When Representative Paul Ryan said that his recently released budget proposal was developed in accord with his understanding of Catholic social doctrine, the liberal Catholic establishment reacted with outrage.
Ryan was scheduled to talk at Georgetown, and the ever-reliable Fr. Thomas J. Reese, S.J., and others have organized a letter of protest. “Our problem with Representative Ryan,” Reese told reporters, “is that he claims his budget is based on Catholic social teaching. This is nonsense.”
I’m afraid that “nonsense” applies more to the letter Reese helped write than the budget Ryan proposed. It accuses Ryan of “continuing misuse of Catholic teaching,” and snidely dismisses his budget proposal as reflecting “the values of your favorite philosopher, Ayn Rand, rather than the Gospel of Jesus Christ.”
The letter concludes: “Along with this letter, we have included a copy of the Vatican’s Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, commissioned by John Paul II, to help deepen your understanding of Catholic social teaching.”
This is not a letter of protest but instead one of reprimand. Liberal Catholics are horrified that people with conservative views appeal to Catholic teaching to explain and attract support to their public policies. Their reaction is not to argue about the merits but instead to denounce.
It was not always so. In the early years of the twentieth century, the Catholic Church put its weight behind many of the key goals of the progressive movement. Fr. John A. Ryan played an important role, making the arguments that linked Catholic teaching to the then ascendant confidence that we could scientifically manage the problems of modern industrial societies.
Private charity is not enough, the earlier Ryan argued. Today’s world is complex, and the gospel rightly understood involves using the power of government when local communities and free markets fail to adequately provide for the needs of the poor and vulnerable. His arguments prevailed. In 1919 the program outlined by the bishops called for minimum wage laws, housing for workers, insurances for illness and disability, as well as support for the unemployed and elderly.
The Church was right to listen to Fr. Ryan. Modern industrialization caused vast social changes that made old modes of solidarity obsolete, or if not obsolete at least ineffective. As men migrated to the cities to work in factories, the old networks of families and small town life were not longer there to provide a social safety net. Put crudely, the weal and woe of many came to depend on wages rather than relationships. In that context the bureaucratic and legal solutions culminating in the New Deal made sense.
However, there are no lasting solutions to any fundamental political and social challenges. “The poor you shall always have with you,” Jesus teaches. And it has been so. The New Deal reached its high-water mark with Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty, which turned out to be a domestic quagmire. As Charles Murray documented in his important book, Losing Ground, our welfare policies had the effect of subsidizing a culture of poverty.
Morally serious people who read Murray’s book began to think about making changes. By the mid-nineties, President Clinton signed the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act, which reformed welfare and created incentives designed to work against the culture of poverty.
The Catholic Left howled in protest back then just as they are today. Dire consequences were predicted. The actual results, however, were positive. The culture of poverty is still with us, but the subsidies are less blatant, less destructive.
Today we face an even larger problem created by the social programs once endorsed by the Catholic Church: insolvency. When Paul Ryan spoke at Georgetown last week, it’s this problem that he put front and center: “The overarching threat to our whole society today is the exploding federal debt.” He did not back off from his claim that his budget reflects Catholic social doctrine. “The Holy Father, Pope Benedict,” he reminded his audience, many of whom had signed the letter of reprimand, “has charged that governments, communities and individuals running up high debt levels are 'living at the expense of future generations' and 'living in untruth.” During the last century the leaders of the Catholic Church—and many other men and women of good will—made countless prudential judgments about how basic Christian truths should be applied to the crises then facing modern industrial societies. Some were wise and led to good policies: minimum wage laws, for example, and unemployment insurance. Others such as wage and price controls weren’t so wise.
That the results were mixed is not surprising. Policies and budgets don’t follow like conclusion from syllogisms, as the simplistic logic of the letter of reprimand implies. Instead, we need to apply ourselves to solve the problems we face as best we can.
Today we need government programs to support the poor, the elderly, the unemployed, the vulnerable. And we need programs to help young people get educated, to rebuild our infrastructure, and defend our country. In short, we need to do all the things that a good, responsible government should do in a healthy society concerned about the common good.
We can argue about how to do all this and what takes priority. However, by Paul Ryan’s reckoning—and I certainly agree with him—we face a fiscal crisis. We can’t keep doing all the things we’ve been doing the way we’ve been doing them. And so his budget proposes changes.
Are the changes necessary? Are the workable? Are they wise? These are all questions liberals can insist upon asking. But enough with the high-handed presumption that no conservative can be concerned about the poor. Paul Ryan wants us to take political responsibility for the fiscal crisis we’re facing, and responsibility is the first virtue necessary for anyone seeking to govern in accord with Catholic social doctrine.
R.R. Reno is Editor of First Things. He is the general editor of the Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible and author of the volume on Genesis. His previous “On the Square” articles can be found here.
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