Sunday, April 29, 2012

Paul Ryan and Catholic Social Teaching (Roundup)

In articles, interviews and addresses, U.S. Representative Paul Ryan is defending -- not without controversy -- his 2013 budget proposal (see "The Path to Prosperity: A Blueprint for American Renewal") as an application of Catholic social teaching, inspired by his Catholic faith.

In an April 10 interview with CBN News, Ryan responded:

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 tenants 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 out onto life of independence.

U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis. , Chairman of the House Budget Committee speaks to a meeting of the Wisconsin Faith & Freedom Coalition. 3/31/12. Source: AP

The U.S. Bishops Conference conveyed their thoughts on the FY2013 Budget and spending bills, which in their words "repeated and reinforced the bishops’ ongoing call to create a “circle of protection” around poor and vulnerable people and programs that meet their basic needs and protect their lives and dignity.":

Bishops Blaire [chairman of the bishops’ Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development] and Pates reaffirmed the “moral criteria to guide these difficult budget decisions” outlined in their March 6 budget letter:

1.Every budget decision should be assessed by whether it protects or threatens human life and dignity.

2.A central moral measure of any budget proposal is how it affects “the least of these” (Matthew 25). The needs of those who are hungry and homeless, without work or in poverty should come first.

3.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 dignity in difficult economic times…

Just solutions, however, must require shared sacrifice by all, including raising adequate revenues, eliminating unnecessary military and other spending, and fairly addressing the long-term costs of health insurance and retirement programs.

In April 16 and April 17 letters to the House Agriculture Committee and the House Ways and Means Committee addressing cuts required by the budget resolution, Bishop Blaire said “The House-passed budget resolution fails to meet these moral criteria.”

Marc Thiessen defended the congressman from "a bishop’s unjust attack" (Washington Post, 4/23/12) along with (Fr. Robert Sirico (of the Acton Institute) -- the latter, however, disagreeting with Ryan's equasion of subsidiarity with federalism.

This past week, U.S. Represenative Paul Ryan further presented his case in a column for the National Catholic Register: Applying Our Enduring Truths to Our Defining Challenge, April 25, 2012):

As a congressman and Catholic layman, I am persuaded that Catholic social truths are in accord with the “self-evident truths” our Founders bequeathed to us in the founding ideas of America: independence, limited government and the dignity and freedom of every human person. As chairman of the House Budget Committee, I am tasked with applying these enduring principles to the urgent social problems of our time: an economy that is not providing enough opportunities for our citizens, a safety net that is failing our most vulnerable populations, and a crushing burden of debt that is threatening our children and grandchildren with a diminished future. ... [read more]
  • On April 26th, Paul Ryan gave a lecture at Georgetown University, entitled "America's Enduring Promise", in which he once again addressed the challenge of America's exploding federal debt, which he characterized as "the overarching threat to our society today":
    The Holy Father, Pope Benedict, has charged that governments, communities, and individuals running up high debt levels are “living at the expense of future generations” and “living in untruth.”

    We in this country still have a window of time before a debt-fueled economic crisis becomes inevitable. We can still take control before our own needy suffer the fate of Greece. How we do this is a question for prudential judgment, about which people of good will can differ.

    If there was ever a time for serious but respectful discussion, among Catholics as well as those who don’t share our faith, that time is now.

    Ryan's appearance at Georgetown was prefaced by a scathing letter from some 80 members of the faculty irate over his alleged "continuing misuse of Catholic teaching to defend a budget plan that decimates food programs for struggling families, radically weakens protections for the elderly and sick, and gives more tax breaks to the wealthiest few." An organized protest of Ryan on the actual day of the event was distinguished by a notable lack of participation.

    Further Coverage and Commentary

    • Catholic Social Teaching and the Ryan Budget, by Thomas V. Berg and James C. Capretta May 11, 2012. The Public Discourse "Paul Ryan’s budget plan does not violate principles of Catholic social teaching; it is one prudent application of them."
    • The Ryan Lecture, by Fr. James V. Schall, S.J. (The Catholic World Report: "Sojourns with Schall", 5/1/12).
      The heart of the Ryan Lecture was an awareness that we have reached a crossroads. Either we can finally give up and call on a government ever-more willing to control more and more of our lives, or we can begin to return power to individuals and other units of society. We need to face the fact that our greatest political problem today is a government that no longer sees itself as limited and bound to principles protecting religion, economics, the poor, and the vast majority who are willing and capable of helping themselves—if they are allowed to do so.
    • Rep. Paul Ryan's Whittington Lecture, by Rick Garnett (Mirror of Justice 4/26/12):
      Because -- like most of those who have criticized the Ryan budget -- I actually don't know everything about it, or everything about its implications, or everything about the soundness of its empirical premises and predictions, I don't presume to endorse it uncritically or dismiss it out of hand. It does seem to me, though, that Ryan is entirely right (a) to challenge the so-tired idea that Catholic Social Teaching maps neatly onto the social-welfare, spending, and taxation proposals and priorities of the Democratic Party (just as "subsidiarity" is not merely "devolution" or "small government," "solidarity" and "community" are not Catholic baptisms of statism and bureaucracy) and (b) to insist that those charged with authority in the political community are morally obligated to address the challenge of our "debt-fueled economic crisis." As he says, of course, "how we do this is a question for prudential judgment, about which people of good will can differ." There is, however, nothing Catholic about election-oriented complacency (see, e.g., the Senate's indifference to its obligation to pass a budget at some point) in the face of mounting debt, the weight of which can only crush the hopes and opportunities of young people, children, and future generations. Ryan critics who stop at criticism, without at least proposing, for consideration and debate, feasible changes in course that they plausibly and in good faith believe would respond to the challenges he identifies, are not, in my view, serious.
    • Ryan vs. Georgetown: The gentleman from Wisconsin teaches a lesson in Catholic social doctrine, by George Weigel. National Review April 26, 2012:
      Paul Ryan knows that Catholic social doctrine is not some sort of doughnut machine that plops out ready-made answers to complex questions of public policy. There is no — repeat, no — direct line from the principles of Catholic social doctrine to judgments on levels of WIC funding, food-stamp funding, or Pell Grant funding, three issues on which the Georgetown faculty claims moral certainty when the relevant mode of moral analysis is prudential judgment. Ryan knows that and is prepared to explain why that’s the case. That willingness, plus Ryan’s refusal to concede the moral high ground to the Catholic Left in the public-policy debate, plus the intelligence, good humor, and conviction he brings to these arguments, helps explain why he’s the Catholic Left’s worst nightmare. The Catholic Left recognizes that; and thus, predictably, things have turned chippy, even ugly.

