Bill Moyers
August 24, 2012
Catholics and the Budget

BILL MOYERS: Sister Simone, this trip thoroughly entwines you in faith and politics. And now you're engaged in a partisan battle over the Ryan budget. What does this activism do for your contemplative life, which I know is very much a part of who you are?

SR. SIMONE CAMPBELL: Well, it’s the, from my perspective, it's the fruit of my contemplative life. For me, the contemplative life is all about listening deeply to the movement of the spirit among us and to touch the heart of what might frighten me or touch the heart of where Jesus would go in the gospel. And so listening deeply to the needs of the world around us, we've got to be engaged politically in our nation.

BILL MOYERS: But does it make you uncomfortable? Do you feel vulnerable?

SR. SIMONE CAMPBELL: Oh, I feel scared, a number of times, yes. But the thing is when it comes from that deep inside space where you're listening to the gospel and listening to the spirit alive in our world, it just seems right. It just seems right.

BILL MOYERS: At the same time, you've been criticized by the conservative bishop of Paul Ryan's own diocese in Wisconsin, Bishop Robert Morlino of Madison. Here's a video.

RAYMOND ARROYO: Paul Ryan is a member of your dioceses. Your thoughts on this, is this an appropriate thing for a group of sisters to be engaged in?

MADISON BISHOP ROBERT MORLINO: Congressman Ryan has made his prudential judgment about how best to serve the long term needs of the poor. He has done that in accord with Catholic principles. I don’t have to approve his decision or his budget or anything else. What I do approve of is that he is a responsible Catholic layman, who understands his mission and carries it out very responsibly. I feel very strongly about that. The details of his solution are not mine to approve or disapprove, that’s not my field. So, I would think that the religious sisters though should concentrate on giving that witness of holiness of all the wonderful works that they do, rather than bussing around for political issues.

BILL MOYERS: Is it hard to be criticized by one of your bishops?

SR. SIMONE CAMPBELL: Well, I don't know what Bishop Morlino was thinking. I know Paul Ryan is being-- I mean, he keeps saying that it's according to his lights and how he understands faith. So I can affirm that. The problem is that our bishops firmly say that this budget's immoral. It fails the moral test. So there are some inconsistencies there. So I don't take the criticism as being, as, I don't know, as painful as it would be otherwise.

BILL MOYERS: And on the other hand, a parish priest in Bishop Morlino's diocese, who used to be the Ryan family's pastor says Ryan's austerity budget is inconsistent with Catholic teaching. So Robert, help us non-Catholics sort this out. What's this debate all about?

ROBERT ROYAL: How much time have I got? Well, look, one of the things we have to be clear about to begin with is how Catholics think about moral principles. There are certain moral principles that are absolutes. You can't commit murder. You can't commit adultery. You can't steal. These are things that apply to everybody in every circumstance, without exception.

When we step into the political realm, as we're doing in this particular case, things become very complicated. And I myself don't have a perfect answer for every bit of the problem that we face right now. There's some very big questions being put to us as a society.

We see on the one hand that a sister and her fellow sisters rightly show, we need to support the poor. These are people who are absolutely at the margins. And I agree entirely with that. Now the big question is always how best to do that.

BILL MOYERS: You mean financially. The fiscal cliff everybody's—

ROBERT ROYAL: Lead us off a fiscal cliff. So there are differences when we get into-- Bishop Morlino used the term "prudential judgments." Now it's one prudential judgment to say that we need a larger support system-- Medicaid or other support systems for the absolutely poor. But the prior question that has to be answered, when we think about social justice, is, "Is there going to be excess wealth to be distributed? Is there going to be a functioning system?" That's-- it seems to me, to be missing in much of what's talked about in certain Catholic circles, when you talk about social justice or the preferential option for the poor.

BILL MOYERS: Given that, would you have been theologically comfortable on that bus?

ROBERT ROYAL: Probably not. Probably not. Because my own work is, of course, different than what the nuns do. My own work is to think about larger questions about how religion and politics intersect. And I find that this is a country whose tradition and we have to respect the country that we're in.

If you lived in France or some other countries, they're quite used to centralized systems. We're not in the United States. Alexis De Tocqueville, the Frenchman who wrote the famous book “Democracy in America” came to the United States—

BILL MOYERS: 1830's.

