On Saturday, Speaker of the House John Boehner (R–OH) delivered the commencement address at the Catholic University of America. In advance of his speech, a group of Catholic academics sent a public letter to Boehner, who is a practicing Catholic, accusing him of going against the teachings of his Church. At issue are proposed cuts to government welfare programs. Based largely on the 2012 budget that Boehner helped pass in the House, the academics charge him with undermining a moral obligation to help the poor.

Their letter calls on Boehner to sign the “Circle of Protection,” an ecumenical statement by American Christian leaders who resist budget cuts for anti-poverty programs. Both the letter and the Circle of Protection statement declare that the budget debate is a moral debate and that Christians should care for the “least of these.” But both statements also jump directly from these moral principles to policy recommendations, with the implied assumption that disagreeing with these recommendations means refusing to prioritize the poor.

Father Robert Sirico of the Acton Institute takes issue with that assumption:

To jump so seamlessly from the Magisterium’s insistence on the fundamental and non-negotiable moral obligation to the poor to the specifics of contingent, prudential, and political legislation is wholly unjustified in Catholic social teaching. … Surely [the moral   theologians who signed the letter] know what the American Bishops stated in their own 1986 Pastoral Letter, “Economic Justice for All”: “There are also many specific points on which men and women of good will may disagree. We look for a fruitful exchange among differing viewpoints.”

Sirico also finds fault with the tendency to equate concern for the poor with government spending:

Indeed, it could be said that what these Catholic academicians are proposing is not a  “preferential option for the poor,” but rather a preferential option for the State. They make the unfortunately common error of assuming that concern for the economically weak and marginalized must somehow translate into (yet another) government program.

The mere intention of a government program to help the poor doesn’t mean it actually achieves that goal. And allowing unsustainable spending on government welfare isn’t the most effective—or moral—way to protect the vulnerable. Heritage has explained a different approach to fighting poverty in The Economy Hits Home series and the Seek Social Justice curriculum.

Sadly, neither the letter to Boehner nor the Circle of Protection calls for the elimination of welfare programs that don’t work or that trap recipients in dehumanizing cycles of dependence.

Nor do the statements contain any discussion of what is or isn’t a legitimate function of government. If government programs currently exist, the assumption is that they should continue to exist and be exempt from debt-reduction debates. In the words of the Circle of Protection, “Funding focused on reducing poverty should not be cut. It should be made as effective as possible, but not cut.”

Working through their churches and faith-based ministries, Catholics and Protestants are equipped to help those in need and advance the common good. They also bear a moral obligation to call on government to play its proper role in seeking justice. What’s needed is a better public discussion about the roles and responsibilities of these different institutions and which policies actually work to help people escape poverty.