It is time to get serious about Catholic social doctrine

Here is William McGurn, from his column in yesterday’s WSJ:

Paul Ryan shocked the gentle souls at Georgetown University when he traveled up to their campus last Thursday and said: “We believe that Social Security legislation, now billed as a great victory for the poor and for the worker, is a great defeat for Christianity. It is an acceptance of the idea of force and compulsion.” The Wisconsin Republican went on to lament that “we in our generation have more and more come to consider the state as bountiful Uncle Sam,” and that citizens justify what they get from the state by saying, “We got it coming to us.”

Sure sounds like Mr. Ryan was channeling Ayn Rand.

Except for one thing. The words are not Mr. Ryan’s. They come from a 1945 column by Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker, in which she complained about how state intervention limits personal freedom and responsibility. Day’s skepticism about government was reflected in her nickname for it: “Holy Mother State.”

Or, in the words of Pope Benedict XVI, in his encyclical Deus Caritas Est (2005): “The State which would provide everything, absorbing everything into itself, would ultimately become a mere bureaucracy incapable of guaranteeing the very thing which the suffering person—every person—needs: namely, loving personal concern. We do not need a State which regulates and controls everything, but a State which, in accordance with the principle of subsidiarity, generously acknowledges and supports initiatives arising from the different social forces and combines spontaneity with closeness to those in need. The Church is one of those living forces: she is alive with the love enkindled by the Spirit of Christ.”

McGurn continues:

How far we have traveled since then. As the protests surrounding Mr. Ryan’s appearance confirm, the Catholic left long ago jettisoned any worries about the size or scope of government (except for national defense). So the Sermon on the Mount now becomes a call for a single-payer system of universal health insurance.

In this worldview, those who believe otherwise—i.e., those who argue that you best help the poor by breaking down barriers to ownership and opportunity—are not simply mistaken. They are selfish and uncaring. It’s the same meme President Obama played to when he recently characterized the GOP’s approach as “you’re on your own economics.”

Mr. Ryan believes otherwise. At Georgetown he delivered a spirited defense of his budget. He did so notwithstanding attacks by various Catholic bishops and a letter from 90 Georgetown professors decrying his “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.”

Now, even a Georgetown professor ought to understand that, for the most part, we’re not talking about “cuts” at all; we’re talking about the rate of increase in spending. Under Mr. Obama, the increased spending would go to 4.5% a year. Mr. Ryan’s “radical” reform proposes to keep it to 3%.

Read the entire piece. Phil Lawler also has an excellent piece on the matter over at He begins:

Congressman Paul Ryan spoke at Georgetown about how his Catholic faith informs his political thinking, and thus his budget plan. The headline on our Catholic World News story read, “Ryan defends compatibility of House budget with Catholic teaching.” But the headline on a report from the Religion News Service on the same talk, appearing in the Washington Post, conveyed exactly the opposite message: “GOP budget chief ducks questions on budget’s Catholic roots.”

Now wait a minute. The Wisconsin lawmaker went to Georgetown to talk about the Catholic roots of his budget. How can RNS possibly claim that he ducked the topic? If you read the text of the Congressman’s talk, if you read our CWN summary, if you read Ryan’s public statement from the day before his talk, if you read George Weigel’s perceptive analysis of the Georgetown appearance, even if you read the snippets from Ryan’s talk that appeared in this grossly skewed RNS report–in short, if you make any effort actually to learn what Ryan said—how can you possibly justify a headline that says he ducked the question? You can’t.

“Paul Ryan did not want to engage in a theological debate,” reads the lead sentence in the RNS story. That statement is defensible only if one draws a sharp distinction between Catholic theology and Catholic social teaching. Ryan, a practical politician, did not go to Georgetown to speak about the Monophysite heresy or the Thomistic proofs of the existence of God. He went to Georgetown to speak about how the social doctrine of the Church influenced his budget proposal—which is, again, precisely the subject that the Washington Post headline claimed he had ducked.

A number of conclusions can be drawn from all of this, but one of the most important is those who might be generally described as “liberal” or “progressive” have long concluded that Catholic social doctrine was and is theirs to interpret, parce, and control. And to that end, many have knowingly or unwittingly skewed, misused, or used in dubious ways many of the key terms associated with Catholic social doctrine, including “solidarity” and “social justice” and “the common good”. In so doing, they have done a great disservice to both Catholics and non-Catholics alike.

But that is changing; more and more people are realizing that Catholic social doctrine is not the docile pet of those on the left. This is not to render judgment one way or another on each of Ryan’s arguments. But one thing in his favor is that while he claims Catholic social teaching as a guide and influence, he doesn’t insist that he possesses a magisterial authority in the realm. Rather, he proffers arguments and facts. The largely, even completely, negative reaction by those on the liberal side of the political spectrum is telling. As McGurn suggests, they do not want an argument or even a discussion; they fail in most cases to even acknowledge the mountain of elephants in the room—the massive defecit that not only will not go away with a flourish of the pen or a clever rhetorical spin, but which is a growing threat to the solvency and stability of the American government and nation. These are times for serious discussions by serious people. I believe the evidence shows Rep. Ryan is one of those serious people; I am not so certain about many of his critics.

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About Carl E. Olson 1233 Articles
Carl E. Olson is editor of Catholic World Report and Ignatius Insight. He is the author of Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?, Will Catholics Be "Left Behind"?, co-editor/contributor to Called To Be the Children of God, co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax (Ignatius), and author of the "Catholicism" and "Priest Prophet King" Study Guides for Bishop Robert Barron/Word on Fire. His recent books on Lent and Advent—Praying the Our Father in Lent (2021) and Prepare the Way of the Lord (2021)—are published by Catholic Truth Society. He is also a contributor to "Our Sunday Visitor" newspaper, "The Catholic Answer" magazine, "The Imaginative Conservative", "The Catholic Herald", "National Catholic Register", "Chronicles", and other publications. Follow him on Twitter @carleolson.