ROBERT ROYAL: Right. And he was flabbergasted. And he said famously that in France where you see the state, in America you see a private association.

I myself, I mean, this is kind of a joke, but I don't hear Jesus go to Matthew the tax collector and say, "Matthew, you need to collect more taxes." He’s speaking to people individually. And it has to begin at that level, with obviously some governmental role in some of these issues.

BILL MOYERS: In the Bible, as you say, when Jesus speaks of helping the poor, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, taking in the sick, he says, "You do it." He doesn't say, "Go and ask Caesar or go and get the senate to pass taxes." And when Jesus looked at the rich man, whom the Bible tells us he loved, he said, "Go, sell what you own and give the money to the poor, and you shall have treasure in Heaven." It was to be a personal act of sacrifice. Do you see that point in what Robert is saying?

SR. SIMONE CAMPBELL: I think absolutely. And what we saw on the bus trip were personal acts of sacrifice. The problem is that we've got now, is that the problem is so huge, it is so far beyond individual charity. Additionally, we have the teaching within our church that Pope Benedict the XVI makes very clear that until we have justice, we can't have charity. And the idea that largesse alone, on the part of the extremely wealthy, will fix this problem is really wrong.

It has not happened over the last ten years, when the wealth gap in our nation has grown so dramatically. We also know from Catholic social teaching that the role of government is to positively balance out the excesses of any culture. Our current excess is this huge individualistic, "I've got mine, nobody else can have it" approach. And so we, in Catholic social teaching, Pope Benedict teaches in “Charity and Truth” that the role of government—

BILL MOYERS: “Charity and Truth” was the—

SR. SIMONE CAMPBELL: --is the encyclical, an encyclical. Is that the role of government then becomes to balance out excess. I would agree if people would generously give, if we didn't have the huge wealth gap. If we hadn't had years of millions of people in our country being without health care. If we hadn't have had all of this experience of the poor becoming poorer, that the minimum wage doesn't even get people out of poverty now. I would think, "Okay, just let the free market do it." It's failed. It's time we say it.



ROBERT ROYAL: Let me interrupt, though. You tend to put this in very black and white terms. That it's only this, or we need this. Let's just look at the history of the Catholic Church, to take that. And there are other Christian denominations, Jewish groups. The churches and other religious bodies in this country built the university system. They built schools. They built hospitals. They built elaborate cathedrals. All without any government subventions. Now we live in a different age than in those older days. But it's not impossible. I take it that the nuns on the bus also want to inspire people in the private sector to come together and to do things.

And let's not forget, there is no free lunch at the end of the day. That when something is paid for through a government program, it comes out of other people's pockets. And the question is not should it be-- there are certain things we're going to decide should be done and others we don't want to have be done. The question is whether that's the best way to do these things that must be done. I myself have gone out with my children, they hated this when they were younger, and stood outside of supermarkets and asked people to get food. And we were going to put it in a shopping cart and take it to a local soup kitchen. My kids hated it. But they remember it to this day. It would have been much easier for us just to take the dollars and, the equivalent dollar amount. But there's something about that personal commitment to other people that is very different than paying taxes or—

SR. SIMONE CAMPBELL: I totally agree.

ROBERT ROYAL: --going through a government program.

SR. SIMONE CAMPBELL: That's really an important piece that we need to do, totally, in our society. I agree. And most of those programs that we saw on the road, that's what they did. But what is difficult now is that the need is so huge.

There is such a huge need. Do you know, Bread for the World figured out that with the cuts in the Ryan budget that we've been talking about, just of food stamps alone, because Congressman Ryan says that churches can take care of it.

ROBERT ROYAL: I didn't say that. I'm saying that that's one of the elements.

SR. SIMONE CAMPBELL: Oh, it's one of-- okay, but this is what Congressman Ryan-- I'm not putting those-- I didn't mean to put those words in your mouth. But Congressman Ryan says, "Churches will take care of it." But Bread for the World, who specializes in—

BILL MOYERS: It's an organization that deals with hunger around the world.

SR. SIMONE CAMPBELL: Hunger. Domestic, as well as global. And they figured out that every synagogue, church, mosque, every single one of them, would have to raise $50,000 additional money every year, for ten years, in order to meet the amount of money that’s being cut from the food stamp program. And what we saw on the bus trip was that sisters take some federal money. We leverage it with private money. We leverage it with volunteers. We leverage it with corporate contributions. And we make effective programs. But it's the federal money is the cornerstone of making these programs work.

