John Boehner Draws Catholic Criticism for Record on the Poor

House Speaker defends his faith before address at Catholic University.

May 13, 2011— -- House Speaker John Boehner will deliver the commencement address at Catholic University Saturday despite some unusually scathing criticism from a group of prominent Catholics who say he's failed on a key matter of faith: caring for the poor.

"Your record in support of legislation to address the desperate needs of the poor is among the worst in Congress," the group of 75 Catholic academics and community leaders wrote Boehner Thursday in a letter published by the National Catholic Reporter.

"This fundamental concern should have great urgency for Catholic policy makers. Yet, even now, you work in opposition to it," they said.

The signatories, many of whom work at the University, focused their criticism on the House Republicans' 2012 budget, which passed last month and includes deep cuts to some social service programs.

It "guts long-established protections for the most vulnerable members of society. It is particularly cruel to pregnant women and children," they wrote.

The authors don't suggest rescinding Boehner's invitation to speak or the honorary degree, but they press the Republican leader to recommit himself to what is considered a core church teaching.

"It is your moral duty as a legislator to put the needs of the poor and most vulnerable foremost in your considerations," they said.

Boehner responded to the criticism Thursday, telling reporters he believes his congressional record "upholds the values of my faith."

"I think America has a strong safety net for those who live near the bottom of our economy, and I think that we should," he said. "And like any religion, you'll have some who are a little bit more liberal and some are a bit more conservative."

Boehner has said that Catholicism plays a foundational role in his life. "While I don't wear it on my shirt sleeve, I have deep abiding faith in our Lord," he said in an interview with Diane Sawyer last year.

Yuval Levin, a former domestic policy advisor to President George W. Bush and fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, said the letter attempts to "use the facade of religious authority to score political points."

""Who is to say that a higher rate of growth in Medicaid funding, rather than policies aimed at more robust economic growth that could lift people out of poverty, are better for the poor? It's a prudential question, which most religious traditions leave to prudential policymaker and voters to decide," Levin said.

"The writers can certainly express their disagreement with how Boehner makes those prudential calls, but it's hard to believe they are justified in claiming that their detailed policy views are simply backed by Catholic doctrine," he said.

The controversy is not the first for a Catholic university over the selection of a prominent political figure to deliver the commencement address.

In 2009, the University of Notre Dame's invitation to President Obama sparked outrage in some Catholic circles given his views on abortion, gay rights and embryonic stem cell research -- all of which contradict church teaching.