When a Catholic archbishop and a Republican state senator debate the moral issues of a state budget … of course it’s about socialism.

The Archbishop and the Senator

John Nienstedt, the Archbishop of Minneapolis and St. Paul, and State Senator David Hann (R) have been having a very public discussion about the pending Minnesota state budget and the cuts necessary to balance the budget. Both have made their correspondence public.

The Republicans are firmly against raising taxes on the rich, or anyone else for that matter. Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton (D) ran on “tax the rich.” He wants a combination of tax increases and spending cuts. The Republicans want only spending cuts. That is the summary background for this correspondence. Minnesota government will shut down July1, without an agreement.

The archbishop wrote to Gov. Dayton and asked that the cuts to balance the budget not disproportionately affect the poor. For those of you who wish that churches in general and the Catholic Church in particular would speak out about our collective responsibility to care for the poor, you will most probably be cheering for this letter. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) also sided with the archbishop. Nienstedt refers to the state budget as a moral document. (The full text of his letter is below.)

This letter did not sit well with Sen. Hann who wrote to the archbishop in an attempt to clarify the role of government in caring for the least among us. Senator Hann accused the archbishop of subscribing to “socialist fiction” and provided his arguments for the state not caring for the poor or taxing the rich to do so and in the process attempted to lecture the Archbishop on morality.

The two arguments for moral responsibility and where it lies are clearly delineated. The archbishop thinks caring for the least among us is everyone’s responsibility. The senator thinks poverty is a moral issue and should not be addressed by the redistribution of  wealth through government. Here are their letters:

From Archbishop Nienstedt

Dear Governor Dayton, I am writing to share with you my concerns regarding the current state budget situation that you are seeking to solve. I pray for you daily that you find the common ground that will protect the common good.

By “common good” I would include such considerations as: fulfilling the demands of justice and moral obligation to a future generation, protecting the lives and dignity of those who are poor and vulnerable as well as controlling future debt and deficits. I am particularly concerned that you will find a just framework for a budget that does not rely on disproportionate cuts in essential services for those living in poverty.

As Tim Marx, our new CEO of Catholic Charities in St. Paul and Minneapolis, and I discussed last week, increasing the depth and breadth of poverty is bad fiscal policy and bad economic policy. Ignoring our responsibilities for those most at risk will require more costs in services as well as result in reduced productivity. Our children, in particular, should be guaranteed the opportunity to begin life with a healthy start.

I want to assure you that our Catholic congregations and agencies like Catholic Charities have stepped up their efforts to meet the needs of those who are suffering under this current economic decline. However our work is a shared responsibility with government as we seek to protect the common good of all members of our society, especially families who struggle to live with dignity under the stress of these difficult times.

Let me conclude by encouraging you to put all of the tools that are at your disposal to work. Spending reductions, program delivery reform and increased revenue should all be on the table. It is important to remember that last year, state government funding got a significant boost from the federal stimulus package which enabled the state to assist the many in our society who are getting left behind.

A state budget is a moral document since a central measure of any budget proposal is how it affects the poorest among us. The needs of the hungry, the homeless, the unemployed and the disabled must be of primary importance. Thank you for your willingness to be of service to the State of Minnesota. Again, my prayers are with you.

Archbishop Nienstedt’s biography:

Bishop Nienstedt holds a Bachelor of Arts from Sacred Heart Major Seminary; a Bachelor of Sacred Theology from the Pontifical Gregorian University; and a Licentiate and Doctorate in Sacred Theology from the Pontifical Institute of Saint Alphonsus, Rome. His doctoral topic was “Human Life in a Test-tube; the Moral Dimension of In Vitro Fertilization and Embryo Transfer.”

From Senator Hann

Your Excellency, I received today via email from Governor Dayton’s office a copy of a letter you sent to him on June 7. Let me say first I have worked very closely in past years in the State Senate with the Archdiocese on education issues and have great respect for you, your work and the work the Archdiocese does.

However, I was extremely disappointed to learn you endorse the socialist fiction that it is a moral necessity to take the property of the “wealthy” under the assumption that those resources are better used by politicians and bureaucrats than by the individuals who earn them. You speak of hopes the Governor will create justice by adopting a budget that “does not rely on disproportionate cuts in essential services.” Although not said explicitly, I take your statement to mean the proposed legislative budget does that.

