What Ryan has in fact done is to follow Benedict XVI and push the subsidiarity-solidarity debate forward, suggesting that there is a kind of moral and political space where solidarity — the moral imperative to live responsibly with and for others — and subsidiarity — the anti-totalitarian, pro-civil-society principle of Catholic social doctrine — intersect. At that broad intersection, there are no obvious answers to public-policy questions, and especially to budgetary questions. But there is prudential judgment: the weighing of risks and benefits; the calculus of probable consequences; the fitting of ends to appropriate means.
Prudence, the Catechism of the Catholic Church notes,“is called auriga virtutum (the charioteer of the virtues); it guides the other virtues by setting rule and measure.” Prudence is the cardinal virtue that allows us to live creatively at the intersection of solidarity and subsidiarity. No one lives at that intersection in a creative way by repeating tired shibboleths about abandoning the poor to their own devices and having the federal government “walk away from the most vulnerable.” Indeed, if the Georgetown letter accurately reflects the depth of thought given to these hard questions on the Hilltop, parents pondering a quarter-of-a-million-dollar education for their children there might want to inquire closely into what their sons and daughters are getting into.
Charity requires that one not judge an entire university and its impact on students by the political shenanigans of seven dozen faculty members, and another theological virtue, hope, suggests that no one is quite
invincibly ignorant. If those Georgetown faculty members who wrote Paul Ryan would actually engage Ryan and those of his cast of mind, rather than consigning them to the outer darkness of the uncaring, some creative thought that takes into consideration the full richness and subtlety of Catholic social doctrine just might result. I won’t hold my breath, especially in an election year when Paul Ryan’s Hoya correspondents are very likely to vote for the president who lied to the head of the U.S. bishops’ conference and who demanded, with the full force of federal power, that the Church do things the Church teaches are morally wrong.
But once the Health and Human Services mandate and the Obama administration are unhappy memories, one can hope that that conversation at the intersection of subsidiarity and solidarity will be convened. Paul Ryan would be open to it. Perhaps his Hoya correspondents, following Vatican II’s injunction to read the signs of the times and recalling the classic Jesuit emphasis on the importance of examining conscience, will then be ready to join.
— George Weigel is a distinguished senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon chair in Catholic Studies.