

The "new Americanism" demonstrates the editors' bad judgement of insulting the audience by attempting to make "Americanism" something bad.  Where exactly do the editors come from that insulting America shows good acceptable form?  Where does this insularity come from?  How exclusive is the company the editors keep that they do not suspect the basic flaw of their insult to the audience?  Not everyone belongs to the same rarified sub-group of Catholics.  Your alienated sentiments are not shared by most Catholics.

Roy Campbell | 7/25/2011 - 11:03pm
Your editorial writer is quite wrong to ascribe a "peculiar American premise that the poor are generally better off left to their own devices, lest their dignity be degraded by paternalism—a high-sounding slogan that can be used to abdicate collective responsibility." 

My grandfather refused to accept government unemployment benefits to feed his large family for over two years - not due to the sin of pride, but due to his concern for simple human dignity for his family.  Ultimately, he found work, and the family prospered.

Yes, he DID accept gifts from his Protestant brethren from the Church, and THIS is where charity begins - with a human, neighborly, Christian connection - NOT with a faceless government bureaucracy.  I am not a particularly wealthy man, but I am moved to compassion for the long-term unemployed in our parish currently, so I do for them what others did for my grandfather many decades ago.  Such is simply one's Christian duty.

When government spends other people's money to care for the forgotten in society, this seems to be a good thing, but far better is for the government to enact policies and create conditions for fuller employment in the private sector.  Sure, consciences of the greedy (whether richer or poorer) are assuaged somewhat by observing a social safety net protecting the destitute poor - especially the young and the elderly. 

Nonetheless, let the wealthy limousine liberals donate their OWN time and money, and their claims of concern for the poor, the destitute children and elderly, and the homeless will have actual credibility.  Until the wealthy "do-gooders" spend substantial portions of their own money to help the poor, I will continue to regard their protestations of concern for the poor with abject sadness. 

Bottom line:  Collective responsibility for the poor is a practical necessity today (since the Church has largely abdicated its Christian duty to faceless government bureaucrats), and faceless government paternalism does indeed degrade human dignity

I surmise that on the Great Judgment Day, our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ will not ask whether I supported indirect aid to His people by paying more taxes.  (Clearly, I have little to no control over how tax dollars are spent.)  No, He will ask what I did directly to "spread the wealth" on a free and voluntary and selfless basis.

TM Lutas | 7/25/2011 - 8:49pm
I was unaware that the Catholic Church had much to say definitively about the comparative efficiency rates of government action v private action to solve problems. I would expect the Church to get behind what works best to feed the poor, heal the sick, and all the rest of Catholic teaching and to do it with discernment, something that is a bit lacking in this editorial. It is a false solidarity that wastes scarce resources on an inefficient method of charity.

Old style mediating structures that are inefficient such as monopoly unions also deserve little support. The shameful spectacle of Wisconsin teacher unions shortchanging actual education by forcing school districts to buy inflated insurance from the union should make any Catholic's blood boil. When school districts were freed to seek insurance elsewhere, the premiums suddenly came down to market rates. A legal structure that inflates the cost of fulfilling our duty to social justice by protecting this sort of highway robbery is no true expression of solidarity.

Every bit of economic friction that could be eliminated but isn't wastes money that a well formed conscience would put towards fulfilling Catholic teaching. There is both a need to create those well formed consciences and a need to reduce friction so that we can actually solve problems with the scarce resources we have at hand. Overall, this editorial has not been helpful.
James Axtell | 7/25/2011 - 7:31pm
Couldn't have said it better myself!  An excellent editorial summary, America!
ed gleason | 7/25/2011 - 7:18pm
If there is a default because of no vote on debt limit, and I think this default will happen, the greedy, the well off will be the first to suffer. The  Market drops, DOW by 50% and interest payments will rise and Treasuries will be worth less. The poor have no market, no treasuries and no interest payments. They will be slow getting SS checks but landlords will have to wait as eviction will take months. The landlord knows checks will be there next month.  By then the "rich' on Wall Street will have choked the know-nothing TP/GOP Representatives to death.
A debt limit will be revised to 2013. The 2012 campaign will be all about letting the BUSH tax cuts to be automatically  rescinded as this is now the law, and defense cuts to get the control of indebtedness plus some other adjustments. The people will vote on whatever plan seems best. Obama 2-1 favorite.    
JOHN DAY | 7/25/2011 - 5:33pm

Stuart Bintner | 7/25/2011 - 5:16pm
I view the editors' comments as being very much on target, especially the quote about many being "culturally Calvinist." I would not have guessed that Ryan is Catholic, given his positions almost anything to do with the economy.
Virginia Edman | 7/25/2011 - 4:14pm
I sat down to write a comment on this article, with which I agree wholeheartedly, only to find that John Wooding has written it for me.  I live in Toronto, a long way from Las Vegas, but the same message is preached and taught here.  Personal monality and the homosexual being in the wrong in all things.  Fortunately we have Development and Peace, which is all about social justice, but that is under attack for working with NGO's that do not have the same views on abortion.  When will social justice and caring for the poor be preached from the pulpit?

