Catholics against Boehner

Several dozen professors at Catholic colleges have written a blistering letter to Rep. John Boehner, the Republican Speaker of the House, in advance of his commencement address at Catholic University on Saturday. The New York Times‘ Laurie Goodstein highlighted the letter and compared it to the outcry over Notre Dame University’s invitation to President Barack Obama last year.

The letter asserts that Boehner’s record is among “the worst” in Congress and he’s failed to uphold basic Catholic moral teachings:

The letter writers criticize Mr. Boehner’s support for a budget that cut financing for Medicare, Medicaid and the Women, Infants and Children nutrition program, while granting tax cuts to the wealthy and corporations. They call such policies “anti-life,” a particularly biting reference because the phrase is usually applied to politicians and others who support the right to abortion.

It’s worth noting that the story doesn’t mention how much more important it is for Catholics to assent to the Church’s teaching on abortion — which is always wrong according to the church — versus other social issues. Even opposition to the death penalty, for instance, doesn’t hold that stature as a teaching since the church does concede exceptions. When you’re getting down to whether a particular federal program should be expanded or trimmed, it’s not in the same ball park, right?

The closest the story comes to noting this discrepancy isn’t very close. We learn:

As for the issues the professors raised in their letter, [Catholic University spokesman Victor] Nakas said, “There are diverse viewpoints on these questions not only within our university but also within the Catholic community.”

But what does that mean? To be a Catholic in good standing you must assent to the church’s teaching on the sanctity of human life (which, as I said, goes unmentioned in this story). But do you have to have a particular stance on the size and scope of the federal budget? How particular? Are you not a Catholic in good standing if you support a more fiscally responsible federal government with less bloated entitlement programs? I doubt it. The article does mention — as does the letter — that the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops recently issued a letter expressing concerns about budget cuts in programs that aid the poor.

So the story does a good job of sharing the concerns of the letter-signers. The article quotes a Boehner spokesman responding that the commencement address won’t be political in any case. Then this:

The choice of graduation speakers at Catholic universities has grown more fraught in recent years. The bishops advised that Catholic universities should not honor Catholics who had publicly disagreed with church teachings. But the resulting controversies so far have mostly been about more liberal-leaning Catholics who have taken positions in favor of access to abortion or gay rights, in opposition to the church.

Not quite. Obama’s invitation to speak at Notre Dame was opposed not because he’s a Catholic who publicly disagreed with church teachings. He’s not. Rather, as the Bishops put it in 2004:

The Catholic community and Catholic institutions should not honor those who act in defiance of our fundamental moral principles. They should not be given awards, honors or platforms which would suggest support for their actions.

And on that note, I definitely understand why the Times story is framed as it is. I’d probably have chosen the same framing. But it’s worth pointing out that this Boehner scenario really is different from the Obama kerfuffle because in this case the letter signers aren’t mad at Catholic U. for inviting Boehner. They’re simply exploiting an opportunity to call on a coreligionist to adopt a shared understanding of church teaching on budgets.

And that leads me to the biggest question this story raised, that wasn’t answered. Namely, did this same group of professors (or some subset of same) send a similar letter to previous Speaker Nancy Pelosi? Now I don’t know if Catholic social teaching takes a particular stance on, say, the importance of quality education for poor D.C. kids any more than it does on the proper size of Medicaid. But assuming it does, I’m wondering what this group said to her about her role in the termination of the D.C. voucher program.

Or, considering how much vastly more important the abortion issue is when it comes to teaching that Catholics must assent to, what did this group say to her about her strenuous support for abortion rights? I’m assuming that they did, but it’s not mentioned. And if they didn’t, the story should really point that out as partisanship. It’s just a bizarre piece of information to fail to mention. Particularly since I’m pretty sure Nancy Pelosi isn’t just a coreligionist but an alumna of Catholic.

In any case, this is an interesting story and it’s nice to see the concerns of these letter-signers highlighted in such a major publication. We just need some more details.

Image via Wikimedia Commons.

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  • Dave

    I totally disagree that the paper should have made a diversion into abortion issues. That’s not what the Bishops were talking about this time, and what they were talking about is the story (following which is not a failure to get religion).

