Are Politicians Obligated to Show Preference for the Poor?


Yes.  Catholic social teaching is rife with instructions to show preference for the needs of the disadvantaged and poor. Of course, that’s what Jesus did.

So it’s good for us to be critical of our politicians (especially the Catholic ones) in their public policy. They are morally obligated to do and support certain things. However, too often people twist Catholic social teaching for their own political or ideological abuse and justification.

This has been done recently to demagogue any politician who is trying to make cuts to federal spending (a moral thing to do). And opponents take a particular cut out of context and accuse somebody of not “preferencing” the poor in the process. Such accusers are often either victims or players in a political game.

Even if we were to cut a trillion dollars right now (far more than any plausible plan being debated right now) from our $3.5 Trillion dollar budget in 2010, we’d still be spending more money than we have (so it would still be irresponsible spending). And we’d only be going back to a budget like we had in 2005 (6 years ago!). And did that budget show preference for the poor? Let’s take a look:

It spent ~$2.4 trillion dollars total. Let’s remove the interest on the debt, general gov function and protection (~10%). Out of what remains, about 74% was spent on the poor, elderly, retired gov workers, sick and the disadvantaged. The rest was spent on defense (which also preferences the poor who are among the most defenseless). Of course the other side of the budget coin is revenue (taxation). In 2005, the poorest 50% of Americans paid almost zero income taxes. The top 1% paid about 33%.

There is no way anyone in clear conscience and right mind can argue that such policy does not “preference the needs of the poor” and the disadvantaged. And this is with budget cuts far greater than those being proposed today. So don’t fall for the political propaganda that cutting spending right now (or even cutting taxes) is not reconcilable with Catholic social teaching. You shouldn’t analyze a spending cut out of context (the way the media like to). You must do so within the context of the overall budget and scenario.

It’s like if a man gave 1.1 million dollars last year to the poor, and then this year he only gave 1.0 million, and then saying that he’s not “preferencing the needs of the poor.” Should the headlines read, “Man takes $100,000 from the poor”? Or should it read, “Man continues to be generous and preferential to the poor”? We can debate how preferential we should be or where such a preference begins to diminish other rights and other moral considerations or obligations. But to say it isn’t “preferential to the poor” or any other such nonsense is simply not true.

Additionally, what is best for the poor and disadvantaged is far more complicated than simply how much money or free stuff we hand out to them. And we have to be careful not to isolate one particular aspect of Catholic social teaching from the rest of it. It must all be weighed together while recognizing that some parts of it weigh more than others.

Politicians also have a moral obligation to protect us (including and especially the poor) from other dangers and to preserve our other natural rights – such as the rights of all human life, respect for private property (and therefore freedom from excessive taxation), a stable currency (i.e. not over-spending), subsidiarity and the dangers of excessive government and many others. We must account for all of it in our public policy. Many seem to conveniently forget this when the temptation of political opportunism wields it’s ugly head.

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Joe Jordan May 17, 2011 at 6:07 pm

Good comments Matt. It’s also interesting that so many of those currently criticizing responsible budget cuts as anti-Catholic and anti-poor, are also the same people pushing for expanding public funding of abortion and fighting tooth and nail to keep funding Planned Parenthood, the largest provider of abortions and that specifically targets the poor and minorities with their “services”. Thanks for helping shed some light on these issues.

Matthew Warner May 17, 2011 at 6:14 pm

Agreed, joe! There are a lot of well-meaning Catholics and other Christians out there who fall prey to these incomplete arguments based on “Catholic social teaching” that are just being abused for partisan political games.

And then, as you mentioned, there are some who just disingenuously hide behind them in order to justify or support their own political agendas or personal ideology.

Paul Adams May 17, 2011 at 6:44 pm

Curious how many of those who object to the Church’s intervention in the public sphere in any way at all nevertheless make an exception for the preference for the poor, as they understand it in narrowly political terms. They interpret Catholic social teaching as requiring support for a particular program of government spending. They simply assume, ignoring all evidence to the contrary, that such spending actually helps the poor and does so more than alternative policies.

The Church tells us that she does not claim authority or wish to intervene in this area of lay responsibility and prudential judgment in which faithful Catholics can and do disagree. But in this one instance the liberal and dissident critics of hierarchy and authority in the Church cry, “No, tell us how to vote!”

And please, can we eschew the unfortunate practice evident in the academics’ rude and patronizing letter to Rep. John Boehner, of using “preference” as a verb. Ugh!

Matthew Warner May 17, 2011 at 7:04 pm

Paul – ha! Thanks for the comments. I may or may not have been using preference as a verb to indirectly reference said academics. But I was getting annoyed with it, too. So I changed it. Thanks!

Daniel May 17, 2011 at 6:54 pm

This sounds almost like a libertarian perspective on government.

Matthew Warner May 17, 2011 at 7:03 pm

Not at all, Daniel! Far from it. It’s the Catholic perspective on it. All of those considerations (and others) in that final paragraph must be considered. Check out some of those links to the Catechism.

