Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Paul Ryan and Catholic Social Teaching

This post consists of religious commentary on American politics, and while combining the two often results in controversy, I definitely believe in what Stephen Prothero says that "substantive debates about Christianity and politics are potentially healthy."  Here's to the potential health of this one!

Anways...unless you've been living in a cave for the past four days, you probably know already that Mitt Romney chose Rep. Paul Ryan to be his running mate on the GOP presidential ticket on Saturday.

Already, there is a rush to define this chap on the national scene from both political parties, the 24-hour media, and, perhaps unsurprisingly, religious leaders.

After all, Romney is Mormon, and Ryan is Roman Catholic.

If there are any sects of Christianity that have been more frequently and widely misunderstood throughout American history than Mormonism and Catholicism, I sure can't think of them right now.

But let's, in the "Oooh, new shiny thing!!" spirit, focus on Ryan's Catholicism for a moment.

One of the biggest knocks against Ryan is how his Ayn Rand-esque distaste for a social safety net for the poor is patently at odds with Catholic (and, I would argue, general Christian) social teaching.  His policy proposals include cutting Medicaid by a third while also raising taxes on the poor and middle class and dramatically lowering taxes for the uber-rich.

As a Christian educated in part by the Catholic Church in seminary, I feel it's a legitimate complaint to have.  After all, the Catholic catechism says, in part, "The works of mercy are charitable actions by which we come to the aid of our neighbor in his spiritual and bodily necessities. (Cf. Isa 58:6-7; Heb 13:3) Instructing, advising, consoling, comforting are spiritual works of mercy, as are forgiving and bearing wrongs patiently. The corporal works of mercy consist especially in feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless, clothing the naked, visiting the sick and imprisoned, and burying the dead. (Cf. Mt 25:31-46.) Among all these, giving alms to the poor is one of the chief witnesses to fraternal charity: it is also a work of justice pleasing to God: (Cf. Tob 4:5-11; Sir 17:22; Mt 6:2-4.)"  (emphasis mine)

In addition to the Scriptures quoted above in the catechism, I would add James 2:15-16 to underscore the urgent nature of the church's mission as a vehicle for giving and charity: "Imagine a brother or sister who is naked and never has enough food to eat.  What if one of you said, "Go in peace!  Stay warm!  Have a nice meal!"  What good is it if you don't give them what their body actually needs?" (CEB)

Asked about this discrepancy in an April interview with the Christian Broadcasting Network, Ryan had this to say:

"A person’s faith is central to how they conduct themselves in public and in private. So to me, using my Catholic faith, we call it the social magisterium, which is how do you apply the doctrine of your teaching into your everyday life as a lay person?
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."

Again, emphasis mine.

Keep in mind that the Catholic catechism does not disqualify the state from performing works of mercy--indeed, the catechism also states that states bear some (though not exclusive or primary) responsibility of "overseeing and directing the exercise of human rights in the economic sector."

Given that reality, I truly have no idea how Ryan does square his economic proposals with his church's social teaching.  Advancement of the common good is not a task abdicated by the state--it is in fact why our state was created: the Constitution preamble includes the phrase "in order to...promote the general welfare."

I'm not saying that government is always right.  But to assume that the government has no role to play in social justice and economic fairness flies in the face of Scripture, historical church teaching, and the spirit of the Constitution.

If Ryan disagrees with his church on this one, that's perfectly fine.  I know I don't agree with everything the Disciples have done over the course of their history.

But he should probably just come out and say so.

Update: Gary Weiss, writing for CNN, just came out with an interesting piece that touches on some of these same issues, and he concludes that Ryan "can either be an objectivist or a Christian.  He can't have it both ways."  Do you agree with such a dichotomy?  Do you disagree?  Why?

Yours in Christ,


  1. I don't believe one can be both an objectivist and a Christian. Paul Ryan tried to bridge that gap yesterday (http://www.realclearpolitics.com/video/2012/08/14/paul_ryan_rejects_ayn_rands_objectivism_philosophy.html). He claims to embrace Rand's economic principals of liberty and free enterprise while rejecting her "atheistic philosophy".

    I can understand the attractiveness of some of the characters in "Atlas Shrugged" especially for rugged individualists, but in Rand's novel, all of the characters are deeply flawed. Everyone seems to be descended from the heartless tin woodsman, the brainless scarecrow, or the cowardly lion. If this is all you have to choose from, it is no wonder that the tin woodsmen end up the heroes. I would much prefer a leader who had a heart as well as brains and courage.

  2. At least in the realm of ethics and the importance of reason, I would tend to agree that Christianity and objectivism are in many ways at odds with each other.

    I actually don't have a problem with Ryan picking and choosing from within Rand's philosophical views (ie, upholding free enterprise, rejecting atheism) because I know I'm that way with philosophers I admire--for instance, I don't agree with everything that Soren Kierkegaard says, so it feels unfair to put that burden on another person.

    But it isn't coincidence that I was thinking of Kierkegaard here. He was also oriented towards the individual, but saw ethics through the lens of experience, not objective reason. Experience is, I think, as sure a way to the heart as any, and it certainly builds ones' brains and courage as well, but Rand doesn't really bother with that potential.

    Thanks for commenting!

  3. It seems contradictory to me that religious conservatives seek to leverage government power to deal with social issues like abortion and marriage, but then cry out for limited government when it comes to the social issues of poverty?

    If we cut out government aid to the poor and say it is the churches role to care for the down and out, we would have a lot of work on our hands. According to a recent sojourners article Church charities only provide about 5% of the food made available to the poor. Why would we not leverage government influence to care for the needs of the down and out if it would allow more people to be helped?

  4. Hey Phil--yeah, I do see the contradiction as well, and to be honest, when I hear someone call for a government based on "Biblical principles," I think of a government that helps the least among us.

    Another interesting statistic I came across once from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities is that SNAP (our federal government food stamps program) puts 92% of its revenues towards benefits (as opposed to administration and overhead), which is a much better percentage than many, if not most, charities, and definitely far more efficient than churches, whose biggest biggest line items are almost always personnel and the church building itself. Not only do churches contribute relatively little of the food aid for the poor, but we aren't the most efficient at doing so either.

    (the link to that CBPP report: http://www.cbpp.org/cms/index.cfm?fa=view&id=2226)

    So yeah, in the end, I feel the same way as you...if it means fewer people going hungry or homeless, I don't really care where the money comes from, whether its the government or the churches, or, preferably, both.