Paul Ryan: Faithful Catholic or Ayn Rand disciple?

It’s 2015, which means it’s 2012 all over again, with pundits taking aim at the (take your pick) curious, strange, interesting, rotten, or revealing influence of Rand on Ryan

A reader left this comment yesterday in response to George Weigel’s piece about Speakers of the House and Paul Ryan:

Impossible to understand how anyone can conclude Ryan is a faithful Catholic when he is so stuck on the legacy of one Ayn Rand and her objectivism poison. Everything he proposes only confirms his love affair with her philosophy. Simply because Paul happens to be in sync with our positions on the nature of marriage, the evils of abortion, etc., does not mean he is a good Catholic, faithful to Church teachings on social matters, the poor, etc. He is way wrong on a host of significant issues all linked to the essential dignity of life and all individuals. Remember, Ayn Rand is the one who made no bones about espousng selfishness as a virtue. She tagged altruism as absurd and she personally had no problem with abortion, homosexuality, adultry, etc. Her books are, in Paul’s own words, recommended/required reading for his staffers. Really? Have the courage to recognize him as he really is, a marginal Catholic at best, a pseudo Catholic at worst.

If you do a search for “Paul Ryan” and “Ayn Rand” you’ll find that pundits, scribes, and screamers are covering territory that was thoroughly scorched back in 2012, when Ryan was chosen as Mitt Romney’s running mate. Three years, in August 2012, I wrote a long (6,400 words!) piece on the topic, titled “Paul Ryan’s radical beliefs about budgets, politics, and society”. Not because I was a Ryan apologist, but because 97% or so of what was being written and said was—what’s the word I’m looking for?—stupid. Yes, stupid. That doesn’t necessarily mean that Ryan is perfect (I doubt it), or that he is the perfect embodiment of a Catholic politician. I’m happy to take a rather agnostic stance on that matter. But when you look at what many leftists, progressives, and ideological shriekers  (yes, I repeat my repetition) are putting out there now about Ryan and Rand, it’s pretty much the same old stuff. So, I’m reposting, without edits, my 2012 piece. It is, of course, dated in certain ways, but not on the most important points.

Paul Ryan’s radical beliefs about budgets, politics, and society (Originally posted August 12, 2012)

This is, without doubt, brazen and even radical stuff, full of the sort of triumphalistic, jingoistic, and greedy rhetoric you expect from Republicans and conservatives. Brace yourself:

[We] will confidently proceed to unshackle American enterprise and to free American labor, industrial leadership, and capital, to create an abundance that will outstrip any other system.

Free competitive enterprise is the most creative and productive form of economic order that the world has seen. The recent slow pace of American growth is due not to the failure of our free economy but to the failure of our national leadership. …

Economic growth is the means whereby we improve the American standard of living and produce added tax resources for national security and essential public services. …

The American free enterprise system is one of the great achievements of the human mind and spirit. It has developed by a combination of the energetic efforts of working men and women, bold private initiative, the profit motive and wise public policy, until it is now the productive marvel of mankind. …

We will seek further tax reduction—and in the process we need to remove inequities in our present tax laws. In particular we should carefully review all our excise taxes and eliminate those that are obsolete. Consideration should be given to the development of fiscal policies which would provide revenue sources to hard-pressed state and local governments to assist them with their responsibilities.

Every penny of Federal spending must be accounted for in terms of the strictest economy, efficiency and integrity. We pledge to continue a frugal government, getting a dollar’s value for a dollar spent, and a government worthy of the citizen’s confidence.

Our goal is a balanced budget in a balanced economy.

Wow. That Ayn Rand-worshiping Ryan fellow is crazy!

Oh, wait. My apologies; the quotes above were all taken from the 1960 and 1964 Democratic Party Platforms. How did that happen? Whoops. Well, consider it a quick journey down memory lane.