ROBERT ROYAL: I agree with Sister that this is a huge problem. We know from the current debates about the economy that something like half of the people in the United States currently receive federal checks of some sort. They get federal support of some kind. There's something wrong with this. It seems to me that the Catholic vision is not simply to counterbalance—


ROBERT ROYAL: --what is right or wrong in a given society. The Catholic vision says, initially, through the concept called "subsidiarity."

BILL MOYERS: Paul Ryan uses that word, by the way. What's the definition? A working definition?

ROBERT ROYAL: Well, look, subsidiarity is really a vision of the whole of society. But what it says is, in essence, the lowest level of a society that is capable, that can take care of a problem, should deal with it. So in the normal course of affairs, parents go out and earn a living, take care of their children, provide for their needs, education, et cetera.

Then you may have kind of-- neighborhood associations, churches, specific towns and cities. And you only kick the can, so to speak, up to the federal or even an international level, when there's no other body that can deal with the problem as it exists. Now unfortunately it seems to me that we look very quickly to the federal government, because we assume it's only the federal government that can take care of these things.

But there is something wrong when something like 70 percent of the taxes that get paid, get paid by the top 10 percent. So that's a pretty significant chunk from people who are so-called wealthy and not paying their fair share. And where we have half of the country that's paying no taxes at all. And yet, as sister rightly says, there's this massive problem that exists in the society.

I one of the things that a person of my general perspective would argue is that the ideal, the ideal that we begin by saying that there are responsibilities that our ideal is to try to make sure that those families are able to do things for themselves and then other communities, and only turn to the higher levels of government and turning to government is, of course, very dangerous. I mean, that this is a last resort. It's like going to war.

BILL MOYERS: Let me play for you Paul Ryan's response to a question about the policy implications of his own interpretation of Catholic social teaching. Here it is.

UNKNOWN SPEAKER: Talk to me a little bit about the morality, and the debt. Where does your Catholic faith play into the way this budget proposal was crafted?

PAUL RYAN: Well, a person’s faith is central to how they conduct themselves, in public and in private. So to me, using my Catholic faith, we call it the social magisterium, which is how do you apply the doctrine of your teaching into your everyday life as a lay person? To me, the principle of subsidiarity, which is really federalism, meaning government closest to the people governs best. Having a civil society of the principal of solidarity where we, through our civic organizations, through our churches, through our charities, through all of our different groups where we interact with people as a community, that's how we advance the common good. By not having big government crowd out civic society, but by having enough space in our communities so that we can interact with each other, and take care of people who are down and out in our communities. Those principles are very, very important, and the preferential option for the poor, which is one of the primary tenets of Catholic social teaching, means don't keep people poor, don't make people dependent on government so that they stay stuck at their station in life. Help people get out of poverty onto a life of independence.

BILL MOYERS: Is that very close to what you think?

ROBERT ROYAL: Well, I have qualifications about that. First of all, subsidiarity is not just about government. It's not federalism. He then went on to talk about civil society institutions. And that's, that's great. That is very much—and we should also talk about individuals, individual initiative, individual responsibility as you were pointing out is Jesus talking to you and saying, "You must do this thing." We have to take a dynamic view of economies. Because economics is a matter of dynamism. When we talk about the minimum wage, for example, I've debated this. I've tried to talk it through with economists. Economists, of course, disagree about everything. Either you need more stimulus or you need, you know, less. And—

BILL MOYERS: That's why you're here and not the economists.

ROBERT ROYAL: I have to tell you one thing. One of the things that I typically find that economists from different backgrounds agree on is that a minimum wage is a very touchy thing. Because yes, you've got a couple. And you look at them on TV. And you say, "Wow, man, they're just holding on by their fingernails." But suppose the minimum wage made that job go away? Which tends to happen in certain circumstances. Not always.


ROBERT ROYAL: And this is also another thing that has to be factored into the dynamic nature of what an economy is. So the circumstances that you're in may make it okay to raise the minimum wage. If the economy is booming, maybe it helps. But in other circumstances, you may actually find yourself with an unintended consequence that not only is that, that family just holding on with a minimum wage, it has no job any longer. And that might be the most tragic thing of all.

