The Speaker and the social doctrine

Like Sargent Shriver, Paul Ryan—the new Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives—wants to lift up the poor and like Pat Moynihan he understands the premises of Catholic social doctrine

TRIGGER WARNING: This column will speak well of Paul Ryan, the new Speaker of the House of Representatives, and compare him favorably to two liberal icons.

Over forty years of teaching and writing about Catholic social doctrine, I’ve gotten to know three men who had the opportunity to embody the Church’s social teaching for a national audience. Two of them couldn’t pull it off, for different reasons.

The first was R. Sargent Shriver, founding director of the Peace Corps, later head of Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty, still later ambassador to France and 1972 Democratic vice-presidential candidate. Sarge was a wonderful man who struck me as an instinctive Catholic social doctrine guy. He was far better-educated as a Catholic than his Kennedy in-laws. But he “got” the Church’s social doctrine, not as an intellectual exercise, but through his innate decency and his general approach to politics as a matter of “oughts” as well as a matter of power.

LBJ, it seems, thought seriously about putting Sarge on the 1964 Democratic ticket, until the in-laws made it clear that, if there was going to be any member of Clan Kennedy on the ticket in 1964, it would be Bobby, not Sarge. Yet that, in retrospect, was Sarge’s moment. He was ill-matched with George McGovern eight years later. As sitting vice-president and presidential nominee in 1968, though, he might have done what Hubert Humphrey couldn’t manage – pull off a Democratic victory. And a pro-life Democratic president in the early 1970s might have prevented (or at least forestalled) the party’s catastrophic embrace of the abortion license. Thus was a great opportunity lost.

Then there was Daniel Patrick Moynihan. Pat had the intellectual chops to grasp the conceptual architecture of the social doctrine from Leo XIII through John Paul II. And his own Hell’s-Kitchen-to Harvard background gave him street cred in talking about the “common good” and “subsidiarity.” Pat was also much taken with John Paul II and that great pope’s leadership of the Catholic human rights revolution against communist tyranny: a cause Pat himself valiantly promoted as ambassador to the United Nations. So the stars seemed aligned for a champion of the social doctrine to emerge on the national scene.

But in the primaries en route to his U.S. Senate election, Pat had barely beaten Bella Abzug (a distaff Bernie Sanders in floppy hats); he was scared of the New York Times; and he was a Democrat running in New York State after the party had nailed its banner to the mast of Roe v. Wade. So as the Times became the journalistic voice of Planned Parenthood and the life issues moved to the center of the Church’s social concern in America, Pat bailed.

He seemed to regret it toward the end, speaking favorably of a federal ban on partial-birth abortion. But with Pat, as with Sarge (if for quite different reasons), an opportunity was lost.

Now comes the third figure, the new Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, Paul Ryan. Like Sargent Shriver, Paul wants to lift up the poor – better, he wants to help unleash the creativity of poor people so they can lift themselves up and be agents of their own destiny. Like Pat Moynihan, Ryan understands the premises of Catholic social doctrine and their interaction across politics, economics, and culture; but unlike Pat, he isn’t afraid to be a pro-life politician, because he knows that what’s at stake in the life issues – in addition to the lives of the unborn, the elderly, and the severely handicapped – is the character of the country.

Paul Ryan combines Sarge’s natural decency and commitment to family with Pat’s policy-wonkery. Paul thought he had the greatest job in government: chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee. He traded his dream job for the Speaker’s gavel, not out of ambition, but from a sense of duty.

Now one of the key figures on the national stage, Paul Ryan brings to the Speaker’s rostrum a statesman’s commitment to the principles of Catholic social doctrine and a keen sense of the politically possible. Good news, say I.


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About George Weigel 297 Articles
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington's Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies. He is the author of over twenty books, including Witness to Hope: The Biography of Pope John Paul II (1999), The End and the Beginning: Pope John Paul II—The Victory of Freedom, the Last Years, the Legacy (2010), and The Irony of Modern Catholic History: How the Church Rediscovered Itself and Challenged the Modern World to Reform. His most recent book is The Next Pope: The Office of Peter and a Church in Mission (2020), published by Ignatius Press.