Pastor's Page
By Fr. George Welzbacher
June 12, 2011


Words fail me. I was simply overwhelmed by the presence of so many of my friends at the 11 o'clock Mass last Sunday and at the reception that followed. Your kindness to an elderly pastor whose "machinery" is visibly breaking down and whose sixty years of service offer more than a little upon which a harsh critic could justly "pounce" gives evidence of your Christ-like charity. All that I can do is to say "Thank you, thank you, thank you! May God bless you a hundredfold! And please keep me in your prayers!"

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A few weeks ago, you may recall, I cited figures from the British journal The Economist to illustrate what THREE TRILLION DOLLARS IN CASH COULD BUY-like, for example, close to the entire global production of oil for a year. The sum of THREE trillion dollars was chosen as a base for computation because China's CURRENT CASH RESERVES happen to have reached that awesome level. I also pointed out that with OUR NATIONAL DEBT hovering for the moment at close to FOURTEEN AND A HALF TRILLION dollars, and straining at the leash to expand, our INDEBTEDNESS is nearly FIVE TIMES THE SIZE of China's present CASH RESERVES. As our government continues wildly and irresponsibly to spend on average some FOUR BILLION DOLLARS of borrowed money EVERY SINGLE DAY (all of which American taxpayers are supposed to repay with interest), a SIGNIFICANT REDUCTION IN OUR NATIONAL GOVERNMENT'S SPENDING HABITS IS THE ONLY SOLUTION if we are not to face in the relatively near future a TOTAL ECONOMIC COLLAPSE.

Inevitably at the mention of cuts in spending the wagons of various vested interests start closing the circle to defend what they hold dear. Among such vested interests are the ideological zealots who maintain that the fundamental and urgent Christian dictate of helping the poor in accord with one's resources somehow translates into an all but exclusive support for the infusion of federal funds into programs professing to help the poor, with attendant suspension of critical judgment as to whether all of those programs are actually achieving what they purport to achieve, and with the question left entirely aside as to whether certain structural elements in these programs are in fact making matters worse.

A thoughtful weighing of the MORAL aspects of this whole question, written by Jennifer A. Marshall of the Heritage Foundation, appeared in the May 31st edition of the St. Paul Pioneer Press. May I share it with you here.      

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How to Reconcile Public Budgets - and Their Multiple Moral Concerns
Jennifer A. Marshall
St. Paul Pioneer Press

"Budgets are moral documents." So religious voices, rightly, have reminded us in recent months. Now, Catholic and Protestant leaders have launched an initiative called "Circle of Protection" to make federal antipoverty spending untouchable in the ongoing conversation about how to save future generations of Americans from crushing debt.

"As Christians, we believe the moral measure of the debate is how the most poor and vulnerable people fare," argues a statement on Circle of Protection's website. "Funding  focused on reducing poverty should not be cut."

Protecting the status quo, however, isn't in the best interest of the poor. Americans spend a trillion dollars a year on more than 70 federal antipoverty programs, double what we spent in the late 1990s. Meanwhile, the poverty rate has remained largely unchanged since 1970, and intergenerational dependence on government welfare is common.

The measure of our compassion for the poor should not be how much we spend on federal antipoverty programs. Compassion must be effective. We ought to define success by how many escape dependence on welfare to pursue their full potential as human beings. To measure our commitment to the poor by the number of dollars spent on antipoverty programs is to diminish human dignity.

Why should we flatten poverty to a merely material problem? Why should we delegate our personal responsibility for the poor to impersonal government programs?

In reality, we know that poverty in America goes far deeper than lack of material resources. Research shows poverty is linked strongly to the ABSENCE OF A FATHER in the home. Single mothers head more than 70% of the nation's poor households with children The poverty rate for these households would drop by roughly two-thirds IF the mother MARRIED the father. Tacking with this kind of poverty is much more complicated than simply designating yet more federal tax dollars.

Budgets are indeed moral documents. But they are morally complex documents. As in so many areas of life, more than one principal is at stake. In solving the budget crisis, we need to account for serving the poor. Yet we also have to account for our overall stewardship of resources, commitment to the next generation, protection of national security and respect for the proper roles of family, civil society and various levels of government.

These and other principles were highlighted in an exchange [of letters] between Rep. Paul Ryan, chairman of the House Budget Committee and chief architect of a spending plan to salvage our fiscal future, and Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Protectors of the status quo, including some Catholic leaders, have targeted Ryan, himself a professing Catholic. In an April letter to Archbishop Dolan, the Wisconsin congressman explained that his intention in the budget resolution was to better serve ALL Americans, especially the needy.

"Nothing but hardship and pain can result from putting off the issue of the coming debt crisis, as many who unreasonably oppose this budget seem willing to do," Ryan wrote. Those who represent the people, including myself, have a moral obligation, implicit in the Church's social teaching, to address difficult basic problems BEFORE they explode into social crisis." If the nation's leaders do not solve the budget crisis, Ryan wrote, the poor and vulnerable would be the HARDEST hit.

In response, Archbishop Dolan thanked Ryan for his attention to the wide set of values in Catholic teaching: fiscal responsibility; the role of the family; human dignity; concern for the poor and vulnerable; and subsidiarity, the idea that higher levels of authority should respect those closer to the situation to exercise proper care.

As to how these principles should be implemented, "people of good will might offer and emphasize various policy proposals," Archbishop Dolan acknowledged. "The principles of Catholic social teaching contain truths that need to be applied."

Over the past half century, America has relied on one application of the poverty-fighting principle: redistributing resources through the welfare state to overcome material hardship. This may have raised the material standard of living for the poor, but it hasn't  raised the standard of true human flourishing. And that approach has put us on an unsustainable path of runaway spending, leaving leaders such as Paul Ryan with a serious stewardship challenge. It's time for a new approach to serve the needy.

The good news? Americans can reconcile these multiple moral concerns in the budget debate, as shown by Paul Ryan's plan and others-including the Heritage Foundation's "Saving the American Dream" proposal. Getting serious about our moral responsibility to future generations should make us more earnest about better serving the poor. Let's secure the safety net for those truly in need, and make sure it doesn't entangle people in government dependence. [Emphasis added].

Jennifer A. Marshall is director of the DeVos Center for Religion and Civil Society at The Heritage foundation and author of Now and Not Yet, Making Sense of Single Life in the Twenty-First Century. Write to her care of The Heritage Foundation, 214 Massachusetts Ave. NE. Washington D.C. 20002.

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