The National Catholic Review

If cynicism is the sin of our age, then ongoing paralysis in Washington is a huge occasion of sin and a temptation to despair. Washington is “de-moralized,” unable to launch its health care Web site, keep government functioning, enact budgets or pass immigration reform. Washington is “de-moralized” by a House faction that paralyzes their party and the nation with disdain for compromise and for government itself. They did not repeal “Obamacare” but did divert attention from the administration’s failure to get its Web site working and state disputes over Medicaid and health insurance exchanges (and an unwise battle over mandates and religious freedom). We also learned that the House gym is “essential” and that providing nutrition to newborns is not.

Washington has lost its way, cutting food stamps for the hungry and continuing subsidies to agricultural interests, cutting essential investments but not tax loopholes. As John Paul II warned us, we are losing “the ability to make decisions aimed at the common good,” examining “demands not in accordance with criteria of justice and morality, but rather on the basis of the electoral or financial power of the groups promoting them.” Washington is driven by two kinds of excessive individualism: lifestyle individualism, which makes “choice” the ultimate criteria, and economic individualism, which makes the market the measure of all of life.

Much has been on display in Washington, but something important is missing. There was no call for sacrifice for the common good, for the poor and vulnerable or for future generations. “Sacrifice” doesn’t poll well or raise campaign funds, and Washington runs on polls and political money. But we should consider modest sacrifices in three areas.

Growing inequality and persistent poverty. Increasingly, our economy distributes benefits upward and burdens downward. Gaps between rich and poor are growing, and ladders of opportunity are disappearing. Economic pressures and family factors are leaving many children behind. The younger you are in the United States, the more likely you are to be poor. Yet the U.S. government spends seven times more on the elderly than on children, with more going for the health care and retirement of the elderly, regardless of financial situation. In family life, parents sacrifice for their children; in national life, this is reversed.

The cost of war. The burdens of war are increasingly borne by fewer and fewer Americans. The all-volunteer military and failure to actually pay for wars have left many indifferent toward the costs of combat in Iraq and Afghanistan. My only sacrifice in the war on terror is more time at airport security. Others pay a profoundly higher price, including sacrifice of their lives. Many bear wounds, physical and psychological, that will last all their lives. Washington sends other people’s children to fight our wars and asks nothing from the rest of us.

Environment. Addressing climate change and environmental threats requires prudence and sacrifice for the common good. The longer we delay, the greater the environmental and human impact will be in future generations. Those who contribute least to the problems will be hurt most and have the least capacity to respond. Washington ignores future threats, but the costs— financial, environmental and moral— grow with time and neglect.

Washington’s de-moralization should yield to honest debate and courageous decisions about sacrifices to protect the lives and dignity of our children and grandchildren. We should recall the inaugural challenge of President John F. Kennedy, struck down 50 years ago: “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.” Religious voices should lead the way. Sacrifice for others and priority for the poor may be politically incorrect, but they are religious obligations. Pope Francis has set a standard: “The measure of the greatness of a society is found in the way it treats those most in need, those who have nothing apart from their poverty.” Francis also reminds us: “Politics...is one of the highest forms of charity, because it serves the common good.... We all have to give something.” Good advice for a de-moralized Washington.

John Carr is America’s Washington correspondent and director of the Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life at Georgetown University. He previously served as director of the justice and peace department at the U.S. Bishops’ Conference.

Comments

Matthew McCarthy | 11/18/2013 - 7:53pm

I know it isn't popular here, but I want to say a couple of things. I don't find pretending to care about the poor inspiring. I find helping the poor inspiring - which is different. I don't think you help the poor by telling them that a life of government dependency is what they should strive for. I don't think that crony captitalism through a misguided regulatory state is helping the poor. And I don't find complaining to the electrician about faulty plumbing inspiring. Americans would like to be inspired to do things for the common good, but can see that the actions coming out of DC are not working, and aren't really even designed to work. They have the same kind of blind, misguided attitude that comes through in parts of this column.