I was not aware that Ann Rand was behind the conservative movement in America, but that may explain why the Tea Party people have Obama over a barrel, because they cannot betray their pledge for no-tax increases.  Their pledge to the people of the United States is overlooked, and we will all suffer, rich and poor, because of this idiology.  It is not Christianity.
Robert Killoren | 7/25/2011 - 3:52pm
I think it would be helpful if those participating in the conversation would quit speaking from their partisan political points of view. That gets us nowhere really and the airwaves and Internet are filled with diametrically opposed points of view, as if whoever shouts loudest and most often will win. Some have offered their thoughts about Catholic Social Teaching, but I'm not sure we are all reading from the same expression of doctrine. The official teachings of the Catholic Church are summarized in the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, issued by the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace. This document is available on the web at for free. It relies on literally hundreds of primary documents written about and commenting on the Church's social teachings. There are two extremes in the way modern society views The Common Good. Totalitarianism (in the Communist sense) and extreme individualism (in the sense of unbridled capitalism). America as a whole does not fall into either of these camps, and neither do either of its main political parties. Republicans and Democrats are both rather centrist in their approach, but in an attempt to win elections the two parties have emphasized their differences rather than their common ground. For some reason they believe that unless voters are hotile to the opposition they won't go out and vote. But that's politics. Pope John Paul II said that Catholic Social Teaching is not a Third Way in opposition to these two ideologies. Rather, he said, it is a theology not an idiology. What the Church attempts to provide in its teaching is a framework of critical principles to be used in informing political discourse and policy development (William Rehg). As such it stands outside of the political arguments and absolutely does not take sides in partisan political battles. Rather the Church weighs in by reminding politicians and the public about what needs to be protected. In regards to the matters being discussed here (national debt, budget balancing, and safety nets) basic human rights must be protected: respect for persons (totally prolife), personal flourishing (be all that you can be), and societal integration (governments and cultural norms). Thus, for instance, the Bishops weighed in on the health care debate warning that the individual right to life should not be threatened. But at the same time they promoted affordable, quality health care for all individuals, including so called illegals. On other issues the Catholic Church supports the right to private property but also says that this right is not absolute but must be governed by the fact that goods are meant for everyone. In terms of subsidiarity it is a social injustice and grave evil to assign to greater or higher associations what lesser and subordinant organizations can do. Centralized government should not wrest self determination from local government. And by the same token even local government should not take away decisions that are proper to the family. So the Compendium says, The principle of subsidiarity is opposed to certain forms of centralization, bureaucratization, welfare assistance, and to the unjustified and excessive presence of the State in public mechanisms. But the church also stresses the principle of solidarity and the promotion of the common good. There are things that subsidiary organizations cannot address, these a centralized government should and must assume. In fact, the Church believes the State must guarantee the coherency, unity and organization of civil society in order that the common good can be attained with the help of every citizen. This means the State needs to have a sound legal system, must protect the environment, and provide essential services to all, some of which the Church calls basic human rights: food, housing, work, education, access to culture, transportation, basic health care, freedom of communication, and protection of religious freedom. Catholic Social Teaching must be taken as a whole, not sliced and diced for the convenience of political debate.  
Melody Evans | 7/25/2011 - 2:57pm

Hear! Hear! Well written opinion piece. I couldn't agree more.

In response to Mr. Joseph Boyle... The electorate that you refer to IS a community of neighbors, just a larger one. :)
John Wooding | 7/25/2011 - 2:52pm
I totally agree with the main thrust of this article. But, as a Catholic-educated (through grade and high school) boy growing up on the Great Southside of Chicago, it appeared to me that no parish priest ever talked about "social responsibility". 

Now, as a very mature (80) person, I still don't hear anything along these lines in the homilies in our very large Las Vegas parish (St. Elizabeth Seton), with over 12,000 registered families. When will the clear moral message of shared responsibility ever be heard in our parishes? The stress is generally on our individual morality, with no connection to the very real problems of economic injustice, endemic poverty, ignorance, unjust war, inadequate medical care, and other issues that directly affect us and our neighbors every day of the year. Where is the leadership of the Catholic Church? It is "missing in action".

