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

There is snobbery, and then there is academic snobbery.

Snobbery is often instinctual and inadvertent, and if it’s cruel, it’s the cruelty of the unthinking. Academic snobbery is deliberately cutting, snarky, intended to wound, and usually clumsy in asserting its own superiority.

Snobbery was the immediate reaction of English historian Christopher Dawson’s mother to the news of her son’s impending conversion to Catholicism: Mrs. Dawson wasn’t bothered so much by questions of doctrine, she told her son, but by the sad fact that he’d “now be going to church with the [Irish] help.” Academic snobbery is the letter from more than 80 Georgetown faculty members delivered to Representative Paul Ryan (R., Wis.), prior to his delivering the university’s annual Whittington Lecture on April 26. In that letter, the Hoya pedagogues not-so-subtly suggested that Ryan was a Catholic ignoramus, presumed to instruct the congressman on the meaning of the Catholic social ethical principle of subsidiarity, and concluded on an arch note, redolent of tenured arrogance: “Along with this letter, we have 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.”

(And if you’re a good boy, Paul, we might let you audit Georgetown courses on Catholic social doctrine; that would help you better understand colleagues on the Hill such as Nancy Pelosi, Dick Durbin, Barbara Mikulski, and Rosa DeLauro.)

The Georgetown letter’s substance, to stretch a term, is the same old, same old: a bedraggled catalogue of complaints about the Ryan budget “gutting” various federal programs, with results the Hoyas promise will be “devastating.” Those with memories that reach back into the mid-1990s will remember the same apocalyptic warnings coming from the same intellectual quarters about federal welfare reform; those warnings were accompanied by, indeed based on, the same simplistic understanding of the Catholic “preferential option for the poor” as a preference for more and more government. The welfare apocalypse never happened. Empowerment strategies helped end patterns of welfare dependency. But you will learn none of this from the Hoyas, for one of the other notable features of academic snobbery is its addendum to Love Story moral theology: Moral superiority means never having to say you’re sorry (or wrong).

The Georgetown letter also embodied the Catholic Left’s unfortunate habit of cherry-picking papal statements. No one risks contradiction by suggesting that the election of Joseph Ratzinger as Pope Benedict XVI seven years ago caused mass heartburn on the Georgetown faculty. Yet here are seven dozen or so Georgetown faculty members quoting Benedict XVI at Paul Ryan: “Subsidiarity must remain closely linked to the principle of solidarity and vice versa.”

Alas, for the rhetorical force of that presumed pontifical slam dunk on the Ryan budget, that was precisely the point Paul Ryan had made on EWTN’s The World Over on April 20. Perhaps on the well-founded assumption that EWTN is not required viewing at Georgetown, Ryan drove the point home again in his Whittington Lecture. Insisting that America needed a better approach to poverty than the Obama spend-a-thon (which, he argued, was accelerating a “debt crisis in which the poor would be hurt the first and the worst”), Ryan proposed that a new approach “should be based on the twin virtues of solidarity and subsidiarity — virtues that, when taken together, revitalize civil society instead of displacing it.”