"Washington is “de-moralized” by a House faction that paralyzes their party and the nation with disdain for compromise and for government itself." Why should the Republican party compromise on something they see as fundamentally wrong? Engagement is not going to fix what's is wrong with Obamacare in their opinion (and the opinion of a large portion of the country). The fundamental problem with it is that this (healthcare) is a plumbing problem (local) not an electrical problem (federal). It is a problem of private goods, not common goods. The only reason to make it federal is to increase crony capitalism - which never helps the poor. There are arguments that can be made that some problems need to be dealt with on the federal level, but folks from the left don't want to engage in them - they think they can just force everyone to agree with them. During the budget debates folks from the Democratic party were shocked that the people they didn't listen to and never had any respect for still don't agree with them. And now Democrats are shocked when the Republicans aren't helping them fix problems, when they laughed at the Republicans for pointing out these problems 3 years ago. You may be inspired by that sort of behavior, but I'm not.

There's a great idea out there about limiting the amount of SNAP money that can be used to by junk food. That helps the poor to make better choices on what food to buy - processed foods are often more expensive as well, but there are arguments both for and against this idea, and I'm not sure which ones I agree with more - and that's not my point. There is one argument against it that holds that if we should not limit the choices for the poor unless we are also going to limit the choices for everyone - that argument is not sound. It has taken a pretense at concern and turned it into a bid for control.

Catholic institutions have mocked Paul Ryan for noting that subsidiarity is part of Catholic social teaching - never even noticing that our country does not believe in subsidiarity at all - they don't believe there is any real difference between federal and local government. Theologians are worrying that we are not emphasizing solidarity enough, never noticing that as a society we have assumed solidarity and neglected subsidiarity - and flaunt their ignorance by thinking they are being "counter-cultural". No, Georgetown, that is not inspiring.

Anyway - sacrifice for others and a priority for the poor are only 'politically incorrect' in your world. If you thought of the people who don't agree with you as people, you would know that. Pretending dumb things will work when they didn't last time is what's not popular.

Christian McNamara | 11/19/2013 - 1:22pm

Hear hear! I agree with the author that "sacrifice for others and priority for the poor" are religious obligations, but why must those obligations be discharged in the form of government programs (particularly at the federal level)? Indeed, the word "sacrifice" to me implies a voluntary act, something which support for the poor through government programs most definitely is not.

There are undoubtedly areas in which the State is the appropriate vehicle for fulfilling these types of obligations. What bothers me is the failure of some on the Catholic Left to make the case for why the State is the appropriate vehicle in a given instance. Instead, they offer little more than "we have a religious obligation to support the poor. Government Program X is designed to help the poor. Therefore we must support Government Program X."

Christine Miller | 11/16/2013 - 2:40pm

The Catholic concept of solidarity with those around us, especially for the poor and others who are at the margins of society provides the basis for a discussion regarding the ACA that I haven't seen raised up in much of the national dialog on health care. All of us who are eligible to obtain our health care through the ACA are needed to enroll in the insurance program to create a viable user pool. The dilemma is that many of the young, and especially of the young and healthy are apparently not involved in this discussion to date. We need to frame the purchase of insurance as an act of solidarity with those for whom this represents a once in a life-time opportunity to obtain the sort of coverage that most Americans have through their work. Those of us who are healthy need to support the floor of the program so that it can still be there if someone needs it.

Many lay people, especially young adults, are eager to "work out their faith" in their lives, but are uncertain as to which of many opportunities for service to give themselves to for developing their own ministry in life. While they are sorting out the ways in which they will represent themselves as believers, they can sign up for the ACA, and they can help others by helping to make the act viable--and besides, some of those who sign up for health insurance will end up needing the policy coverage themselves.

The language of solidarity speaks Catholics, and non-Catholics as well. It would seem a natural as a way to begin this phase of the search for the answer to "who is my neighbor" in need?

Pr Chris

Marie Rehbein | 11/8/2013 - 1:10pm

I completely agree, and, yes, sacrifice is out of fashion. However, given that Ayn Rand has been one of the influences for this, it should be noted that it is in everyone's interest to care for the children; well, everyone's except investors in for-profit prisons.

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