SR. SIMONE CAMPBELL: That's the scare tactic that's often used. I lobbied on minimum wage in California. And we ended up raising minimum wage. And what happened was the economy grew. Because the problem is if we believe in free market, then you shift money to get the economy going. You shift money to where there's pent-up demand. Where is there pent-up demand right now? It's at the bottom, not at the top.

BILL MOYERS: Doesn't Paul Ryan's budget try to fix the economic woes that we're in on the backs of the poor? The Bishops seem to be saying that--

ROBERT ROYAL: Bill, I think that that's really putting it rather strongly. I mean, if you look at Paul Ryan, does he look to you like the kind of guy who just says, "The heck with the poor. We need to get American going. We, you know, we're going to throw these people underneath the bus," excuse me sister, "and, damn the torpedoes. You know, we're going to go straight ahead and we're going to make--" I think that he knows and some of the positions they're-- anybody who's lived in Washington or dealt with these issues knows you may have to start out a little bit further along than you really want to be at, so that when you inevitably begin to walk some things back, you at least get on the table that there are some hard choices that have to be made. And what we're facing right now is unprecedented. I mean, I think we agree—

BILL MOYERS: In terms of?

ROBERT ROYAL: In terms of the size of the economic difficulty that we face. Maybe in the 1920’s and the 30’s during The Great Depression, something on a similar scale got going. But we're talking about the possibility-- and if Europe and the Euro start to go south on us-- the possibility of a global economic downturn, yet again. There are already countries in Europe that are in negative growth right now, several of them. Not only Greece, but Italy, Spain, and a couple of others. If that comes to the United States and we have no plan for what are we going to do if there are not revenues that are available for many of the things that we want to do, then we're even in worse trouble. And in-- we're in worse trouble from trying to support the poor as much as for the rest of the society.

SR. SIMONE CAMPBELL: I find myself very troubled by that. I share your concern about the financial circumstances. But I think that the analysis is sorely lacking. Because what has happened over the last 12 years has been-- we did have a surplus in our budget. And it could have been remedied. We had two tax cuts. Significant tax cuts that shifted money to the top. We then decided to go to war twice. We chose not to pay for them. We then did the TARP. That's true. It added to the rescue-- that added to some of the--

BILL MOYERS: The bailout.

SR. SIMONE CAMPBELL: The bailout. And we have an aging population. All of those facets are putting pressure on our current situation. None of those facets, though, that are putting pressure were because of social programs.

BILL MOYERS: Given the realities you both have described, why not support a living wage as opposed to these harsh austerity measures, which your bishops and others say will fall hardest on the people you visited this summer?

ROBERT ROYAL: But what is a living wage, Bill?

BILL MOYERS: Enough for a family to—

SR. SIMONE CAMPBELL: Even if we got the buying power that minimum wage had in the 1970’s, that would be significant. Because it would put people above the poverty level. I understand it would be something, like, maybe $12 an hour. Isn't that fair? But the pieces that gets argued is that it's a global economy. It's very integrated. So we can't have high wages.

But the piece that I find most problematic in that is when CEOs have had this tremendous escalation in their salaries. And the shareholders get these tremendous dividends. And yet none is shared with the workers at the bottom. That to me is wrong. That's immoral. It's a problem.

ROBERT ROYAL: You've overstated this. I mean, yes, it's a problem there's been this increase in income inequality, I agree entirely. And I think some of it is, frankly, obscene. But that it's not been shared with workers? Workers in the United States live better than the average worker ever before.


BILL MOYERS: But the wages of working people have been stagnant now for almost—

SR. SIMONE CAMPBELL: Thirty years.

BILL MOYERS: Yeah, well, it's up a little bit, but largely stagnant. That does seem to me to be a critical issue.

ROBERT ROYAL: But Bill, there are so many moving parts in an economy that, as I said, if you try-- what would a living wage be for a family of four? If you're talking about, you know, $20 an hour. I mean, is it $20, $25, is it $15? If we think that, that it's possible sort of from the top to specify what different parts of the economy can be, we're not-- we're not allowing the market to do what it does so brilliantly. And that is it allows people to, it allows people to make judgments that adjust certain things.

