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On Budgets and Bishops

The Protestant Bishops’ statement issued last week in opposition to the GOP’s budget proposal gets one thing very much right. The federal budget is a moral document.

There are a variety of lenses by which one can view something as fundamental as fiscal policy and the federal budget. Evangelical and conservative Catholic pro-life activists will lament that Planned Parenthood continues to receive federal subsidies. Macro economists will calculate the wealth multiplier of the G in Y = C+I+G+ (X-M). Lobbyists for defense contractors and public sector unions will toast their unnoticed victories. Liberal Protestant and progressive Catholic bishops will publish letters marshalling Gospel arguments against the GOP. Certainly one thing is clear: the moral and the material are grubby bedfellows in the budget battle of 2011.

A thing that is less clear, at least to me, is the presumption that any one partisan faction can enlist the Gospel in defense of its position. I can accept for the sake of argument, as the bishops state: “as bishops compelled by the Gospel to give voice to those who suffer at the margins of society, we speak not as policy experts or politicians, but as disciples of Jesus and faithful citizens.” As figures of spiritual authority, the bishops can as ordained clergy proclaim the Gospel “once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3), or they can speak as faithful citizens who are neither policy experts nor politicians on behalf of their private opinions about a given policy. If they speak as private citizens, then I am entitled to debate their policy preferences about the budget, given that I am equally a “faithful citizen” of the United States. My faith in Christ does not factor in nor can be called into question. As private citizens, the bishops’ status as ministers of the Gospel and their conception of what that may entail is equally as valid as the SEIU representative who lobbied for government pension concessions on behalf of the SEIU. As private citizens, everyone’s moral perspective is as valid as everyone else’s.

The bishops cannot claim any special authority when debating policy in the public square of our secular republic. As evangelists of the Gospel, one would expect to hear the bishops speak authoritatively of salvation by faith in Christ, our freedom by Christ’s death from the curse of the law, or the hope of the resurrection. But of course, that’s not what we heard from the bishops. In the spiritual kingdom of the church, the bishops do have a special ministerial authority that I am not entitled to “debate” as if I was ordained or had taken vows of holy orders. But the bishops’ statement could have been written by any PAC. I have equal standing with the bishops as a citizen in the City of Man, but in the City of God (to use St. Augustine’s phrase), perhaps I don’t.

Here is the point: One wonders what the “faith once delivered” has to do with the annual sausage making that is the earthly politics of the federal budget in the City of Man. Ironically, even as the bishops deny policy expertise, they claim to be “compelled by the Gospel” to comment on the inner workings of fiscal policy, social welfare politics, and federal appropriations. This is a conflation of their spiritual mandate and earthly power politics.

My response is: either the bishops get to claim the moral authority of the Gospel—and thereby limit their official statements to what the Good News is all about, God’s revelation to mankind in the person of Jesus Christ—or they don’t. If they are not proclaiming the Gospel of salvation in Christ, they can speak as private citizens with no more Gospel authority than a defense contractor.