Politics & Policy

Jesuits Rebuke Ryan

Georgetown Catholics, seeking to help the poor, promote welfare dependency.

“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).

The Georgetowners also refer to “endemic poverty,” but poverty is not endemic. It is a matter of program design. About designs, practical women and men can argue.

The federal Treasury has spent many times more dollars each year than it would cost to eliminate poverty, if poverty were simply an economic matter. Giving the money directly to the poor is not an expensive endeavor compared with what we are doing now, which is filtering it through a huge poverty bureaucracy. Do the arithmetic. Give each poor family as much as it needs to bring its annual income up to $30,000 each year. In sheer dollar terms, that would move each family out of poverty. It would not, of course, end the family’s dependency on annual government grants.

The same logic applies to the problem of hunger. Which is the bigger problem for the poor today, hunger — or obesity? Either way, we cannot solve the problem by giving people a fish each day. That only creates dependency, day after day, generation after generation.

The problem, then, is not mainly a financial problem, is it? If it were, it would be simple to fix. The problem is the deeper one of people’s inability to rely on their own efforts when it comes to caring for the elderly and the children who rely on them.

But why should the government contribute to dependency? It is dependency, for the first time in American history, that has become endemic, not poverty as a merely financial matter.

The most important challenge today is to help the poor rise out of poverty. Most immigrants to America escape poverty in five to ten years, on their own. For millions of newcomers, the old tried-and-true method still works. By contrast, the federal government’s “welfare plantation” has blocked advancement for millions of the poor. It has done so by entrapping them with the honeypot of government subsidies, no demands made.

The Catholic left flank seems to think that big government cures poverty. The right flank observes that big government enforces and prolongs poverty.

Turn from the poor to the very wealthy. Go ahead, tax venture capital. Deprive workers of new jobs in new industries never before discovered. Go ahead. But do not be surprised if actual tax revenues fall, once you have raised tax rates. Raising tax rates does not automatically mean the government will bring in higher tax revenues.

The “problem” of the wealthiest 1 percent is essentially that the Left uses the category to foment envy. Tax the topmost more if you want to. Confiscate a third of all their income every year. Go ahead, punish yourself. The more the government confiscates, the more the government punishes the very charities that, the Georgetowners note, are “strained to the breaking point” today. Go ahead, deprive these charities of gifts from the wealthy.

Georgetown would not be nearly as beautiful a campus as it is today were it not for the freely given gifts of the wealthy. That is true also of the most beautiful artistic patrimony in history, sponsored as gifts by wealthy patrons of the Catholic Church in the late medieval and Renaissance periods. For millennia, our artistic heritage has depended for its survival on wealthy patrons.

So have most of the hospitals, universities, charities, orphanages, libraries, and civic services founded out of the compassion inculcated by Jewish and Christian wisdom down the ages. The wealthy are not in all cases the enemy of the public. They are often its best guardians, bringing beauty to light through the sponsorship of art and especially in works of mercy. The wealthy have often done much more good than government has. “True religion,” Deuteronomy teaches, “is to care for the widow and orphan.”

The left flank and the right flank look at the world differently. Which flank has the more realistic view? The pendulum may swing back and forth. The important point is that Catholic social teaching has two flanks, not one. The two flanks fare better in fruitful contact with each another, in interchange and respectful argument.

It is the same with the American eagle. The eagle is a warrior of a bird, with the sharpest of eyes and two powerful wings. With only one wing, it would spiral down into the ground.

— Michael Novak is distinguished visiting professor at Ave Maria University and co-author, with Jana Novak, of Washington’s God.


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