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Speaker Ryan invites a social doctrine conversation

No one with any sense or experience imagines that he or she has the silver-bullet answer to poverty in all its social, cultural, economic, and political dimensions.

Sen. Paul Ryan answers a question from Sister Erica Jordan during an August 21st national town hall meeting aired on CNN.

CNN is not the customary locale-of-choice for a catechesis on Catholic social doctrine. But that’s what Paul Ryan, Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, offered viewers of a CNN national town hall meeting on the evening of August 21. Challenged with a semi-“Gotcha!” question by Sinsinawa Dominican Sister Erica Jordan, who not-so-subtly suggested that Ryan’s approach to health care reform, tax reform, and welfare reform was in conflict with the Church’s social teaching, the very Catholic Speaker replied that he completely agreed with Sister Erica that God is “always on the side of the poor and dispossessed;” the real question at issue was, how do public officials, who are not God, create public policies that empower the poor and dispossessed to be not-poor and not-dispossessed?

Congressman Ryan then laid out an approach to alleviating poverty and empowering the poor that seemed to me entirely congruent with the core Catholic social ethical principles of subsidiarity and solidarity. Solidarity with the poor is a moral imperative, Ryan agreed, but solidarity should not be measured by inputs – how many federal dollars go into anti-poverty programs? – but by outcomes: Are poor people who can live independent and fruitful lives being helped by our welfare dollars to develop the skills and habits that will enable them to be self-reliant, constructive citizens? The moral obligation of solidarity is not met by programs that perpetuate welfare dependency.

Speaker Ryan has been a longstanding advocate of decentralizing and (as he puts it) “customizing” social welfare programs. That means abandoning one-size-fits-all attempts to address poverty and looking to the states, where a lot of the creativity in American government resides these days, for approaches that actually empower the poor, because they treat poor people as men and women with potential to be unleashed, not simply as clients to be maintained. Proposals to decentralize social welfare programs and give the states the funds necessary to conduct all sorts of customized efforts to empower the poor – crafted so that each “fits” the vast array of distinct circumstances we find in impoverished America – strike me as a sensible application of the social doctrine’s principle of subsidiarity. That principle, first articulated by Pope Pius XI in 1931, teaches us to leave decision-making at the lowest possible level in society, closest to those most directly affected by the policy in question. Paul Ryan thinks Washington doesn’t have to decide everything; Pius XI would have agreed.

The fact that poverty remains a serious problem in the United States after the federal government has spent $22 trillion dollars on social welfare programs over the past fifty years should have taught us all something about the complex problems of empowering the poor. No one with any sense or experience imagines that he or she has the silver-bullet answer to poverty in all its social, cultural, economic, and political dimensions; I know my friend Speaker Ryan doesn’t think he does. But unlike those who insist on measuring an official’s or a party’s commitment to the poor by inputs rather than outcomes (an approach that tends to instrumentalize the poor and render social welfare policy a cash transaction rather than a human encounter), Paul Ryan and reform conservatives like him are willing to face the fact that there is no direct correlation between magnitude-of-dollar-inputs and success-of-human-outcomes when it comes to anti-poverty programs. Inner-city Catholic schools (the Church in America’s most effective social welfare program) demonstrate that time and again: they spend less than the government schools and their students learn much more – and not just in quantifiable, standardized-testing terms.

America needs many serious conversations in this age of the demagogic tweet and the rabid, talk-radio sound-bite. One of them is about the scandal of poverty amidst vast wealth and the empowerment of the poor. That conversation is not advanced when, as happened after the CNN broadcast, smug partisans attack a serious Catholic public official by suggesting that he’s deficient in both his moral commitment to the poor and his understanding of Catholic social doctrine. Paul Ryan is no more the reincarnation of Simon Legree than Sister Erica Morgan and her fellow-Sinsinawa Dominicans are the reincarnation of Ingrid Bergman/Sister Mary Benedict in The Bells of St. Mary’s. Keeping that in mind would help foster the thoughtful debate the Speaker, and the country, would welcome.

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About George Weigel 429 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 books are The Next Pope: The Office of Peter and a Church in Mission (2020), Not Forgotten: Elegies for, and Reminiscences of, a Diverse Cast of Characters, Most of Them Admirable (Ignatius, 2021), and To Sanctify the World: The Vital Legacy of Vatican II (Basic Books, 2022).


    • Providing health care to the poor among us is not the same moral equivalency as welfare. Healthcare should be a right. I am a pediatrician and I find Mr. Ryan’s stance on healthcare for the poor morally bankrupt. He has repeatedly lied about the specifics of healthcare legislation and he has shut out the normal legislative process. He also supports a licentious demagogue as our leader. Shame on him.

