cross-posted at politics of selfishness.com
In a recent interview on the Christian Broadcasting Network, Congressman Paul Ryan stated that, as a Catholic, the Church's "social magisterium" was the inspiration for his most recent House budget proposal. Ryan claimed that one essential goal of that teaching was to prevent the poor from staying poor and not becoming lifelong dependents of the government. Ryan further stated that, "A person's faith is central to how they conduct themselves in public and in private."
After a series of biting criticisms from progressive Democrats who documented that the spending cuts contained in Ryan's proposed budget would savage the poor and advantage the wealthy, Daniel Henninger, a right-wing opinion columnist for the Wall Street Journal,valiantly rose to Ryan's defense: He accused the Congressman's critics of "demolishing Paul Ryan" and distorting Ryan's commitment to the Catholic notion of "subsidiarity - i.e. a principle that holds that human affairs are best handled at the lowest possible level, closest to the affected persons.
The question that Henninger avoided asking, however, is whether, in fact, the values that Paul Ryan endorses are consonant with the tradition of Catholic social philosophy and whether they are, in fact, conservative at all? All of the evidence suggests the contrary.
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has issued a guide entitled "Sharing Catholic Social Teaching: Challenges and Directions." It emphasizes that "The Catholic tradition teaches that human dignity can be protected and a healthy community can be achieved only if human rights are protected and responsibilities are met. Therefore, every person has a fundamental right to life and a right to those things required for human decency. Corresponding to these rights are duties and responsibilities--to one another, to our families, and to the larger society." As such, "Human dignity can be protected and a healthy community can be achieved only if human rights are protected and responsibilities are met. Every person has a fundamental right to life and a right to those things required for human decency - starting with food, shelter and clothing, employment, health care, and education. Corresponding to these rights are duties and responsibilities -- to one another, to our families, and to the larger society."
Under a section entitled "Option for the Poor and Vulnerable," the guide proclaims: "A basic moral test is how our most vulnerable members are faring. In a society marred by deepening divisions between rich and poor, our tradition recalls the story of the Last Judgment (Mt 25:31-46) and instructs us to put the needs of the poor and vulnerable first." Indeed, this option is a major barometer of one's commitment to social justice since "The moral test of a society is how it treats its most vulnerable members. The poor have the most urgent moral claim on the conscience of the nation. We are called to look at public policy decisions in terms of how they affect the poor. The 'option for the poor,' is not an adversarial slogan that pits one group or class against another. Rather it states that the deprivation and powerlessness of the poor wounds the whole community. The option for the poor is an essential part of society's effort to achieve the common good. A healthy community can be achieved only if its members give special attention to those with special needs, to those who are poor and on the margins of society."
Equally emphatic is the Catholic Church's rejection of those economic doctrines that have elevated the primacy of the markets and capitalism over basic human needs. "The economy must serve people, not the other way around. All workers have a right to productive work, to decent and fair wages, and to safe working conditions. They also have a fundamental right to organize and join unions. People have a right to economic initiative and private property, but these rights have limits. No one is allowed to amass excessive wealth when others lack the basic necessities of life." Although "Catholic teaching opposes collectivist and statist economic approaches.... it also rejects the notion that a free market automatically produces justice. Distributive justice, for example, cannot be achieved by relying entirely on free market forces. Competition and free markets are useful elements of economic systems. However, markets must be kept within limits, because there are many needs and goods that cannot be satisfied by the market system. It is the task of the state and of all society to intervene and ensure that these needs are met."
The section styled "The Dignity of Work and the Rights of Workers" expresses the Catholic Church's long-standing endorsement of unions and the need for government regulation of the economy in the public interest: "The economy must serve people, not the other way around. Work is more than a way to make a living; it is a form of continuing participation in Gods creation. If the dignity of work is to be protected, then the basic rights of workers must be respected--the right to productive work, to decent and fair wages, to the organization and joining of unions, to private property, and to economic initiative." Consistent with this view, "All people have a right to participate in the economic, political, and cultural life of society. It is a fundamental demand of justice and a requirement for human dignity that all people be assured a minimum level of participation in the community. It is wrong for a person or a group to be excluded unfairly or to be unable to participate in society."