There ARE dedicated and involved people, both lay and religious, that we've all met throughout our lives...God bless them. But..there is no initiative from the Church's leadership except to condemn abortion and same-sex marriage. Unfortunately, I feel this will continue to be the case for many years to come. 
John Wooding | 7/25/2011 - 2:51pm
I totally agree with the main thrust of this article. But, as a Catholic-educated (through grade and high school) boy growing up on the Great Southside of Chicago, it appeared to me that no parish priest ever talked about "social responsibility". 

Now, as a very mature (80) person, I still don't hear anything along these lines in the homilies in our very large Las Vegas parish (St. Elizabeth Seton), with over 12,000 registered families. When will the clear moral message of shared responsibility ever be heard in our parishes? The stress is generally on our individual morality, with no connection to the very real problems of economic injustice, endemic poverty, ignorance, unjust war, inadequate medical care, and other issues that directly affect us and our neighbors every day of the year. Where is the leadership of the Catholic Church? It is "missing in action".

There ARE dedicated and involved people, both lay and religious, that we've all met throughout our lives...God bless them. But..there is no initiative from the Church's leadership except to condemn abortion and same-sex marriage. Unfortunately, I feel this will continue to be the case for many years to come. 
James Collins | 7/25/2011 - 2:02pm
Your focus is entirely on the distribution of the resources which are available at this time. Of greater importance is the economic policy and it's ability to grow the economy and get it roaring again as it has been in the past. That will mean more for helping the poor than arguing about the allocation of scarce resources from a poor economy. Obama's socialist policies have resulted in the longest and worst recovery from a recession since the thirties.

You further disregard the very inefficient and corrupt spending of those dollars that are currently allocated. Join the effort to eliminate poor programs and take the fraud and iinefficiencies out of the rest.

You also call for subsidarity in the design and executions of programs for the poor. No one associated with the Catholic Church can urge that with a straight face. The church completely ignores subsidarity in its administratiion. It operates in an autocratic way (witness the new missal to be rolled out this fall) and completely disregards the call for collegiality from Vatican II.
Eric Bergerud | 7/25/2011 - 1:38pm
Why does it surprise anyone that Catholics who take Church teachings seriously are turning to the right politically? They have been completely and royally stuffed by the Democrats for a generation on every social issue of importance especially measures intended to restore respect for the lives of the unborn and old. I've never voted Republican in my life, but after watching Obama, Pelosi and company embrace without qualification the cruelty of 21st century secular humanism, I won't be supporting Democrats again unless they change their ways. And they won't. Sure the libertarian right is using the socially concerned voters. But the new lot of conservatives, even if I don't like their politics, are actually doing something to protect the unborn at the state level. If it's a choice between thieves and murderers, I'll take the thieves.

It doesn't have to be this way. The Democrats have chucked social issues like gun control and affirmative action under the bus because they were political liabilities. If they had a brain they'd do the same with abortion. Might point out that the New Deal was based on what are now called "Red States" because the issues dealt with economic justice and not social engineering. And if you've noticed, in the land where individualism is king, the left may scorn Ayn Rand in print (so does "First Things") but when they talk about revenue "enhancement" it is tax the rich but leave alone the poverty stricken families pulling in $200,000 a year - people who were serious beneficiaries of the Bush tax cuts. Wake up: everyone is a Republican in "greed is good" America.

Ironically the most socially responsible entity on the planet is still Mother Church. She wants to protect the weak, the poor and the ill. She just doesn't want to add in infanticide, promiscuity, sexual confusion and a host of other goodies that have hammered the family in the last fifty years. And, no offense, the good people at "America" have done nothing but harm to the maybe the last great hope for a humane capitalism.

Eric Bergerud
Maria Brunello | 7/25/2011 - 12:46pm

We should distinguish between Washington DC and society. Washington DC is the seat of a power structure, whereas society is the whole of human interactions. Compared to its revenues, DC does very little to help the poor or the disadvantaged  - as an earlier America article pointed out, the real total military budget of USA is close to a trillion dollars. My tax dollar works to hasten the death of Afghanis! Therefore, I feel morally obliged to lower my tax burden. Donating to Caritas, therefore, is a great satisfaction: more money for the poor and less for the Pentagon.

Ultimately, government is a power structure controlled by elites. Elites that have little regard for morality, who don't know the poor, and use the structure to their own ends. History teaches us that the more removed a power structure is, the more it is self serving. And, ultimately, destined to collapse.

While I don't agree with Paul Ryan's embrace of objectivism, I distinguish between egoism and individualism. Surely, a society will be judged by how it taught and guided the more fortunate members to treat its most disadvantaged. But God won't judge me by the society I lived in, but by which society I choose to work towards. He will judge me as an individual, not as a member. 

