Today, Rep. Paul Ryan delivered a speech at Georgetown University, an institution some of whose faculty had recently criticized him.

Here’s the crux of the letter (signed by roughly 90 faculty—I recognize a few of the names, including E.J. Dionne, Jr., and note only that precious few political scientists and economists are among the signatories):

[W]e would be remiss in our duty to you and our students if we did not challenge your 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. As the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has wisely noted in several letters to Congress – “a just framework for future budgets cannot rely on disproportionate cuts in essential services to poor persons.” Catholic bishops recently wrote that “the House-passed budget resolution fails to meet these moral criteria.”

In short, your budget appears to reflect the values of your favorite philosopher, Ayn Rand, rather than the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Her call to selfishness and her antagonism toward religion are antithetical to the Gospel values of compassion and love.


Leaving aside for a moment the canard about Ayn Rand, which Ryan dismisses as an “urban legend,” the question is how any government program or budget can embody the “Gospel values of compassion and love.”  I’d like to highlight a few of the points that Ryan makes that could be taken as a response.

First:


The work I do as a Catholic holding office conforms to the social doctrine as best I can make of it. What I have to say about the social doctrine of the Church is from the viewpoint of a Catholic in politics applying my understanding to the problems of the day.

Serious problems like those we face today require charitable conversation. Civil public dialogue goes to the heart of solidarity, the virtue that does not divide society into classes and groups but builds up the common good of all.

The overarching threat to our whole society today is the exploding federal debt. 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.


Note that Ryan connects “civil public dialogue” with solidarity.  Where reasonable people of good will disagree, solidarity, he says, demands mutual respect.  We’re not in the first instance  talking about solidarity with the poor or the needy, but rather simply about how we can get along so as seriously to address the needs of the neediest.  A political system in which both sides engage in name-calling probably can’t muster the mutual respect and good will to accomplish anything difficult.  Both sides do it, and both need to stop.  (I say this while recognizing the obligation to bear prophetic witness, but even someone who takes this stance ought to acquaint himself or herself with the dimensions of the problems to which he or she is calling attention.  Can we tax our way out of the fiscal mess in which we find ourselves?  Can we reduce the deficit, let alone grow the budget, without attending seriously to the requisities of economic growth?)

Second:

[S]ince we meet today at America’s first Catholic university, I feel it’s important to discuss how, as a Catholic in public life, my own personal thinking on these issues has been guided by my understanding of the Church’s social teaching.

Simply put, I do not believe that the preferential option for the poor means a preferential option for big government.

Look at the results of the government-centered approach to the war on poverty. One in six Americans are in poverty today— the highest rate in a generation. In this war on poverty, poverty is winning. We need a better approach.

To me, this approach should be based on the twin virtues of solidarity and subsidiarity—virtues that, when taken together, revitalize civil society instead of displacing it.

Government is one word for things we do together. But it is not the only word.  We are a nation that prides itself on looking out for one another— and government has an important role to play in that. But relying on distant government bureaucracies to lead this effort just hasn’t worked.

Instead, our budget builds on the historic welfare reforms of the 1990s— reforms proven to work. We aim to empower state and local governments, communities, and individuals—“ those closest to the problem. And we aim to promote opportunity and upward mobility by strengthening job training programs, to help those who have fallen on hard times.

My mentor, Jack Kemp, used to say, “You can’t help America’s poor by making America poor.”


In place of “compassion and love,” Ryan offers subsidiarity and solidarity, accompanied by a hefty does of pragmatism.  Let’s not let good intentions substitute for good results.  Yes, there are principles, but those principles have to be applied in a workable way in the circumstances we confront.  Subsidiarity takes this sort of “realism” into account by giving responsibility to those who confront the issues most directly and personally.  Higher levels of government should indeed provide assistance, but not every solution in a governmental solution.

As Rep. Ryan puts it,

One approach gives more power to unelected bureaucrats, takes more from hard-working taxpayers to fuel the expansion of government, and commits our nation to a future of debt and decline. This approach is proving unworkable —in Congress, in our courts, and in our communities.

This path fails to do justice to either subsidiarity or solidarity. It dissolves the common good of society, and dishonors the dignity of the human person.

Our budget offers a better path, consistent with the timeless principles of our nation’s founding and, frankly, consistent with how I understand my Catholic faith.  We put our trust in people, not in government. Our budget incorporates subsidiarity by returning power to individuals, to families, and to communities.

We draw inspiration from the Founders’ belief that all people are born with a God-given right to human flourishing.

Protecting this equal right of all persons is required for solidarity— trusting citizens, not nameless government officials, to determine what is in their best interests, and to make the right choices about the future of our country.


Now, I’m perfectly willing to quarrel with or quibble about some of what he says.  Can we really, for example, “trust citizens . . . to determine what is in their best interests, and to make the right choices about the future of our country”?  Do we have the moral backbone and self-control to make the hard choices we need to make, or are too many of us too far gone down the path to self-indulgence and dependency?  I’m not necessarily disagreeing with Ryan.  Indeed, without an affirmative answer to the question, then we are well and truly lost.  He has to have confidence in “us the people.”  Let’s hope—and pray—that he’s right.

Articles by Joseph Knippenberg

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