  • Mollie


    Too late for avoiding a diversion into abortion issues! That was the whole angle of the piece — that this was like when people flipped out over honoring an abortion rights supporter.

  • Mollie

    Also, failing to mention the value the church places on assenting to its teaching on abortion over other issues is not a failure to get religion? Come again?

  • sallyr

    I agree that this article fails to take into account certain important distinctions in the way Catholic teaching works. The easiest way to explain it is there are certain “exceptionless moral norms” or things that are “inherently evil”. There aren’t many of these, but they are important. They would include directly intended abortion, adultery, murder, torture. Such things can never, under any circumstances be justified, no matter how good the intentions be or how much good you think could be accomplished by engaging in such conduct. Those who disagree – by justifying any of these practices – are violating Church teaching.

    The other kinds of social justice matters you mention (care for the poor, the provision of education, the environment, and other social goods) are all very important, but there is no set of principles that govern exactly how we should pursue those goods. For instance, it’s arguable that cutting taxes will lead to more jobs and will benefit the poor, and it’s arguable that raising taxes to directly provide material support to the poor will be better. There’s no way to know which of the two is actually better – it’s a matter of prudence how best to pursue good education, care for the poor, etc., etc. So long as one is trying to pursue these goods and properly balance them, one is not “violating Church teaching,” even if one comes to different conclusions about how to best pursue them.

    These professors obviously know this distinction, and are trying to conflate issues that invovle two different set of Catholic social justice principles.

    I’m not sure whether journalists can be expected to understand the distinction between “exceptionless moral norms” and social goods that can be pursued in many equally valid ways. Particularly when Catholic “experts” have an interest in blurring the distinction. The distinction informed almost all of our law and culture for a very long time, but recently it has been replaced by a kind of utilliatarianism to such a degree that many are unfamiliar with the concepts.

  • Dave G.

    Interesting. This is one of those stories where you first think, “That’s not the same.” Then you think, “Maybe it is the same.” Then you think, “Nah, it’s nowhere near the same.” Then you ask, “Why isn’t it the same?” I pretty much agree with what sallyr says. I can see where a policy decision that tries to keep with Catholic teaching that nonetheless results in outcomes not in keeping with Catholic teaching might be different than publicly supporting an outcome that is not in keeping with Catholic teaching, no matter what the policy.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    These supposedly erudite professors and the Ny Times need to study the words “prudential judgement.” For supposedly educated people that these words were apparently not even raised or debated or presented for discussion gives away that this “blistering” letter was merely a political hit job with the profs exploiting their positions in Catholic institutions.
    A good follow-up story by Ms. Goodstein would be to look into how much all these profs and their institutions get in grants or other forms of government largesse in the many diverse ways huge sums of federal money flow into academic coffers. I am sure, since they are so concerned with the poor, sick, and elderly they will support any move to transfer federal money destined for them or their schools to programs like Medicare and Medicaid. Or as some would put it: “They should voluntarily put some skin in the game” to have any credibility.

  • Harold

    Not quite. Obama’s invitation to speak at Notre Dame was opposed not because he’s a Catholic who publicly disagreed with church teachings.

    Which is what Goodstein explains in the very next paragraph.

    And if they didn’t, the story should really point that out as partisanship. It’s just a bizarre piece of information to fail to mention

    Really? I understand that’s the conservative media talking point of the day, but isn’t this just a parallel of the hypocrisy argument you abhor? Catholic thinkers can’t criticize on Catholic social justice grounds without also criticizing others for their abortion stands? There may be partisanship going on here, but I don’t think it’s necessarily the letter writers or the NYT

  • Mollie


    I’ll go slower here. Goodstein wrote “The bishops advised that Catholic universities should not honor Catholics who had publicly disagreed with church teachings.”

    That’s not true. They said that Catholic institutions shouldn’t honor anyone who acts “in defiance of our fundamental moral principles.”

    That she pointed out Obama was not Catholic in the next paragraph might compound the error but not correct it.