      Timothy Doran, M.D.

      • That’s wonderful! So you believe that the entire weight of the federal government should be brought to bear in order that you should be forced – not asked – to spend, say, 30 or 40 percent of your time without remuneration providing free health care to people, including things that (I hope) you find morally objectionable, like contraception, abortion, and maiming people in a vain attempt to change them from one sex to another, right?

        Nothing is stopping you from providing free health care. Have at it!

  1. “… the social doctrine’s principle of subsidiarity. That principle, first articulated by Pope Pius XI in 1931, teaches us to leave decision-making at the lowest possible level in society, closest to those most directly affected…”

    One could make the argument that giving money and benefits to the person or household which applies for it (as we now do with food stamps, SSI, WIC, fuel assistance etc.) is in fact leaving the decision-making at the “lowest-level” since it is left actually with “those most directly affected” (you can’t get any more direct than that)! My point is not to argue that we keep things the way they are now but that the ultimate problem is not the federal level, or state level, or local level – but the human level. Even the Church has given up teaching the first notion of social justice: that you do not eat if you are able to work and you refuse to work (St. Paul). As a country, a government, and a Church we just don’t say this anymore. I agree (of course) that “transitional” assistance is often needed and should be readily available – but until we get back the notion (universally) that to not work (if you are able to) is shameful, we will not solve this problem (I think!)

    • Good points, Inigo. That’s basically right, and some do make that argument, ignoring the anthropological connection upon which the Church insists — the value of dignified work, and what economists call “earned success” vs. mere provision of goods. The outcomes are so drastically different, it’s hard to ignore, though some manage to do so. But yes, sin is incredibly expensive and debilitating, both on a personal level and on a social level. No government can save or even long serve a people that gives up on virtue.

      • Thank you for the economic explanation and I do agree that the state does play a role in helping to guide its poor and fallen-behind citizens toward success and even excellence – which is of course what the ancient Greeks meant by virtue (arete).

  2. “America needs many serious conversations in this age of the demagogic tweet and the rabid, talk-radio sound-bite. One of them is about the scandal of poverty amidst vast wealth and the empowerment of the poor.” Before we begin “serious conversations” we need to get our facts straight. There is NO material poverty in America. The “poor” in my typical American city have satellite TV, Obamaphones, free apartments, and severe weight issues. The only poverty that exists in America is spiritual hunger, and government is not equipped to remedy this, only exacerbate it by stifling the message of churches and destroying real education.

  3. It has been my observation that many of the clergy and religious fancy themselves quite able to divide the material prosperity pie but few, if any, have any idea how to bake it in the first place. Possibly a dose of humility is in order and a remembrance of the parable of the dishonest steward which concluded that the children of the world have more material sense than the children of light and defer economic policies to those with the competence to deal with them.

    • “Health is not a consumer good but a universal right, so access to health services cannot be a privilege,” the pope said May 7 during a meeting with members, volunteers and supporters of Doctors with Africa, a medical mission begun by the Diocese of Padua, Italy, 65 years ago.

      And for Leslie, I spent two years with my wife providing free healthcare to the poor of the country of St. Vincent, a third world island in the West Indies. I currently volunteer my services to our pediatric hospice program.

      As for Dr. Williams, I am not sure why he hates poor people so vehemently, but his venom and disparagement (and mis-characterizations – “free apartments” “obesity” -really?) is profound. “A way has to be found to enable everyone to benefit from the fruits of the earth, and not simply to close the gap between the affluent and those who must be satisfied with the crumbs falling from the table, but above all to satisfy the demands of justice, fairness and respect for every human being.” (Pope Francis, Address to the Food and Agricultural Organization, 6/20/13)

      • “Volunteered” is the word you used.

        Not “were forced.”

        Not “were forced to pay for insurance that includes funding for vilely immoral things.”

        And if this “war on alleged lack of health care” goes the path of the “war on poverty,” which it will given that the federal government is running both, what will happen is that there will be more problems with health care access. And in fact it is already happening, with people having to pay much higher premiums for policies with much higher deductibles and a more limited access to the doctors they want to see.

        The argument people like you use tends to be “You don’t like Obamacare? You just want children and poor people not to have healthcare!” That’s like “You don’t agree that this person should be able to rifle through your wallet and take all the money he wants? You just hate poor people!” No, people who don’t like the system want people to have healthcare. They simply don’t agree that the method that is being used is an effective way to do it.

        And we can see the results of the path the current U.S. “affordable healthcare” is taking by looking at the case of Charlie Gard.

        As for quoting from Pope Francis to attack others’ viewpoints – “who are you to judge?”

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