Politics & Policy

Paul Ryan’s Conservatism Can Help the Poor

Ryan at CPAC 2016 (File Photo: Gage Skidmore)
Faithful Catholics can support free enterprise and economic growth, both of which lift people out of poverty.

During his CNN town hall in Wisconsin Monday night, Speaker of the House Paul Ryan was confronted by a Dominican nun who asked about his approach to health care and poverty, especially in light of his Catholic faith. Here’s the full question from Sister Erica Jordan:

I know that you’re Catholic, as am I, and it seems to me that most of the Republicans in the Congress are not willing to stand with the poor and working class as evidenced in the recent debates about health care and the anticipated tax reform. So, I’d like to ask you how you see yourself upholding the Church’s social teaching, that has the idea that God is always on the side of the poor and dispossessed, as should we be.

“Sister, this may come as a surprise to you, but I completely agree with you,” Ryan replied. “Where we may disagree is on how to achieve that goal.” He went on to explain his belief that conservative policies creating mobility, economic growth, and equality of opportunity are better than government programs at alleviating poverty.

It is worth reading Ryan’s entire reply, but here’s his key point: “We need to . . . change our approach on fighting poverty. Instead of measuring success based on how much money we spend or how many programs we create or how many people are on those programs, let’s measure success in poverty on outcomes.”

This reasonable response was entirely lost on leftists, many of whom immediately pounced on Ryan for bullying a helpless nun. Some particularly dense antagonists accused him of “being a smug a**hole to a nun” and of “mansplaining to a nun how to fight poverty.” Never mind the fact that the nun specifically asked Ryan for an explanation at a town hall he held specifically to give explanations, or that his response was both polite and heartfelt.

Others insisted that Ryan’s remarks were chock full of falsehoods. Randy Bryce, one of the Democratic candidates hoping to challenge Ryan for his House seat, accused Ryan of “lying to a nun about poverty.” CNN contributor Paul Begala asserted that Sister Jordan had “kicked Paul Ryan’s mendacious, sanctimonious, hypocritical butt.” (Takes one to know one, Paul.)

Would the outcry on the left have been this instantaneous and severe if a Catholic priest had asked Nancy Pelosi how she upholds the Church’s teachings on the dignity of unborn babies? Would Joe Biden have been accused of “mansplaining” if he had regaled a nun with his theory about how Catholic politicians can personally oppose abortion while voting in favor of abortion rights? Of course not. This is selective, highly partisan outrage.

Being a faithful Catholic doesn’t require unflinching support for an unbridled welfare state and universal, single-payer health care.

Some left-leaning Catholics even suggested that Ryan’s answer proved that he misunderstands his own faith. “Great question from her. Terrible answer from him,” wrote Father James Martin, SJ, in reply to Ryan’s comments. “Catholic social teaching means programs that lift the poor first, not as an afterthought.”

Such criticisms create a false dichotomy and ignore the essential distinction between nonnegotiable Church teaching and prudential questions. The Catholic Church has always been a strong voice in support of the poor, but that does not mean that all Catholics must rally around any one particular solution to poverty; there is no one solution. Faithful Catholics can make prudential judgments and support a variety of policies that seek to help the poor.

Ryan argues — along with prominent Catholic public intellectuals such as the late theologian and philosopher Michael Novak or Arthur Brooks, the president of the American Enterprise Institute — that free enterprise and economic growth have shown more potential for actually lifting the poor out of poverty than have decades of federal programs and trillions of dollars in government spending. He’s correct that being a faithful Catholic doesn’t require unflinching support for an unbridled welfare state and universal, single-payer health care.

But those on the left wouldn’t know that, because they never bothered to understand Catholic social teaching in the first place. All they wanted was to wield Ryan’s faith against him, using the optics of his disagreement with a nun to once again push the left-wing notion that government must always be our savior.


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