Daniel May 17, 2011 at 7:14 pm

I checked out those links, but I actually wasn’t being negative with my comment. It seems to me that the libertarianism would be a perspective that we as Catholics would like. Does the Catholic Church disapprove of libertarians/ the libertarian ideas?

Matthew Warner May 17, 2011 at 7:23 pm

Oh, ha. Well I apologize for misunderstanding. I think it depends on the kind of libertarianism you are referring to. An extreme libertarianism (there are different strains of it) sheds all responsibility of the government to promote the common good and virtue and leaves it to each individual. The Church, however, recognizes that the State should play a roll on some level to promote goodness and truth. To promote the family, marriage and the dignity of the human person, etc.

But it also depends on if you are speaking of a libertarian approach to “federal” government vs lower levels of government, etc. I would take more of a libertarian approach personally when it comes to the federal government (as a matter of maintaining subsidiarity). And I think that would be very much in line with Catholic teaching. Most of these functions that the Church teaches are a responsibility of government could be more effectively promoted and handled at the state or local government level – NOT the federal level.

Those are my thoughts anyway. What do you think?

Daniel May 17, 2011 at 7:42 pm

I think that your thoughts (especially on government being more effectively handled on a state or local level) sound exactly like what an ideal libertarian government would be, and it is very close to the libertarian party platform. The libertarian party recognizes (and emphasizes) the importance of government to maintain human rights. What you described as “extreme libertarianism” sounds more like anarchy, which is never a good thing. But this isn’t a politics blog, so I’m going to stop pontificating (and sounding like I’m pushing a political agenda).
I personally feel that libertarianism is a good idea. It reminds us that we have responsibility to help the poor. And so long as the Church doesn’t condemn it, I’m going to stick to my “Libertarian for Life” political ideologies. But you probably shouldn’t give my comments the greatest weight. I’ve just recently been Confirmed, so I don’t know as much as you about the Church OR Politics.
Nonetheless, moderate libertarianism is an interesting political system that could work, and I encourage all your blog readers to take a look at it. And sorry for all massive tangent.

Matthew Warner May 17, 2011 at 11:30 pm

Daniel – it’s not a massive tangent at all. And I appreciate it. Political discussions are welcome here (it’s a topic I’ve covered quite a bit in the past) and it’s definitely appropriate for this post especially.

I’m fairly libertarian leaning when it comes to most issues. you might like a post I wrote awhile back on Ron Paul’s book End The Fed.

Thanks for the comments!

Paul Adams May 17, 2011 at 7:04 pm

I did not mean to suggest that no government programs intended to help the poor actually do help them. It was that the question of whether or not they do so 1) ought to be examined and debated on its merits; 2) cannot be inferred from the intention to help; and 3) is beyond the competence, claimed or actual, of the Church.

Matthew Warner May 17, 2011 at 7:14 pm

I think the key point Paul hits on in his comment above is that Church teaching in regard to the appropriate level of federal gov spending on the poor and taxation of the rich, etc. is not definitive. There is room for Catholics in good conscience to disagree as to the best approach to accomplish the same ends. So it is entirely inappropriate and a bit malicious to call into question a politician’s adherence to their faith on these grounds (as 75 professors recently did to Speaker Boehner).

Many compare this to, for example, a politician supporting abortion. But there is no comparison, as church teaching on issues like abortion is definitive (Church teaching on gov over-spending is not). But many would like to obfuscate the issues and use a kind of apparent moral equivalency to justify their partisan actions.

Paul, Just This Guy, You Know? May 17, 2011 at 7:02 pm

A preference for the poor shouldn’t translate into a preference for poverty. The best thing for poor people is to employ them in useful, well-compensated work, and that’s best done in the private sector in a healthy free-market economy.

Judy May 17, 2011 at 8:34 pm

Excellent article, Mr. Fallible! Clear and succinct. I wish it had a larger audience : )

Judy May 17, 2011 at 8:39 pm

It was rather telling when these “Catholic” professors wrote disparaging letters about the speaker, when as far as I know, they were silent when then speaker Nancy Pelosi made comments about being a practicing Catholic, then said she had studied this thoroughly, and the Church does not know when life begins, quoting something from shortly after Jesus’ death. There were others, but I tend to want to forget what she says…. that particular one was memorable. Oh, yes, the “Word” speech; that was a dozy : )

Robert Rust July 18, 2011 at 4:59 pm

I think about this topic quite a bit.

I spend some of my time, some of my treasure, and some of my talents to help the poor directly. Yet, I do object to many (not all) of the government programs intending to do the same thing.

Jesus did encourage people to give to the poor. Yet, he did not encourage people to take from others for the sake of the poor.

I can’t remember where this is in the Gospel, but there was a time when a rich man asked Jesus what he needed to do to get into heaven. Jesus answered by saying that he needed to sell everything and give the money to the poor. That would have been a great time for Jesus to instruct his followers to take the man’s money and distribute it to the needy. The man’s eternal salvation was on the line here!

I think it’s obvious that when we take from some – and give to others – there really is no giving taking place at all. But, when we make the choice to give that which we earned – it seems more in line with the teachings of Jesus.

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