BALTIMORE — As Congress embarks on high-stakes budget negotiations to avoid the “fiscal cliff,” leaders of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops are warning elected officials not to target programs for the poor and instead raise taxes and reduce defense spending.
“In developing frameworks for future budgets, Congress should not rely on disproportionate cuts in essential services to poor persons,” Bishop Stephen E. Blaire of Stockton, Calif., and Bishop Richard E. Pates of Des Moines, Iowa, wrote in a Nov. 13 letter  to the House and Senate.
Blaire and Pates chair the bishops' committees on domestic and international issues, and the letter asks that “poverty-focused international assistance programs” also be spared because they are a small slice of the budget pie, are effective and enjoy bipartisan support.
The letter from Blaire and Pates was issued the same day the entire USCCB failed to agree on a broader and more authoritative 14-page statement on economic suffering from the recession.
The rare rejection of the longer document , “The Hope of the Gospel in Difficult Economic Times,” followed intense criticism from bishops who argued that it was too vague and did not address the current crisis or offer solutions based on Catholic social teaching.
The two-page letter from Blaire and Pates, meanwhile, contained the sort of specifics that many bishops wanted to see in the the longer document.
“In budget deficit efforts, there has always been a bipartisan consensus to exempt programs for the most vulnerable and instead to call for shared sacrifice by all, including raising adequate revenues, eliminating unnecessary military and other spending, and addressing the long-term costs of health insurance and retirement programs fairly,” Blaire and Pates wrote.
“To achieve savings, policy makers should consider cutting nuclear weapons programs, direct agricultural subsidies, and other unnecessary spending.”
The bishops say the "important goal" of addressing long-term deficits is necessary, but must not be achieved "at the expense of the dignity of poor and vulnerable people at home and abroad.”
They cite Pope Benedict XVI’s warning against the “downsizing of social security systems,” and they frame their appeal in terms of “traditional principles and values.”
The bishops also say government and other institutions “have a shared responsibility to promote the common good of all, especially ordinary workers and families who struggle to live in a manner worthy of their dignity in difficult economic times.”
“We remind you that the moral measure of this budget debate is not which party wins or which powerful interests prevail, but rather how those who are jobless, hungry, homeless or poor are treated.”
David Gibson is an award-winning religion journalist, author and filmmaker. He writes for RNS  and until recently covered the religion beat for AOL's He blogs at magazine, and has written two books on Catholic topics, the latest a biography of Pope Benedict XVI.
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