• I actually started writing this post three days ago, not long after the news broke that the most right-wing, narrow-minded conservative in the history of the world had been chosen by Mitt Romney as vice-president candidate for the “Hate the Women!” party (yes, I’m struggling to control the sarcasm). A man so radical that in the early 1960s he would have been reasonably positioned and perceived as a moderate to conservative Democrat. A man so far to the Extreme Right that he is re-elected on a regular basis—by substantial margins—in a district that voted for Obama in 2008. Chew on that for a few seconds and then ask yourself, “Do the Dallas Cowboys have a shot at the Super Bowl this year? How much has changed in the U.S. in the past fifty years?”

I had intended to write a 20,000-word essay about the Righteous Rebukes of the Radical Ryan, but have decided to instead highlight some of the several dozen articles and posts I’ve read about the topic, adding in a few thoughts of my own. Prepare for analysis, brilliance, sarcasm, typos, and opinions galore. Here goes!

• I will give pride of place to a prelate, Bishop Robert C. Morlino, who is Ryan’s bishop. Bishop Morlino’s column, “Subsidiarity, solidarity, and the lay mission”, was posted today and is must reading for anyone curious as to why an Objectivist puppet (sorry, more sarcasm) such as Ryan should be taken seriously as a Catholic, politician, and VP candidate. Several excellent points are made, including the baseline fact that moral principles come before social doctrine; that is, if you are pursuing policies (say, advocating more contraceptives and abortions) that are contrary to the moral teachings of the Church, you need to lay off the appeals to “social justice” and “common good” because you clearly aren’t interested in accurately conveying what they are:

It is the role of bishops and priests to teach principles of our faith, such that those who seek elected offices, if they are Catholics, are to form their consciences according to these principles about particular policy issues.

However, the formation of conscience regarding particular policy issues is different depending on how fundamental to the ecology of human nature or the Catholic faith a particular issue is. Some of the most fundamental issues for the formation of a Catholic conscience are as follows: sacredness of human life from conception to natural death, marriage, religious freedom and freedom of conscience, and a right to private property.

Violations of the above involve intrinsic evil — that is, an evil which cannot be justified by any circumstances whatsoever. These evils are examples of direct pollution of the ecology of human nature and can be discerned as such by human reason alone. Thus, all people of good will who wish to follow human reason should deplore any and all violations in the above areas, without exception. The violations would be: abortion, euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide, same-sex marriage, government-coerced secularism, and socialism.

With those principles in place, Bishop Morlino notes, there is a lot of room for debate, dialogue, and conversation—and even compromise.

As one looks at issues such as the two mentioned above and seeks to apply the principles of solidarity and subsidiarity, Catholics and others of good will can arrive at different conclusions. These are conclusions about the best means to promote the preferential option for the poor, or the best means to reach a lower percentage of unemployment throughout our country. No one is contesting here anyone’s right to the basic needs of food, clothing, shelter, healthcare, etc. Nor is anyone contesting someone’s right to work and so provide for self and family. However there can be difference according to how best to follow the principles which the Church offers.

• This is, to put it simply, the thing that drives a lot of Catholics (across the spectrum) over the edge: the fact that Catholic social doctrine allows for a wide range of prudential judgments when it comes to, well, a lot of issues: taxes, economics, etc., etc. But it seems to drive progressive Catholics especially nuts because they have a serious problem: many of them support contraceptives, abortion, assisted suicide, same-sex marriage, Yanni, and so forth, but wish to appear as if they are the true-blue Catholics when it comes to caring for the poor (despite conservatives giving more money to charities), caring for the poor (despite supporting abortions of poor, unborn children), and caring for the poor (okay, you get the picture).

The key point here is that if Paul Ryan says, as he has, that he is a proponent of Catholic social doctrine, that he is a serious Catholic, and that he wants to apply his beliefs to prudent policies and political measures, it behooves people of good will to accept him as his word. (After all, we were told repeatedly in 2007 and 2008 that Barack Obama was a pro-life, pro-Catholic candidate—and to deny it was to epitome of narrow-minded partisanship.) Then, with that established, raise legitimate points of criticism about how Ryan apparently applies the principles he appeals to. But, of course, there are a lot of people who don’t care too much about good will, and who would rather paint Ryan in terms that they would likely never use in writing about an guilty Islamicist terrorist. For example, Charles Pierce gleefully lets the cat out of the bag in a piece titled, “Murderer of Opportunity, Political Coward, Candidate for Vice President of the United States”, which includes these (ahem!) measure points:

• “… In his decision to make Paul Ryan, the zombie-eyed granny-starver from Wisconsin, his running mate, Romney finally surrendered the tattered remnants of his soul not only to the extreme base of his party, but also to extremist economic policies, and to an extremist view of the country he seeks to lead.”