    As for the other claim, I haven’t seen any other media on this other than National Catholic Reporter but my own view is that hypocrisy is pretending to believe something you don’t, not failing to live up to one’s standards. As for whether they are failing to live up to their own standards of calling fellow believers to account for their departure from church teaching, I do not know. I assume that the group HAS called on others who fall short on even more important Catholic teaching.

    If they are picking out one individual over other similar individuals (like a previous Speaker, also a coreligionist, who definitely strayed from church teaching) that would be newsworthy. If they are being uniform, that’s also newsworthy.

  • Harold

    I’ll go slower here.

    No need to be snippy.

    The bishops did give that advice regarding Catholics who weren’t appropriately pro-life They also made the general warning about all speakers who weren’t appropriately pro-life. The article is correct.

    The people who are complaining aren’t an organized group or lobby. So this is likely the first time they’ve complained about a speaker coming to their own campus. What makes you think they are an organized effort akin to the Catholic pro-life movement or Bill Donohue’s outfit?

  • Dave

    Mollie, lack of nitty-gritty on GR’s favorite religious issues is not failure to get religion. It’s failure to write the same story over and over again.

  • Mollie


    Actually, the letter signers are by no means only from Catholic U.

  • zipping

    I’m sorry, but disagreeing about the best way to care for the poor is not “a departure from church teaching”. The fact that Church leaders have counselled that in _their prudential judgement_ the best way to help the poor is to raise taxes and give more material support to the poor does not mean that that one may not in good conscience disagree. That is what is meant by using “prudential judgment” about the best way to accomplish some desired outcome.

    Only if one said “I hate the poor” or “I am completely indifferent to the poor” and “I’m going to adopt a policy to intentionally or negligently hurt them” could one be violating church teaching about the poor.

    Perhaps these professors believe that lowering taxes is the same thing as saying “I hate the poor and want to lower taxes in order to hurt them.” But that would be a completely different story. I have never heard Boehner say any such thing, and I don’t think that such a construction is warranted by any other evidence.

  • Diana Ray

    Yahoo! Finally Church members stating the obvious: we have a moral obligation to care for the poor. It’s a no brainer. Cut money for war, candy, whatever, but the poor and then act to repeal healthcare for the poor? No way, no how unless you absolutely do NOT understand simple moral principles (which could be the case with lower thinking).

  • Diana Ray

    Now, if only someone would call out O’Reily and Hannity for continuing to hammer Obama and whatever night after night after night. I wish they would NEVER admit they are Catholic as it is embarassing! Hannity is the worst. He needs to review number 8: Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor. Terrible!

  • John M

    Props to Mollie for getting the female singular of “alumnus” correct.

    Sorry, pet peeve.


  • Larry

    Kudos to the Catholic professors for calling out Beohner and his support for a budget which would devastate working American, not just the poor. Much like Pope JP opposing our wars. It takes courage for religious leaders to point out the morality in politics and war. Understand that that Paul Ryan’s budget is straight out of Ayn Rand economics which preaches that there is no moral obligation to care others at all, much less the poor. Rand’s philosophy has no place for society to take care of the poor, disabled or challenged. Ayn Rand was a avowed atheist and very pro-abortion. Morality has no place in the economic debate for disciples of Ayn Rand.

    Its fair to say that Boehner and Ryan, a fanatical disciple of Ayn Rand, are pushing an immoral budget and I’m glad these Catholic professors have the courage to chime in the discussion. Any Christian should join these professors in calling out Beohner.

  • Ann

    The below link discusses Boehner and has a link to an ad that includes a Catholic group against Paul Ryan’s budget.

    “A similar scolding is now being meted out to Rep. Paul Ryan, who spearheaded that GOP budget. In a pro-life ad that will greet Ryan as he returns to Wisconsin this weekend for a congressional recess, Father Thomas Kelley of Elkhorn, Wisconsin, blasts Ryan for proposing a budget that “abandons pro-life values.”

    “I’m pro-life because God calls us to protect life at all stages,” Kelly says in the ad, which was paid for by a pair of Catholic and evangelical groups, before arguing that the proposed GOP federal budget offers no such protections.”