“Left flank to base. Left flank to base. We have lost radio contact with the right flank. Please come in. We have lost contact with the right. Please come in. Give us your bearings. Over.”
In six succinct paragraphs, some leading Jesuits and other professors and staff members at Georgetown University upbraided Congressman Paul Ryan, one of the more serious Catholics in the Congress, for “misrepresenting Catholic social thought.” That is, they simply made no contact with his arguments, couldn’t understand his basic Catholic principles, and did not recognize that he was fighting on their side, only that he was advancing from the opposite flank.
The letter begins kindly enough: “Welcome to Georgetown. We appreciate your willingness to talk about how Catholic social teaching can help inform effective policy in dealing with the urgent challenges facing our country.” This is a refreshing break from those institutions that ban, hoot down, and refuse to listen to anyone who has a different starting point. Thomas Reese, S.J., the Jesuit author of the letter, is to be commended for this approach.
Of course, right after this kindly paragraph there comes the unsurprising “however.” Four charges appear to be uppermost in the minds of those on the left flank of Catholic social teaching: (1) Catholic Republicans such as Ryan engage in “misuse of Catholic social teaching.” They do this as they (2) “defend a budget plan that decimates food programs,” and (3) “radically weakens protections for the elderly and sick,” and (4) “gives more tax breaks to the wealthiest few.”
The professors further aver that this is a time “when charities are strained to the breaking point,” and “local governments have a hard time paying for essential services.” What it means to be on the left flank is that at such moments, one mainly turns to “the federal government” for help — for “subsidium” (in Latin).
The left flank, the professors explain, always turns to government to come to the rescue. It especially runs toward the federal government in the midst of “economic crises, high unemployment, endemic poverty, and hunger.”
The Georgetown professors do seem aware that some Catholics hold another view of the present crisis, its causes, and its cures. (Otherwise, why welcome a “discussion”?)
Congressman Ryan’s public address the next day was calm, companionable, and clear. Most commentators thought he got the better of the argument.
For my part, I used to be on the left flank of these issues, too, over there with some of my Jesuit friends. Down the years, a number of experiences forced me to look for a more adequate vision than the imperative always to turn to the federal government. I was obliged by real-life experience to seek a more practical approach to “economic crises, high unemployment, endemic poverty, and hunger” than turning to the federal government. No doubt the experiences of my old friends on the left flank kept reinforcing their determination to stay where they were. So we have drifted apart politically and in our economic views. But not, I think, in allegiance to Catholic social thought.
I was glad that this small band of the Georgetown professoriate did not excommunicate Congressman Ryan.
All this happened more than a month ago. But the Left seems as isolated now as it did then. Let me take a stab at making contact.
Several facts led me to move from left to right, away from the viewpoint and presuppositions I cherished when I was on the left. My Jesuit friends probably think I have made a wrong turn. But I think I have come to a deeper understanding of Catholic social teaching than I had before. I think my new view is much richer, precisely because it is now informed by both the Left and the Right. Most of all, I have recognized the need to distinguish sharply between Catholic social teaching in its deeper theological bearing and the ideological use of it by social democrats in Europe.
To offer a concrete example: The “economic crises” that the Georgetown professors decry are mostly due, in my view, to foul-ups by the federal government (sometimes by Republicans, sometimes by Democrats).