• “… Paul Ryan is an authentically dangerous zealot. He does not want to reform entitlements. He wants to eliminate them. He wants to eliminate them because he doesn’t believe they are a legitimate function of government. He is a smiling, aw-shucks murderer of opportunity, a creator of dystopias in which he never will have to live. This now is an argument not over what kind of political commonwealth we will have, but rather whether or not we will have one at all, because Paul Ryan does not believe in the most primary institution of that commonwealth: our government.”

• “In any way that will come to matter to the people whose lives his policies will make harder and more miserable, Paul Ryan is still the high-school kid living off Social Security survivor benefits and reading Ayn Rand by flashlight under the sheets. Instead, he’s a guy pretending to be something he’s not, and doing so back in Janesville in a very swell Georgian mansion, which just happens to be listed on the National Register of Historic Places.”

Michael Sean Winters, who writes for a publication with “Catholic” in its masthead, is a bit more circumspect (What? No use of the word “crazy”?): “Mitt Romney’s choice of Congressman Paul Ryan to be his running mate is electrifying. But, electricity is dangerous at times and, in this instance, Ryan is standing in a pool of watery dissent from Catholic Social Teaching that has existed on the Catholic right for some time.” (Note: several of Winter’s assertions about William F. Buckley are taken to the woodshed in this NRO article.]

Of course, being lectured by someone from NCReporter about “dissent” is like being lectured by a fast-food junkie about “eating healthy”. Winters continues: “Mr. Ryan has taken to invoking Catholic Social Teaching, and especially the concept of subsidiarity, to defend his budgetary schemes. Alas, he could not tell the difference between subsidiarity and sausage.” We now know that Mr. Winters is adept at weak metaphors—electricity! water! sausage! Beyond that, we learn little else. Actually, I think any reasonable person recognizes that Ryan knows what subsidiarity is; Winters’ problem is that he confuses his preferred application to it to Ryan’s application—probably because most progressive Catholics think they own social doctrine. Ryan, in a April 10, 2012, television interview, said the following (without a teleprompter or notes):

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.

That is a very sound and Catholic explanation of subsidiarity. Yet Winters snarks:

If Mr. Ryan were advocating innovative local and state programs to help the poor, his pleas for less federal spending might be credible. As it is, he is not. He wishes to slash federal spending on programs that help the poor so he can provide the super-rich with more tax breaks and hope that the miracle of the Unseen Hand of the Market will fix every social ill. Did he sleep through the autumn of 2008? Does he really believe that the market can fix everything?

Ooh, I can smell the sausage burning! Perhaps Winters had this in mind:

There is something wrong with our government transfer programs if they are increasingly steering assistance to the wealthy, while at the same time growing at unsustainable rates. The looming bankruptcy of the federal government, which would shred the social safety net, is the greatest threat these programs face. Lamentably, this study shows that the threat is being intensified as a direct result of the government spending money it doesn’t have on higher-income Americans who don’t need it. …

A prudent course of action for policymakers would be to advance sensible reforms to the unsustainable benefit structure of these programs so that government is doing a better job of directing assistance to those that need it most, while giving less help to households that need it least. For Social Security, the Bowles-Simpson Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform laid the groundwork by outlining reforms that would reduce the growth in benefits for higher-income workers. For Medicare, the House-passed budget, The Path to Prosperity, proposed no changes for those currently in or near retirement, but for future generations, it proposed a premium-support system that provides more help for the poor and the sick, and less help for the wealthy.

Sausage! Pure watery, electric sausage!