I work towards smaller, local, governments. A government that responds not to the electorate, but to the whole community of neighbors. Because a city government is large enough to spread risk amongst its members. It's large enough to cast a safety net. While still being accountable to individuals. 
I work towards an economic system that creates wealth, lots of wealth, because it is wealthier societies that can afford to take care of the poor, or the environment. Jesus pointed out, the poor are the most generous. But a wealthier poor is more effective at helping than an destitute poor!
I work towards a society where an individuals right to secrets is paramount, not the government's. 
I work towards a society whose rules are made from moral principals, not myopic pragmatism to appease the whims of a two year electoral cycle. Because morality is real pragmatism.  

Therefore, I applaud the GOPs attempts to block the budget. Because in their delirium, they might chip away at the centralized fortress they help build. In their frenzy to slash spending, the pentagon might get cut. In their populist attempts to appease the current antiwar sentiment, they might erode the President's ability to wage war. In their greed to clench the 2012 election, they might redeem our freedom. 

Hank LaBore | 7/25/2011 - 12:32pm
Interesting insights about the American dream. You have touched on the eternal battle in American politics. There is no one party that both espouses the concerns of the vulnerable and the common good. Republicans tend to be prolife and pro-growth and rationalize the common good as more of a freedom of opportunity to succeed for all. Democrats on the other hand tend to be more socialistic and want to share the resources of the more fortunate with the lack of resources of the less fortunate, with one glaring exception...that of the unborn. They are more concerned about the rights and fair treatment of the common good of us all....except the unborn.
Both parties hold to a form of exclusivism. The Republicans tend to exclude social programs for the poor, elderly, and disadvantaged while the Democrats tend to exclude the business sector and the unborn. Hence the idea of a common good can not be fully embraced by either party. 
Maybe a third party that includes a meek socialistic agenda for the poor, vulnerable, unborn, and the a pro-growth business sector in its plank might be needed? There are very few pro-socialist Republicans in the political arena. And probably even fewer pro-life Democrats. If each party were more inclusive of these views maybe the common good of us all would be more balanced. We can only hope!
Mike Evans | 7/25/2011 - 12:08pm
Concern for the poor and helpless is not a tenet reserved to the DNC as inferred above. It is an ethic widely embraced by almost all religious peoples - our first obligation to God is love our neighbor as ourself. The true disciple does not count the cost, instead gives his/her all to bringing about the kingdom of God in every way possible. That would seem to imply that if we wished, we could sit down together and resolve our problems, help one another and, together, achieve a new prosperity without abandoning the young, old, infirm and unemployed. From our prosperity we could even lay down our destructive arms and lift up the rest of the world. I think that's what the gospel suggests. It certainly resonates with our Catholic social teaching.
Robert Killoren | 7/25/2011 - 11:51am
Thank you for giving voice to what I have been sensing all through the recent partisan politics over the debt ceiling. Selfishness runs rampant in Washington. This past Sunday's Gospel about finding a treasure in the field called us to think about what is most important in our lives. If it is not Love, then we must ask if we are truly following Christ. Jesus calls us to self-sacrifice even if it leads to persecution, suffering, and death. A television reporter was commenting to Sgt Leroy Petry who recently received the Congressional Medal of Honor on how much he admired Sgt Petry for his courage to risk his life for his country. Sgt Petry said that he didn't do it for his country - he did it for his men. He responded from the gut level immediately and without thought to rescue his men even if it likely would mean that he would die. This is the true love Jesus was thinking about at the Last Supper. This is my commandment: love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one's life for one's friends (John 15:12-13). Sgt Leroy's Americanism was about sacrifice, not selfishness. He is the true ideal of an American, a real hero. Ayn Rand would probably consider him a fool.
GUY DI-SPIGNO | 7/25/2011 - 11:33am
It is good to remind Catholics that their committment is to something more universial than any national govornment.  However, it also seems appropriate to remind the Jesuit editorial staff that thier committment to social justice and Catholic teaching is broader than blind support to the DNC and committment to constant attacks on any and all Republicans. 
Since even the bi partisian CBO project medicare, medicade and other programs running out if money if nothing is done, your support of class warfare does not help.
It would also seem consistent to be more concerned with the outcome of an educational system that is hampered by teacher unions which your editorial staff seems to blindly support despite their lack concern for students education. 
But that would require objectivity that would offend your superiors at the DNC.
Trudy Beckschi | 7/25/2011 - 11:30am
We conservative American Catholics are making solid contributions both publicly and privately. Representative Ryan represents a vocal component that clearly points to the "moral hazard" of diminishing a society that has been generous abroad as well as at home. There are some basic economics that compel us to preserve the "golden goose". That is the true social justice.


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