After all, not every person who's working is working for some large corporation that has a CEO who's making $300 million a year. Most jobs, and most new jobs that are created are in small businesses, as everybody knows. And this means businesses that are on the margins that maybe in their startup years are going to have to be austere, and they're inviting people to invest themselves, not only their time, in making these companies grow. And it can make all the difference between whether somebody has a better looking job five years down the line or not. I'm very skeptical. And I think one of the week spots of Catholic social thought is it looks as if it's easy to command what a living wage would be. And it's not all that easy to determine at all.

SR. SIMONE CAMPBELL: I think it's very easy to say it's way more than $7.25 an hour. Additionally, I think it's easy to say that in our society right now, with mobility the way it is, and people moving across state boundaries, the idea that we have this little community that everybody knows each other, it may happen in Janesville, but it certainly doesn't happen in the rest of the nation. There's big issues to be dealt with.

BILL MOYERS: Your visits on the bus tour were to community-run programs that are making a real difference to the people we saw in the film. While he's short on specifics, Paul Ryan claims that his budget will empower those very kinds of community-centered solutions to the problem of poverty that the federal bureaucracy has not been able to solve. Are you willing to give him a chance on that?

SR. SIMONE CAMPBELL: Absolutely not. Because the fact is that the federal government has been supporting, in part, these very programs that we're at. What people don't know is that the federal government money helps as the cornerstone. And that the fact is these problems are so large that we all need to collaborate. I totally agree. They're so big, so complex, we all need to be a part of the solution. Individuals, corporations, businesses, and government. We all need to work together on it. And Congressman Ryan would prefer just to pull the government out. It's not reasonable. It's not possible. It's not doable.


SR. SIMONE CAMPBELL: My people would suffer.

ROBERT ROYAL: Sister, are you saying that there are positions in Paul Ryan's budget that just pull out the federal government from welfare?

SR. SIMONE CAMPBELL: That significantly curtail it and that-- with Medicaid, especially with Medicaid and some of the other-- the health care provisions of that, that would decimate, decimate service.

BILL MOYERS: Well, for example, my understanding is that it would lead to about 10 million people, an estimated 10 million people losing food stamps.

SR. SIMONE CAMPBELL: And another 20 million people losing health care coverage.

BILL MOYERS: Paul Ryan speaks about dependence developing on welfare programs. Is that your concern, one of your concerns, that dependence is the unintended consequence of good, benevolent intentions on the part of government?

ROBERT ROYAL: Well, Sister had all those nice people who, you know, we all want to support. And I, you know, I agree, I mean, it's a heart-wrenching thing to see people put in those circumstances. But what's the alternative? I mean, we've seen this in the past.

BILL MOYERS: Good question. What is the alternative?

ROBERT ROYAL: What is the alternative? Do we just--

SR. SIMONE CAMPBELL: Change the wealth gap. I mean, that's a big part of the problem is that the rich have gotten dramatically —

BILL MOYERS: How do you do that?

SR. SIMONE CAMPBELL: Well, I agree, that's complex. But part of it is, I mean, part of it is the tax structure. Hedge fund folks that make these gabillion dollars, but pay way less percentage than you or I pay.

BILL MOYERS: 15 percent compared to what--the third we pay on ours.

SR. SIMONE CAMPBELL: Exactly, exactly. There are a lot of fixes where there's more revenue out there that's fair.

ROBERT ROYAL: But Sister, you can confiscate the wealth of the top one percent and I forget what the figure is, but it lasts, maybe it covers one budget deficit—

SR. SIMONE CAMPBELL: Well, that's a step.

ROBERT ROYAL: Four trillion dollars. Yeah, I mean, that's a lot of money. That's a lot of money. But what does that do to the overall question? The overall question is, in the normal course of affairs, subsidiarity, one of the great discoveries of the 20th century, because subsidiarity started to come to the fore—

BILL MOYERS: Which means?