• Actually, instead of letting conservative-bashing, Republican-despising Winters speak for Ryan, why not let Ryan speak for Ryan (I know, it’s not how progressives usually operate, but I’m not a progressive)? Here is an excerpt from a recent Ryan essay, “Who Built America?”, on the American Spectator site:

Every successful individual knows that his or her achievement requires a community of persons working together. We strengthen our bonds with each other as we offer our unique gifts to others. Customers reward the best and most efficient producers by buying their products and services. We work to advance the common good through our free association with each other, not because a coercive government directs our actions. Each human being has inherent dignity and unique gifts. Individuals thrive as they voluntarily share those gifts and talents with each other, in mutual assistance to meet their neighbors’ needs. We could never do this if we were isolated individuals as caricatured in the president’s distorted view of America’s commitment to free enterprise.

Of course government has a critical role to play in establishing neutral rules that enable open competition, and in securing peace and order with courts, a standard currency, defense forces, first responders, teachers, infrastructure, and a safety net for the most vulnerable.

Government can help create the space for innovation and prosperity, but government can not fill that space. Activist government overreach and ongoing economic stagnation have shown us why Washington should never try to displace what is best left to civil society.

There are pernicious side effects from Washington’s ever-increasing intrusion into sectors of our economy and into aspects of our lives. Big-government economics breeds crony capitalism. It’s corrupt, anything but neutral, and a barrier to broad participation in prosperity. Both political parties have been guilty of this trend. Most recently, Washington has pursued polices that pick winners and losers in specific sectors of our economy, and that favor well-connected corporations and union bosses with bureaucratic access, tax loopholes, and regulatory waivers. Think Solyndra, bankrupt after a $500 million taxpayer guarantee, and Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, which continue to stifle the recovery while draining billions from the Treasury.

The moral case for individual initiative in a free economy holds that people have a God-given right to use their creativity to produce things that improve their lives. A free economy and strong communities honor the dignity of every person, reward effort with justice, promote upward mobility, and build solidarity among citizens. The president’s vision of a collective, government-centered society — reflected in his troubling rhetoric and failed policies — divides class against class and belittles fair rewards for workers, entrepreneurs, and investors — those who have built America into the greatest nation in the history of mankind.

Read the entire piece. Then read, say, Centesimus annus, and see how they compare.

• In other words, the case can be reasonably made that Ryan’s position is a moderate one between statism and “slash-and-burn” approaches that would seek to defund and do away with large swaths of the federal government. The most intensive, spittle-spewing attacks on Ryan tell us much more about where the far left is and wishes to be than it does about Ryan’s actual positions. (The fact is, not a few political conservatives think Ryan doesn’t go far enough in his budget.)  In his NYTImes’ column, “Why Moderates Should Like Paul Ryan”, Ross Douthat writes:

[Ryan’s] budget has plenty of faults, to be sure. But some of its more obvious problems reflect his party’s continuing deficiencies rather than Ryan’s.

The budget repeals the health care bill without replacing it, for instance, not because Ryan doesn’t have a substantial alternative in mind (he continues to support a version of the bill he sponsored with Tom Coburn), but because too many of his fellow congressmen remained unwilling to take the plunge into specificity on that issue.

Similarly, the Ryan budget holds discretionary spending below the realm of plausibility in part because he couldn’t persuade his fellow Republicans to sign on to Social Security reform, which Ryan himself has repeatedly endorsed.

The budget’s proposed tax reform, meanwhile, specifies new lower rates but not the deductions and loopholes that would be closed to pay for them. But Ryan clearly has an idea of which deductions he would cap and which shelters he would eliminate. He just hasn’t persuaded his fellow lawmakers to shoulder the political risks involved in getting specific.

All in all, then, on a series of difficult policy questions, Ryan has either pushed his party in a politically risky but more responsible direction (on Medicare reform) or else endorsed the riskier but more responsible approach himself (on health care and Social Security reform). He has twisted arms when arm-twisting was possible and flown solo when it seemed necessary. To the extent that there is a plausible Republican response to the Obama agenda, he’s the biggest reason it exists.

Read it all.

