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Phil Haslanger: Nuns challenge Ryan’s budget, theology

By Phil Haslanger on July 10, 2012
© The Cap Times

You probably have not been in too many groups singing “Subsidiarity Forever.” It’s hardly a catchy protest song.

But it is a song you can imagine coming out of Rep. Paul Ryan’s office these days as the Wisconsin Republican tries to push back against that busload of Catholic nuns who traveled from Iowa to Washington, D.C., to challenge the idea that his plans for the nation’s budget are somehow consistent with the rich vein of Catholic theology on social justice.

The problem is, he has altered the lyrics a bit from mainstream Catholic social teaching, which is organized around the ideas of “solidarity” – standing with the poor — and “subsidiarity” – helping others as locally as possible without making them dependent.

That’s a more subtle theological distinction than you hear in the usual debates over the federal budget. But it was acted out in highly visual ways by the group of “Nuns on the Bus,” who offered quite a different view of how to balance those two concepts than the view offered by Ryan.

Ryan is proud of his Catholic heritage and has eloquently defended his federal budget plan as consistent with his understanding of Catholic teaching. Bishops and theologians have disagreed sharply with his interpretation of what he likes to call “the magisterium” – the official teaching of the church reflected in encyclicals and letters from popes.

That all has a pretty dry ring to it, however. What the nuns did is join the debate in a much more vivid way. When they stopped at Ryan’s Janesville office June 19, they made their case to his aides in policy terms. But outside, Sr. Simone Campbell talked about the imperative of being in solidarity with the poor and those exploited in the workplace.

She also talked about visiting a food pantry the day before in Dubuque, Iowa, which was a model of that concept of subsidiarity – government funds for food enabled local nuns to help feed those living on the economic edge. The people closest to the situation are helping people cross the bridge from poverty to self-sufficiency, but they are doing it with the help of the broader society.

That was a scene repeated over and over as the nuns traveled through nine states, stopping a place in each city where local folks were working in solidarity with the vulnerable and making the case to elected officials that the problems of joblessness and poverty and hunger are too big for even the vast number of religious organizations to handle alone.

David Beckmann is president of Bread for the World, a Christian organization. He calculated that under the cuts in food aid in the Ryan budget that the House adopted, every one of the 335,000 religious congregations in the U.S. will have to raise an additional $50,000 every year for the next 10 years to feed people cut off because of that budget.

In an interview earlier this year, Ryan said, “I think we have lost our way as a country, because, in treating symptoms, we have pursued solidarity but abused subsidiarity.” He said that the nation needs to revitalize those institutions that exist between citizens and their government.

The nuns were highlighting that those institutions are already stretched to the limit. And theology teacher Gerald Beyer of St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia wrote last month in the Jesuit magazine America that “Catholic social teaching posits that larger entities, including governments, have a responsibility to assist individuals and communities when they cannot effectively solve their own problems.”

The nuns wish Ryan would recognize that aspect of what he likes to call the “magisterium” of his faith – or at least stop claiming that his budget reflects the deep traditions of Catholic social teaching.

If he did, maybe they could even sing “Solidarity Forever” together.

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