House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan's budget proposal and recent lecture at Georgetown University has stirred up some controversy. Jack Thornton discusses the budget in the light of Catholic social teaching.
Nothing causes a kerfuffle like a speech given by a politician at a Catholic university. Chairman of the House Budget Committee Paul Ryan (R. Wisc.) delivered the Whittington Lecture at Georgetown University on April 26. Boy, has the reaction been volatile.
Mr. Ryan’s recent budget proposal and invitation to speak at Georgetown ruffled the feathers of more than a few faculty members at the Jesuit university. Led by Fr. Thomas J. Reese, a senior fellow at the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown, about 90 Georgetown faculty members sent a letter to Ryan before he even gave his talk
accusing him of “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.”
They go on to tell Ryan that “your budget appears to reflect the values of your favorite philosopher, Ayn Rand, rather than the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Her call to selfishness and her antagonism toward religion are antithetical to the Gospel values of compassion and love.” They also included “a copy of the Vatican's Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, commissioned by John Paul II, to help deepen your understanding of Catholic social teaching” immediately after instructing Ryan on the Catholic Church’s teaching on subsidiarity by quoting Pope Benedict XVI’s statement that “"Subsidiarity must remain closely linked to the principle of solidarity and vice versa” — an exact point that Ryan made in his speech.
What really riled up the faculty is that Ryan has the audacity to claim that his Catholic faith and Catholic social teaching informed his formation of the budget plan. How can a plan that calls for a check on government spending be considered in line with Catholic social teaching? The very idea baffles the Hoya faithful.
Ryan responded to the gist of the letter in his speech saying, "I do not believe that the preferential option for the poor means a preferential option for big government.”
The crux of his argument centers on the unification and intersection of solidarity and subsidiarity. Solidarity—the responsibility to help others— is best realized when connected to subsidiarity—the idea that organizations are most successful when matters are handled on the lowest, most local level possible. Those best able to fix a problem are often those closest to the problem and he wants to make this possible.
Ryan points out that the “overarching threat to our society today is the exploding federal debt.” He likens the growing debt crisis to the terrible situation in Greece and claims that the increases in government spending and higher taxes to support the government spending will only exacerbate the problem and create escalating problems for the poor in the future.
We’ve seen these types of programs fail in Europe and the existing parallels in the United States haven’t been able to fix the problems they address. The current administration wants to put more power in the hands of government bureaucrats while funneling more money into its various programs. The money they funnel comes in large part from taxes, which the government would have to raise incessantly in order to meet the government’s increasing needs. Ryan predicts that this plan is unsustainable and will cause a crash and debt crisis similar to Greece’s current predicament. If that happens it won’t be very good for the poor.
He wants to reform the budget by revamping the health and retirement programs so that they will be sustainable in the future, closing the “special interest loopholes that go primarily to the well-connected and well off” thus limiting special privileges for the wealthy, lowering taxes “across the board” and keeping the spending increase at 3% instead of raising it to 4.5%. He claims that he’s not gutting government programs the way his critics claim by keeping the spending increase at 3%. Government spending will still increase; it will just be more manageable. Government programs like Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security will still exist, but they will be reformed and sustainable. He aims to “empower state and local governments, communities and individuals—those closest to the problem” and to “promote opportunity and upward mobility.” He wants to improve solidarity by unifying it with subsidiarity.
The idea here is that the economic situation can be fixed by addressing the root of the problem, and empowering individuals and communities to improve their situations instead of throwing money at government programs that make the symptoms of the crisis “easier to live with” while prolonging its effects.
There are certain problems with this plan, as the USCCB has pointed out in letters to the House. Some of the reduced spending increases are aimed at anti-hunger and nutrition programs that help the poor in very immediate ways. The USCCB claims that these proposed reductions are “unjustified and wrong” as they may remove immediate aid that the poor genuinely needs, a valid claim, but does not reject the budget plan in its entirety. The Catholic bishops only question those aspects that reduce the effectiveness of anti-hunger programs and suggest spending reductions in other areas to compensate for their requested adjustment.
Ryan, to his credit, has been very open about the possibility of changing aspects of the budget and calls for “charitable conversation” and “civil public dialogue” so that the country can move forward with the best possible solution: “We don’t have some plan in the back room that we’re going to foist onto the country. That’s the wrong way to legislate. We want to tell everybody who cares about the tax code, ‘make your case.’ Let’s have open hearings in front of the country and make a decision based on equity, based on fairness, based on good economic policy.” He understands that well-meaning people might have qualms about certain aspects of his proposal and is willing to dialogue with them.
It doesn’t seem that his opponents share his desire for conversation. It seems that, in their eyes, any economic or social plan that disagrees with their big government, big spending position cannot possibly have a foundation in Catholic social teaching. Any opposing ideas are dismissed as “Social Darwinism” or walking “away from the most vulnerable.”
The fact is that Catholic social teaching does not endorse a big government position— it in fact warns against a society that relies on big government to satisfy all its needs. Pius XI, in 1931’s Quadragesimo Anno, states that "Just as it is gravely wrong to take from individuals what they can accomplish by their own initiative and industry and give it to the community, so also it is an injustice and at the same time a grave evil and disturbance of right order to assign to a greater and higher association what lesser and subordinate organizations can do."
Catholic social justice requires that communities and individuals care for those who need it in the best way possible. Sometimes the government is most able to do this, but not all the time. Perhaps it would be better to lessen the scope of the federal government and enable communities to take care of themselves. It’s a discussion worth having.
Mr. Ryan has demonstrated that he understands Catholic social teaching and seems sincere in his effort to fulfill it in his proposal. Nothing is perfect and there are aspects of the proposal that may require some dialogue and adjustment, but Ryan’s moral claims are legitimate and, even if one disagrees with the manner in which he has applied the principles of Catholic social teaching, they deserve respect and consideration.
What do you Word on Fire readers think?