ROBERT ROYAL: We talked about this with Paul Ryan. It's not simply different levels of government operating. It's a vision of society as a whole, which includes a role for government-- for federal and maybe even international governments. It goes all the way down to the responsibilities of individuals. And at each level, there are responsibilities that in the ideal circumstance, we want to see those different levels operating on their own with their own—

SR. SIMONE CAMPBELL: Well, but the piece that's been missing in this whole conversation is the impact of solidarity. Because what we'd like to think is that they're dichotomies, but they're not. They're unity. And what Catholic social teaching says is that yes, subsidiarity works, but as long as everybody has a strong sense of solidarity. So I hold your concerns and your worries, your engagement as important as my own. And that I make my decisions as much for the group in sense of solidarity for the group and for everyone else up the chain that you very well spoke of. That's solidarity. So I'm aware of the folks of Kenya. I'm aware of the folks in Cleveland. I'm aware of the folks in Los Angeles. I'm aware of all those folks when I make my personal decisions. That's the piece that our society's missing. And to me, that's what Catholic social teaching really brings to the fore for us is solidarity.

ROBERT ROYAL: I don't think that's missing at all. I think all people, everybody I know, I mean, you'd have to be a monster not to have any interest in people who are poor in the United States, in the plight of people around the world. Look, the difficulty with what you're talking about, it seems to me. I try not to quote libertarians, but I'm going to quote Friedrich von Hayek, just—

BILL MOYERS: The Austrian economist. The icon of--

ROBERT ROYAL: The Austrian economist, who called this "the fatal conceit." That we can know, you know, "I'm going to be in my desire for solidarity, I know what to do about that and I know what to do about that and I know to what to do about that." We don't.


ROBERT ROYAL: One of the reasons why the market properly fenced around with institutions works so beautifully is it allows the intelligence and the practical application of various people in all sorts of areas that we can't possibly know the details of. It allows those people with their own dynamism and creativity and intelligence to do things that a central planner cannot do. Now--

BILL MOYERS: You said something quite important, that markets work as long as there are fences around them. But you seem to think that democracy no longer serves as a brake on raw and unregulated capitalism.

SR. SIMONE CAMPBELL: Absolutely. For me, I really think this is about the soul of our nation and will democracy work. Or will we just continue this polarized, yelling at each other, the talking heads?

And I'm grateful for this conversation that we-- but can we talk together about how do we solve it? Because I agree it's complex. I agree the answer is not government. I agree that the way forward has to include the market. But I also know it is not working now and we need to find some new mechanisms.

BILL MOYERS: Is there any common ground?

ROBERT ROYAL: Yeah, because I mean, I would absolutely say that a prudential approach to this-- this set of circumstances is to say, "Those people who are just holding on, we can't simply abandon them." We have to find some other ways. But we have to make-- we have to attempt to move from where we are now to someplace else.

I myself would lean more towards less government, because there's the perennial danger. This is, you know, this goes back forever in political philosophy that it's dangerous to give powers over to the government. It’s dangerous to have the government controlling health care for example.

BILL MOYERS: I want to change the subject slightly. Sister Simone, given the Vatican's dismay over the actions of The Leadership Conference of Women's Religious, that's an umbrella group, I think, for 80% of the nuns in this country? Given the fact that women are not part of the hierarchy and that some of you think you're treated as second-class believers, why do you remain a nun?

SR. SIMONE CAMPBELL: Because it's the most treasured part of my life that I have the tradition of spirituality, of nourishment and sacrament of a deep abiding joy. How could I not? It's the wealth of my life. But the role of women religious historically is not to be at the center with the hierarchy. Our role historically is to be at the margins with the very folks we've been talking about. And because we're at the margins, we can be an annoyance to both the government folks, as well as to the bishops. It's part of our mission.

BILL MOYERS: Robert, why do you remain a Catholic given that so many of the bishops are far more liberal than you are?

ROBERT ROYAL: Because I believe it's the church that Jesus found. I was taught by nuns. So I, you know, I am beholden to them. I learned a lot more under the nuns than I did at Ivy League institutions and other places. And I don't remember them being wilting wallflowers even back before Vatican II, I can tell you.

BILL MOYERS: Robert Royal, Sister Simone Campbell, thank you very much for this conversation.


ROBERT ROYAL: Thank you.

BILL MOYERS: That’s it for this week. At, we have more to say about poverty and American politics in a web-only, video essay. And a closer look at Paul Ryan’s budget plan. You can see how it stacks up against alternative proposals from Democrats and other interest groups. Let us know which you think has America’s priorities straight.

That’s all at See you there and see you here, next time.

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