Ryan vs. Georgetown
The gentleman from Wisconsin teaches a lesson in Catholic social doctrine.

Rep. Paul Ryan, prior to delivering a speech at Georgetown University, April 26, 2012


George Weigel

Thus, Ryan demonstrated that he is entirely familiar with the social doctrine of John Paul II, with its insistence on what the pope called “the subjectivity of society” — what the Anglosphere calls “civil society.” Civil society, Catholic social doctrine insists, is an essential component in shaping free politics, free economics, and the vibrant public moral culture needed to bend the energies of democracy and the market toward empowerment, inclusion, and genuine human flourishing. And that brings us to another facet of recent papal social teaching that the Georgetown faculty might consider more carefully: the warnings John Paul II raised about the corrosive effects of the “Social Assistance State” on the moral sinews of the free society, a process of deterioration the pope saw at work in Europe toward the end of his life.

Adapting themes from John Paul II in the 2003 apostolic letter Ecclesia in Europa [The Church in Europe] and Benedict XVI in his 2011 address to the German Bundestag, Paul Ryan has carefully measured history’s verdict in Europe. The massive and increasing space that national governments and Brussels occupy in European public life has further constricted the already-sclerotic associational and philanthropic instincts of Europeans. And the decay of those instincts has helped erode the political culture that makes rational democratic decision-making possible (cf. Greece; Italy; etc.). Ryan, applying history to his reading of the implications of Catholic social doctrine, argues that the United States need not go down that road and can combine compassion with fiscal responsibility and a vibrant civil society. He has also laid out a path toward that end and is quite prepared to debate and modify his proposals when persuaded that there are better ways forward. Have the Georgetown faculty who wrote Ryan forgotten that one of the great achievements of modern Catholic intellectual life is the dialogue between history (Blessed John XXIII’s “great teacher of life”) and theology? That’s not an unreasonable conclusion to draw from their letter, in which men and women who imagine themselves Ryan’s moral and intellectual superiors ignore the evidence of contemporary history and thus have little to add to the debate but a tattered defense of failed public-policy strategies and programs — a defense made even more implausible by its insouciance about the debt crisis and its burdening of the poor.

Paul Ryan knows that Catholic social doctrine is not some sort of doughnut machine that plops out ready-made answers to complex questions of public policy. There is no — repeat, no — direct line from the principles of Catholic social doctrine to judgments on levels of WIC funding, food-stamp funding, or Pell Grant funding, three issues on which the Georgetown faculty claims moral certainty when the relevant mode of moral analysis is prudential judgment. Ryan knows that and is prepared to explain why that’s the case. That willingness, plus Ryan’s refusal to concede the moral high ground to the Catholic Left in the public-policy debate, plus the intelligence, good humor, and conviction he brings to these arguments, helps explain why he’s the Catholic Left’s worst nightmare. The Catholic Left recognizes that; and thus, predictably, things have turned chippy, even ugly.

In one of its nastier moments, the Hoya professoriate suggested that Ryan misconstrues the core Catholic social-ethical principle of subsidiarity as “a free pass to dismantle government programs and abandon the poor to their own devices.” Bosh, and arrogant bosh at that. Whatever else you may think of Paul Ryan, he is an uncommonly well-informed congressman and a thoroughly decent man; to suggest that he has so grotesquely distorted (or, in the words of the Georgetown letter, “profoundly misread”) Church teaching for callous ends is snobbery compounded by calumny.