Catholic social doctrine insists upon the importance of government as a positive instrument to advance the public good. For that reason, the current assault that is being waged by Ryan and his Republican supporters upon government is impossible to square with historic Catholic social teaching. As the " Sharing Catholic Social Teaching: Challenges and Directions: Guide to Catholic Social Teaching" explains, "The state has a positive moral function. It is an instrument to promote human dignity, protect human rights, and build the common good. All people have a right and a responsibility to participate in political institutions so that government can achieve its proper goals. The principle of subsidiarity holds that the functions of government should be performed at the lowest level possible, as long as they can be performed adequately. When the needs in question cannot adequately be met at the lower level, then it is not only necessary, but imperative that higher levels of government intervene..."
In his encyclical, Mater et Magister, Pope John XXIII emphasized the central role of the state in promoting social justice: "As for the State, its whole raison d'etre is the realization of the common good in the temporal order. It cannot, therefore, hold aloof from economic matters. On the contrary, it must do all in its power to promote the production of a sufficient supply of material goods, 'the use of which is necessary for the practice of virtue.' It has also the duty to protect the rights of all its people, and particularly of its weaker members, the workers, women and children. It can never be right for the State to shirk its obligation of working actively for the betterment of the condition of the workingman."
By contrast, Congressman Ryan has repeatedly expressed his admiration and enthusiasm for the writings of Ayn Rand and is reliably reported to have required that all of his staff read Rand's Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged. Rand extolled unbridled selfishness and condemned altruism as a misguided instinct. Given the legacy of antisocial individualism in this country, the gospel of selfishness has enjoyed a long and venerable history long before "Objectivism" was touted as something new and fashionable. Particularly during times of economic crises when, as now, the social fabric has begun to fray, the advocates of selfishness have regularly reappeared to peddle their political philosophy as a nostrum that they claim will cure all that ails the country's body politic.
The kind of anti-government rhetoric advanced by Congressman Ryan is at loggerheads with the Catholic moral teaching that is an essential part of the conservative political tradition. Because that tradition traces its lineage from Aristotle, through Thomas Aquinas, to Catholic philosophers today, that authentically conservative tradition is fundamentally at odds with the kind of anti-social individualism that dominates current GOP political discourse. In stark contrast to Catholic social teaching, that discourse draws its values from the tradition of classical liberalism that emerged after the Protestant Reformation and was trumpeted by Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, David Hume and Adam Smith, among other English thinkers.
Part of the confusion over whether Ryan's proposed budget reflects consistent Catholic social teaching is directly attributable to the confusion and timidity of the current U.S. Bishops. Obsessed by matters sexual and reproductive, blind to enormous scandal in their own midst, and chosen primarily because of their obsequious, unquestioning loyalty to an increasingly rigid and doctrinaire pontiff, they have chosen to mute their fidelity and responsibility to affirm historic Catholic teaching in a Faustian bargain not to offend the GOP politicians who agree with them solely on issues of contraception and reproductive rights. Although the curent head of the U.S. Council of Bishops belateedly issued a crticism of Rynas' proposed budget today, the silence of New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan, chief apologist for Ryan's 2011 budget, remains defeaning and utterly indefensible.
Paul Ryan, as a right-wing libertarian, has never expressed a commitment to the idea of social justice, nor is he able to comprehend that the notion that the public interest is something different and distinct from a mere aggregation of self-interests. He also denies that the role of government, to use the words of A.D. Lindsey, is to "hinder the hindrances" - that is, to eliminate those impediments that stand in the way of a person's moral and civic development. For those reasons, Ryan, as is also true of his fellow GOP Catholics - Santorum, Gingrich ad Speaker Boehner - may be a Catholic in his theology, but his social philosophy and his politics are firmly rooted in the classical liberal politics that emerged from the Protestant Reformation and are antithetical to Catholic social teaching.