Catholics and Campaign 2012
The Catholic Left doesn’t have a monopoly on the Church’s social teaching.


George Weigel

Paprocki went on to explain that Catholic social doctrine is a both/and rather than either/or matter, “so it is not a question of choosing either the private sector or governmental involvement” in questions of social or economic policy but of “both the private sector and the government working together in their appropriate spheres.” The bishop frankly admitted that, as a bishop, he would leave judgments on the public-policy aspects of the Ryan budget to others. But, as a bishop, he did have something to say to the debate about the way the Ryan budget was framed by the Catholic Left: “It is, however, incorrect to reject the Ryan budget out of hand as not in keeping with the Church’s teaching on the economy and the role of government.” For “Catholic social teaching is broad enough to include a variety of approaches to these complex issues, most of which are . . . a matter of prudential judgment, about which reasonable people — including reasonable Catholics — can disagree.”

But that was not all. For, referring back to the fact that Catholic social teaching is not an either/or business but one that called for “creative solutions to address problems of poverty, unemployment, health, and financial and industrial regulation,” Bishop Paprocki then stated flatly that, in light of all this, “Congressman Ryan is undoubtedly correct in asserting that the preferential option for the poor, which is a central tenet of Catholic social teaching, does not entail ‘a preferential option for big government.’” Ryan’s critics, the bishop continued, “fail to appreciate the capaciousness of [the Catholic social doctrine] tradition,” and because of that “they read the tradition in too narrow a fashion . . . [which] can be seen in their selective citation of passages from various Church documents.”

Bishop Paprocki then extended his basic lesson in Catholic social doctrine by reminding the Catholic Left that two of the core principles of Catholic social doctrine, subsidiarity and solidarity, cannot be played off one another; once again, it’s both/and, not either/or. Paprocki quoted the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church (which a snooty gang of Georgetown academics offered some months ago to send to Paul Ryan) in passages that speak to the 2012 campaign’s current confusions over responsibility and dependency:

[The Compendium] says that “it is necessary for the market and the State to act in concert, one with the other, and to complement each other mutually,” and that when the State makes “direct interventions” in the market these should be “only for the length of time strictly necessary.” The Compendium further states that public authorities should “seek conditions that encourage the development of individual capabilities of initiative, autonomy, and personal responsibility in citizens,” warning that “a direct intervention that is too extensive ends up depriving citizens of responsibility and creates excessive growth in public agencies guided more by bureaucratic logic than by the goal of satisfying the needs of the person.”

As for the application of these teachings to the Ryan budget and its approach to America’s economic, social-welfare, and fiscal woes, as contrasted with the Obama approach, Bishop Paprocki was neither reticent nor shy, while sticking firmly to the level of principle:

In seeking to limit government intervention while caring for the needs of the poor and encouraging personal responsibility, Mr. Ryan’s proposed budget is consistent with these principles. Moreover, at the very least, these passages [from the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church] raise the question of whether our current programs aimed at combating poverty actually help perpetuate it by stifling individual responsibility and fostering intergenerational dependence on government.

As for those who play the Ayn Rand card in their attack on Paul Ryan, Bishop Paprocki had a few words of counsel:

The National Catholic Reporter columnist Michael Sean Winters has accused Mr. Ryan of “libertarianism” which he describes as a “heresy,” since he sees it as being at odds with Christ’s admonition that we will be judged by how we care for the least of our brothers. Surely, Ryan does stress individual responsibility — which, not coincidentally, is a strong theme in Catholic social teaching — but Ryan’s proposed budget is hardly libertarian. That is, it is hardly libertarian to publicly guarantee the existing Medicare program for those who are 55 years of age or older, and to propose a government sponsored voucher program, in which citizens would receive $8,000 adjusted for inflation in the form of a voucher for the purchase of insurance. This is hardly the proposal of one who believes that all individuals should simply fend for themselves and that the government has no role in helping to ensure their well-being.

Bishops Paprocki’s purpose, it should be emphasized, was not to endorse the Ryan budget, which he explicitly stated was not within his remit. His purpose was to clear the air of the thick fog of obfuscation (and, in Sister Simone Campbell’s case, disinformation) that has befouled the Catholic debate during the 2012 campaign. That, in doing so, the lawyer-bishop whose cathedral is a few blocks from Abraham Lincoln’s old law firm might have given the boys in the back room in Boston a much more refined way of discussing personal responsibility and the economy: Well, that was an unintended bonus — but one that demonstrates that the Catholic Left has no monopoly on the Church’s social doctrine, its presentation, and its application.

— George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington’s Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.