• What about the Ayn Rand elephant in the Ryan room? It’s a good question and very legitimate one. I think some conservative commentators have been too quick to discount this thorny issue. I also recognize they are responding, in some cases, to claims that Ryan is a Rand disciple like no other, as if the man has an Ayn Rand icon corner set up in his office. Yet it is also the case that Ryan has expressed great admiration for aspects of Rand’s thought in the past, as in this 2005 address given to The Atlas Society:

(2:01) I grew up reading Ayn Rand and it taught me quite a bit about who I am and what my value systems are, and what my beliefs are. It’s inspired me so much that it’s required reading in my office for all my interns and my staff. We start with Atlas Shrugged. People tell me I need to start with The Fountainhead then go to Atlas Shrugged [laughter]. There’s a big debate about that. We go to Fountainhead, but then we move on, and we require Mises and Hayek as well.
“I always go back to… Francisco d’Anconia’s speech [in Atlas Shrugged] on money when I think about monetary policy.”
(2:23) But the reason I got involved in public service, by and large, if I had to credit one thinker, one person, it would be Ayn Rand. And the fight we are in here, make no mistake about it, is a fight of individualism versus collectivism.

My own dislike for Rand began when I was given one of her novels (The Fountainhead, I think) by a librarian when I was in high school. I read about half of it and then ditched it, thinking it was poorly written, dull, and dislikable (otherwise, it was great!). I’ve never wavered from that initial impression (fortunately, I was reading Solzhenitsyn, Brave New World, Ray Bradbury, and 1984 while in high school). So I am somewhat mystified by the number of people who are taken with her writing. But, having mulled it over the years, I’ve come to the following conclusion: for many teenage readers, Rand was the first writer who outlined and then critiqued totalitarianism, group think, and statism. In addition, Rand tapped into the teenage angst regarding being, well, an individual in a society that often seems impersonal, cold, and downright dislikable for many teens. Rand, then, is a heretic (I use that term loosely, not necessarily theologically) who gets a few, important things right (or nearly right), and does so in a way that is appealing to certain readers.

When Ryan speaks of Rand, he focuses on two things: individualism vs. collectivism, and capitalism vs. statism. A lot of hay has been made of this, and part of it seems to be because critics don’t bother to present how Rand herself defined “individualism” and “collectivism”, and so they present Ryan as an emotionally-challenged, hyper-individualist who has no interest in helping his neighbor or having a government that helps those in need. But Rand defined “individualism” in this way:

Individualism regards man—every man—as an independent, sovereign entity who possesses an inalienable right to his own life, a right derived from his nature as a rational being. Individualism holds that a civilized society, or any form of association, cooperation or peaceful coexistence among men, can be achieved only on the basis of the recognition of individual rights—and that a group, as such, has no rights other than the individual rights of its members.

Do not make the mistake of the ignorant who think that an individualist is a man who says: “I’ll do as I please at everybody else’s expense.” An individualist is a man who recognizes the inalienable individual rights of man—his own and those of others. … An individualist is a man who says: “I will not run anyone’s life—nor let anyone run mine. I will not rule nor be ruled. I will not be a master nor a slave. I will not sacrifice myself to anyone—nor sacrifice anyone to myself.”

Without a basis in a transcendent good—that is, God—Rand’s views don’t hold up well (for instance: who, then, grants “inalienable individual rights” if there is no one greater than man?). Rand was not a good philosopher. But she communicated some meaningful things with some adeptness. And her understandings of the individual in relation to society as well as her notion of personal rights are hardly outrageous. As for collectivism, Rand described it as “statism”, that is, the belief that the State is the End and Goal of human existence:

Collectivism holds that, in human affairs, the collective—society, the community, the nation, the proletariat, the race, etc.—is the unit of reality and the standard of value. On this view, the individual has reality only as part of the group, and value only insofar as he serves it. ..

Collectivism holds that the individual has no rights, that his life and work belong to the group . . . and that the group may sacrifice him at its own whim to its own interests. The only way to implement a doctrine of that kind is by means of brute force—and statism has always been the political corollary of collectivism.