Perhaps you are unaware that the budget the legislature passed is the largest budget in Minnesota history. It spends slightly more than the current budget if the one-time federal dollars are included and almost $4 billion more if only Minnesota tax dollars are counted. The Health and Human Services portion of the budget spends about $800 million more than the current budget – an eight percent increase. The K-12 Education budget spends almost $500 million more than current levels.

I take offense at the description the legislative budget proposal as, “increasing the depth and breadth of poverty.” For you to do so is akin to me suggesting the Church favors abortion and same sex marriage because you support a Governor who has made these issues a central part of his “moral” calculus. Certainly we need to be charitable to the neediest among us. Are government programs charitable? Is a pathway to human dignity found in creating dependence on government and suggesting to people that their lives would be better but for the “greedy rich” not being willing to pay their fair share?

You may not know it but the top one percent of income earners in the state provide almost 25% of the total income tax revenue we spend; the top ten percent provide almost 60%. To suggest this group is not “paying their fair share” is simply inaccurate. The idea that more and more of government spending should be provided by fewer and fewer people is not “fair;” it is a recipe for political tyranny and economic disaster.

The Archdiocese has a budget. I am sure a large part of it goes to provide essential human services. I am also certain the demands for material sustenance exceed the resources available. Does the Archdiocese respond to that situation by accepting that all demands for help are just and by requiring, as a condition of communion, that those needs be provided for without question by the few wealthy members of the congregation? Yet this is what you suggest state government do.

If I may quote from a recent article in First Things (to which I have been a long time subscriber) written by Catholic theologian R.R. Reno, “A Christian who hopes to follow the teachings of Jesus needs to reckon with a singular fact about American poverty: Its deepest and most debilitating deficits are moral, not financial; the most serious deprivations are cultural, not economic.”

It would seem to me the Church has a large task in correcting the moral deficits of our citizens. Telling people they have a moral claim on someone else’s property is wrong and certainly doesn’t help in that work. What the legislature tried to do is what you, and every individual and organization in the state tries to do: Do the best we can with what we have.

David Hann’s biography:

Hann is a business process consultant. He was previously the Director of Forecasting and Logistics for E.A. Sween Company, also known as Deli Express, in Eden Prairie. He attended Lincoln High School in Bloomington, Minnesota, then served in the United States Army during the Vietnam War. He went on to Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minnesota, earning his B.A. in Religion, and took graduate studies in Theology at the University of Chicago. He was first elected to the State Senate in 2002.

Senator Hann on Minnesota Public Radio

Minnesota Public Radio’s Cathy Wurzer interviewed Sen. Hann:

Please listen carefully and the next time someone mentions public radio not doing real reporting and not asking the tough questions remember Cathy Wurzer.

Who should/will care for the least among us?

The question of who should care for the poor would seem to be as old as civilization as would the rich and privileged seeking to protect their assets and advantages. Senator Hann offers a clear argument against any kind of collective responsibility. It is a real insight into the mind of a person on the right:

Certainly we need to be charitable to the neediest among us. Are government programs charitable? Is a pathway to human dignity found in creating dependence on government and suggesting to people that their lives would be better but for the “greedy rich” not being willing to pay their fair share?

It is remarkable to me that Sen. Hann would even try to give the archbishop theological advice, but he did.

Although progressives might rightly applaud the archbishop for his stand on behalf of the poor, I doubt that any of us would be applauding his equally forceful stand against gay marriage (he has produced DVDs on this) or his stands on birth control or abortion.

In the audio clip, Sen. Hann says that although he disagrees with the Archbishop on who cares for the poor, he is sure they will be working together in the future on the constitutional amendment opposing gay marriage.

Really, after you accused him of subscribing to “socialist fiction” in writing. The phrase politics makes for strange bedfellows has never seemed more apt.

If Sen. Hann thinks he will be working with the Archbishop to defeat gay marriage, can the progressive community not also work with the Archbishop on the issue of protecting our most vulnerable citizens? Some discussion questions:

1. Should progressives cheer the archbishop for caring about “the least among us” while disagreeing with his stands on gay marriage and a woman’s right to choose?

2. What is the progressive response to Sen. Hann? (Remember the family friendly language as you answer this)

3. Is poverty a moral issue or a financial issue or both?

Henry II is quoted as saying of Thomas Becket, “Who will rid me of this turbulent priest?” Beckett was assassinated at Canterbury Cathedral shortly thereafter. The continuing pilgrimage to Canterbury and to the sight of the death of Saint Thomas Becket became the source of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. I sure hope someone is writing the Capitol Tales. We need a new set of tales to tell the stories of our times.