Loaves and fishes: icons of Christian generosity and concern for the hungry. Credit: Unknown

The U.S. House of Representatives just passed a morally shameful budget proposal that faith leaders around the country are mobilizing against. The “path to prosperity,” as House Budget Chairman Rep. Paul Ryan calls his plan, slashes more than $4 billion dollars by targeting food assistance, insurance for the elderly and poor, school lunches and other vital programs that members of my congregation rely on every day.

As a Catholic priest, I’m not an expert when it comes to fiscal policy. But along with other religious leaders, I know that any discussion about budgets and taxes is about values. Faith communities are on the front lines of helping struggling Americans who will be most impacted by these monumental decisions made in Washington. This is why the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has called for a “circle of protection” around responsible government programs that help our most vulnerable neighbors. The bishops described Rep. Ryan’s budget as failing a basic moral test when he released a similar plan last year.

The true moral measure of a society is not found in its military might or the profit margins of Fortune 500 companies, but whether the widow, the sick and those who Jesus called the “least of these” are treated with dignity.

I was glad to see my fellow Catholic, U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu, D. La., vote for a Senate budget resolution that rejects a “cuts only” approach to our national debt in favor of a more balanced path forward, one that that includes making sure that wealthy and powerful corporations contribute their fair share. In advance of last week’s vote, clergy and lay leaders from PICO Louisiana delivered “loaves and fishes” to Landrieu – along with U.S. Sen. David Vitter, R-La., and Gov. Bobby Jindal – to symbolize the biblical story of abundance. It may have taken a miracle for Jesus to feed a crowd of thousands with only a few pieces of bread and fish, but Congress doesn’t need divine intervention to make sure responsible deficit reduction spares the elderly, children and struggling families.

It is a false choice to ask Americans to pick between fiscal responsibility and economic justice. We should balance budgets in a responsible way, not on the backs of poor and working families who lost ground in recent decades and are still falling behind as incomes of a privileged few soar. The gap between rich and poor has now reached its worst levels since the 1920s. This is not simply a political issue. It’s a stark ethical challenge for all of us. As pope, Benedict XVI warned about the “scandal of glaring inequalities” and cautioned against the “downgrading of social security systems.” The true moral measure of a society is not found in its military might or the profit margins of Fortune 500 companies, but whether the widow, the sick and those who Jesus called the “least of these” are treated with dignity.

Reducing the burden of debt now and for future generations will require prudent thinking about the long-term growth and cost of entitlement programs. But this must not be done in a way that hurts the most vulnerable, and cutting spending alone will not solve our problem. Additional tax revenue is needed to put us on a more sustainable path and maintain the strength of programs like Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security that honor our sacred commitment to families and neighbors.

The Catholic tradition teaches that paying taxes is part of our collective responsibility to the common good. “The tax system should be continually evaluated in terms of its impact on the poor,” Catholic bishops wrote in a 1986 pastoral letter, “Economic Justice for All.” Since then, our tax system has grown far more regressive. Secretaries and janitors often pay a greater share of their income in taxes than corporate CEOs. A report from the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office found that as the top 1 percent of earners more than doubled their share of the nation’s earnings over the past three decades a greater tax burden fell on middle- and working-class families.

As Americans, we celebrate success and encourage the dynamic creativity of entrepreneurs. We also believe in basic fairness and building communities where those who have achieved contribute to the common good.

Our nation has faced daunting challenges before and prevailed by putting political divisions behind us for a higher purpose. I pray that our elected officials in Louisiana and across the country rise to the occasion again.

The Rev. Michael P. Jacques, S.S.E., V.F., is the pastor of St. Peter Claver Catholic Church in New Orleans and is a board member of The MICAH Project, a coalition of 16 congregations across greater New Orleans.