Not surprisingly, some of Ryan’s critics have been so eager to paint him as an Objectivist disciple that they have either ignored or misrepresented both Rand’s beliefs and the teachings of the Catholic Church. In a piece, “Ayn Rand vs. the pope”, Matthew Harwood seeks mightily to describe how “the two contradictory philosophies” are “warring for Paul Ryan’s soul”. In doing so, he makes some dubious, even embarrassingly incorrect, assertions:

This naturally begs the question of how a devout Catholic can follow the social justice theology of the church yet also idolize an atheist that preached the “virtue of selfishness.” Somehow in Paul Ryan’s mind, Jesus Christ and Ayn Rand are complementary figures, not warring factions in defining how an individual should lead a moral life.

It’s not clear how Harwood was able to invade Ryan’s mind, but it might have been helpful if he pointed out how Rand defined “selfishness”. Which is not to defend said definition, but merely to note that she doesn’t define it as most people do, instead seeing it as proper self-interest and the rightful pursuit of self-preservation. A bigger point, however, is that Christians are often criticized for not appreciating and investigating the beliefs of others—but when Ryan, a Catholic, expresses admiration for some of Rand’s views, he’s presented not as an open-minded, nuanced thinker, but a schizophrenic loon. I suspect, however, that if Ryan expressed admiration for Marx or some notable socialist thinker, he might not hear as much criticism about those author’s “anti-Christian, atheistic” beliefs.

Harwood’s sloppiness with definitions is also evident here:

It isn’t cynical to ask whether Ryan, seeing his career trajectory in ascendancy, chose to not alienate his socially conservative Christian base by repudiating a marginal philosophy he repeatedly touted in the past. But by doing so, he calls into question his intellectual honesty, particularly since his new intellectual role model, Thomas Aquinas, had a habit of writing collectivist things too: “Man should not consider his material possession his own, but as common to all, so as to share them without hesitation when others are in need.”

Needless to say, Aquinas was not a collectivist as Rand used the term, nor was Aquinas a statist. In fact, Harwood’s facile appeal to Aquinas is quite laughable; he would do well to read the entire section of the Summa, which is about as non-collectivist as one can be; actually, it is quite damning of collectivism!

I answer that, Two things are competent to man in respect of exterior things. One is the power to procure and dispense them, and in this regard it is lawful for man to possess property. Moreover this is necessary to human life for three reasons. First because every man is more careful to procure what is for himself alone than that which is common to many or to all: since each one would shirk the labor and leave to another that which concerns the community, as happens where there is a great number of servants. Secondly, because human affairs are conducted in more orderly fashion if each man is charged with taking care of some particular thing himself, whereas there would be confusion if everyone had to look after any one thing indeterminately. Thirdly, because a more peaceful state is ensured to man if each one is contented with his own. Hence it is to be observed that quarrels arise more frequently where there is no division of the things possessed.

Harwood also butchers this one:

Interestingly enough, though, there is one rare area where the modern Catholic Church and Ayn Rand agree, and that’s the immorality of war. Unfortunately, this is the one area where Ryan breaks rank with both his intellectual models. Not only did Ryan vote in favor of the Iraq War, his budget proposal increases defense spending.

Apparently he is unfamiliar with a little thing known as the “just war” doctrine, which the Catechism of the Catholic Church helpfully spells out by first stating, “All citizens and all governments are obliged to work for the avoidance of war” before stating, “However, ‘as long as the danger of war persists and there is no international authority with the necessary competence and power, governments cannot be denied the right of lawful self-defense, once all peace efforts have failed.'” (par 2308; see pars 2308-17). Was the Iraq War a “just war”? That’s debatable. What is not debatable is that Harwood is completely wrong about the moral qualities of all wars.