      ... What Ryan has in fact done is to follow Benedict XVI and push the subsidiarity-solidarity debate forward, suggesting that there is a kind of moral and political space where solidarity — the moral imperative to live responsibly with and for others — and subsidiarity — the anti-totalitarian, pro-civil-society principle of Catholic social doctrine — intersect. At that broad intersection, there are no obvious answers to public-policy questions, and especially to budgetary questions. But there is prudential judgment: the weighing of risks and benefits; the calculus of probable consequences; the fitting of ends to appropriate means.

    • More on Paul Ryan and Catholic Social Teaching (First Things "First Thoughts", April 26, 2012). Joseph Knippenberg examines the Georgetown faculty's criticisms of Ryan, and excerpts from Ryan's address that might be taken as a response.
    • Paul Ryan and the Angry Catholic Left, by R.R. Reno. First Things "On The Square" 4/30/12. Russel Reno responds to the Georgetown letter of protest organized by Fr. Thomas J. Reese, SJ.

    Paul Ryan and Ayn Rand

    An item of controversy is Paul Ryan's appreciation -- liberal critics might say naive adoration -- of Russian-American novelist and philosopher Ayn Rand, advocater of individualism, laissez-faire capitalism, and rational and ethical egoism (a philosophy she called "Objectivism.").

    Ryan dismissed the "urban legend" that he is an "Ayn Rand devotee." (Ryan Shrugged April 26, 2012):

    “I, like millions of young people in America, read Rand’s novels when I was young. I enjoyed them,” Ryan says. “They spurred an interest in economics, in the Chicago School and Milton Friedman,” a subject he eventually studied as an undergraduate at Miami University in Ohio. “But it’s a big stretch to suggest that a person is therefore an Objectivist.”

    “I reject her philosophy,” Ryan says firmly. “It’s an atheist philosophy. It reduces human interactions down to mere contracts and it is antithetical to my worldview. If somebody is going to try to paste a person’s view on epistemology to me, then give me Thomas Aquinas,” who believed that man needs divine help in the pursuit of knowledge. “Don’t give me Ayn Rand,” he says.

    Against this, Ryan's critics point to his remarks in a Ryan Campaign Video:
    'It's that kind of thinking, that kind of writing, that is sorely needed right now. I would think that right now a lot of people would observe that we are living in an Ayn Rand novel metaphorically speaking. More to the point is this. The issue that is under assault, the attack on democratic capitalism, on individualism and freedom in America, is an attack on the moral foundation of America.

    In Ayn Rand more than anyone else, did a fantastic job of explaining the morality of capitalism, the morality of individualism, and this to me is what matters most. It is not enough to say that President Obama's taxes are too big, or the health care plan does not work for this or that policy reason. It is the morality of what is occurring right now and how it offends the morality of individuals working toward their own free will to produce, to achieve, to succeed that is under attack. And is that which I think Ayn Rand would be commenting on which we need that kind of comment more and more than ever.'

    As well as several other quotes from Ryan's past: In fairness to Ryan's critics, the above quotes does call into question Ryan's distancing of Ayn Rand as an author he read "when I was young"; indeed it seems that Rand's distinction between individualism vs. collectivism continues to exercise a significant role in Ryan's worldview. Likewise, it strikes me as something of a feat to laud Ayn Rand as simultaneously "doing the best job of making the moral case for democratic capitalism" and denouncing her philosophy as "atheistic and antithetical to my worldview." Surely "the morality of capitalism" has better defenders?

    That said, it should also be acknowledged that one needn't embrace Ayn Rand's objectivist philosophy to sympathize with her concerns over the state's encroachment on human initiative and human liberty. It is also not difficult to see how our economic crisis -- and the actions taken by the Obama administration in response -- provoked comparisons to Atlas Shrugged and contribute to the ressurgence of interest in its author.

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