• While some have blasted Ryan for holding too tightly to Randian beliefs and thus advocating a sort of heartless, neo-libertartianism, others take the tack of blasting Ryan for not following Rand closely enough when it comes to “civil liberties”. Ben Adler, writing for The Nation, argues that Ryan is just a heartless jerk, no matter what the topic:

It is true that Ryan, like his mentor Jack Kemp, subscribes to Rand’s heartless belief in refusing to aid the less fortunate. But Ryan does not share any of Rand’s commitments to freedom, other than the freedom to be selfish. …

-§  Gay rights: Ryan has voted in favor of amending the US Constitution to ban gay marriage. He supported banning gay marriage in Wisconsin and opposed letting gay soldiers serve openly in the military. It is impossible to support individual freedom and limited government while trying to amend the Constitution to take away the rights of consenting adults to marry the person they love, and to take away the rights of more civilized states to recognize such unions.

-§   Reproductive rights: Ryan has all the usual right-wing positions on abortion. He has voted to ban federal funding of abortions and even for training healthcare providers in abortion care. He also opposes requiring insurers to provide coverage for contraception. …

Need it be pointed out, again, that Catholic social doctrine rests on certain moral absolutes, including the inviolable dignity of human life (“Human life must be respected and protected absolutely from the moment of conception.” CCC 2270), the fact that marriage is between a man and a woman, and that the very notion of “same-sex marriage” is absurd?

• As expected, the Obama administration has already presented the “fact” that “Paul Ryan would take us backward on women’s health” by virtue of Ryan’s outrageous belief that the unborn are actually people who have the right to life. In the words of ABC News, “Ryan is firmly against abortion rights.” Clearly the man from Wisconsin doesn’t realize that only 50% of Americans consider themselves “pro-life” while a whopping 41% identify as “pro-choice”. He’s so out of touch! 

• Back to the topic of Ryan and Thomism, I recommend the essay, “Evaluating Paul Ryan’s “Thomism”, by Joseph Trabbic. A snippet:

I think that when Ryan endorses Aquinas in the above quote a lot of people have taken him to mean that his (Ryan’s) economic, social, and political views (and not just his epistemology) are Thomistic or at least that we can legitimately evaluate them from a Thomistic standpoint. This is how it seems that an author named “Joan” at the Subversive Thomism blog and Ed Kilgore at the The Washington Monthly interpret Ryan.

How would we go about evaluating Ryan’s economic, social, and political views from a Thomistic perspective? An obvious starting point would be to look at how these views square with Aquinas’s teaching on natural law since it is this teaching that informs Aquinas’s own views in these areas. So, I hope you will bear with me while I give a brief-all-too-brief account of Aquinas’s natural law doctrine as I understand it. Those of you who would just prefer to go straight to my conclusion can skip this part. (Scroll down to the heading: “Is Paul Ryan a Thomist?”)

• Also worth reading: “Critics say VP Candidate Paul Ryan’s Catholicism Undermined by Atheist Philosopher” by Andrew Walker for the Institute on Relligion & Democracy website.

• And what about the oft-repeated claim that Ryan’s budget has been dismissed and deemed immoral by the U.S. bishops? That is based on a May 8th letter to the House of Representatives by Bp. Stephen E. Blaire of Stockton, California, which said the following about the Ryan budget:

The Catholic bishops of the United States recognize the serious deficits our country faces, and we acknowledge that Congress must make difficult decisions about how to allocate burdens and sacrifices and balance resources and needs. However, deficit reduction and fiscal responsibility efforts must protect and not undermine the needs of poor and vulnerable people. The proposed cuts to programs in the budget reconciliation fail this basic moral test. The Catechism of the Catholic Church states it is the proper role of government to “make accessible to each what is needed to lead a truly human life: food, clothing, health, work, education and culture, suitable information, the right to establish a family, and so on” (no. 1908). Poor and vulnerable people do not have powerful lobbyists to advocate their interests, but they have the most compelling needs. (emphasis added)

From what I understand, the “proposed cuts” are in rate of growth—not in actual cuts to existing funds. More importantly, in my opinion, Bp. Blaire’s opinion on this matter is neither magisterial or even helpful (heaven help us if letters from individual bishops—who are not Pope—are infallible!). As Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann told me in this June 29, 2012, CWR interview:

We cannot simply propose things that are going to increase the debt, and we need to be a responsible voice in the discussion. That was one of my concerns about the criticisms of Paul Ryan’s budget proposal. I don’t think his proposal is perfect and I think it can be criticized, but I was specifically upset because there were letters sent by the committee [the Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development] that spoke about aspects of his proposal being immoral, and I think that was an overstating. We can be critical of aspects of it, but I think Ryan offered a legitimate proposal that was trying to respond to human needs that are there as well as to the national debt, which can also be a great injustice if we pass that on to our children and grandchildren.

And there is the fact that the Senate, on the other side, has offered nothing, hasn’t offered a budget. So here, at least, is a proposal, and I think that Representative Ryan makes a case as to how this proposal can be consistent with Catholic principles. Now, whether it is the right proposal or the best proposal, I don’t claim to know. But I think it is wrong to call it “immoral”—as opposed to saying how it is really irresponsible for the Senate to not even put a proposal out there while simply sitting back and criticizing the only viable proposal that has been put forward by the Congress at this point.

Rev. Thomas V. Berg, in a May 11, 2012 essay for the Public Discourse website, argued that the Ryan budget is indeed in keeping with Catholic social doctrine, and expressed frustration with the status quo regarding federal welfare reform:

The mistake that some Catholic leaders made in 1995 and 1996 is the same mistake some seem to be making today, which is to equate more federal spending on programs for the poor with the morally superlative approach from the perspective of Catholic social teaching.

Such thinking is oddly negligent of a pillar of Catholic social thought, namely, that no institution is more vital to a healthy society than intact families, with married fathers and mothers raising their children together. Unfortunately, over the past half century, we have witnessed the near total destruction of the family in low-income neighborhoods all across America—neighborhoods in which federal anti-poverty support is ubiquitous. Today, out-of-wedlock births are the norm in these communities, not the exception, with more than 70 percent of African-American children born to unwed mothers.

The hard truth is that the implosion of the nuclear family has coincided precisely with the ramping up of federal low-income assistance programs since the 1960s. Why? Certainly the breakdown of the family is a complex social phenomenon, with many causes. But there’s little doubt that large-scale federal assistance to low-income households with single parents and dependent children has contributed to the destruction. In effect, the federal government has underwritten massive irresponsibility on the part of low-income fathers. They don’t need to act responsibly because the federal government has woven together a massive financial assistance system for single mothers with kids. The result is that multiple generations of low-income Americans have now grown up in neighborhoods almost entirely bereft of a responsible male presence.

This is not a success story to be defended at all costs, especially from the perspective of Catholic social teaching.

Read his excellent essay, “Catholic Social Teaching and the Ryan Budget”.

• And here is part of the landscape that doesn’t seem to be improving: An August 13th USA Today article notes:

Americans don’t believe GOP presidential contender Mitt Romney hit a home run with his choice of Paul Ryan as a running mate, a USA TODAY/Gallup Poll finds, with more of the public giving him lower marks than high ones.

Ryan, a Wisconsin congressman, is seen as only a “fair” or “poor” choice by 42% of Americans vs. 39% who think he is an “excellent” or “pretty good” vice presidential choice.

Oh, goodness! Is it because those polled have read Ryan’s budget? Have followed his career closely? Have compared his proposals and principles to those of others? Uh, probably none of those, considering this little bit of information:

Ryan isn’t well-known. More than half of those surveyed, 53%, say they have never heard of him or don’t know enough to have an opinion. Among those who do, 27% give him a favorable rating, 21% an unfavorable one. By 50%-31%, voters say Ryan is qualified to serve as president.

“Hey, we don’t know anything about you or what you believe, but we don’t think you’d be good at whatever it is that you are trying to do!” How depressing. 

• Finally, I’m so glad the media is digging into Ryan’s beliefs, principles, and ideological patterns. I was beginning to wonder if they had forgotten how to do that when it came to presidential and vice-presidential candidates. Just remember, Ryan’s radical, despicable goal is a is a balanced budget in a balanced economy—just like the Democrats of the 1960s!

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About Carl E. Olson 1227 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.