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Congressman Ryan and his Catholic (and media) critics

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | Apr 27, 2012

Congressman Paul Ryan spoke at Georgetown about how his Catholic faith informs his political thinking, and thus his budget plan. The headline on our Catholic World News story read, “Ryan defends compatibility of House budget with Catholic teaching.” But the headline on a report from the Religion News Service on the same talk, appearing in the Washington Post, conveyed exactly the opposite message: “GOP budget chief ducks questions on budget’s Catholic roots.”

Now wait a minute. The Wisconsin lawmaker went to Georgetown to talk about the Catholic roots of his budget. How can RNS possibly claim that he ducked the topic? If you read the text of the Congressman’s talk, if you read our CWN summary, if you read Ryan’s public statement from the day before his talk, if you read George Weigel’s perceptive analysis of the Georgetown appearance, even if you read the snippets from Ryan’s talk that appeared in this grossly skewed RNS report--in short, if you make any effort actually to learn what Ryan said—how can you possibly justify a headline that says he ducked the question? You can’t.

“Paul Ryan did not want to engage in a theological debate,” reads the lead sentence in the RNS story. That statement is defensible only if one draws a sharp distinction between Catholic theology and Catholic social teaching. Ryan, a practical politician, did not go to Georgetown to speak about the Monophysite heresy or the Thomistic proofs of the existence of God. He went to Georgetown to speak about how the social doctrine of the Church influenced his budget proposal—which is, again, precisely the subject that the Washington Post headline claimed he had ducked.

But wait. The RNS story tells us that not all the customers at Georgetown were satisfied by Ryan’s exposition of his ideas. “The Catholic theologians and faculty who were prepared to confront him were left wanting more.”

Well now, isn’t that a surprise! Before Ryan’s appearance on campus, a group of liberal Georgetown faculty members had put out a statement criticizing his views. After his speech, some of the same critics were bending reporters’ ears once again, telling them that Ryan had not given satisfactory answers to their arguments. If RNS had reported that the Congressman left his critics unpersuaded, that would have been entirely accurate. But that’s not what RNS reported.

In fact the RNS story barely bothered to report what Ryan said. The report contained 5 brief quotes from the lawmaker’s speech, and 5 quotes from his critics. The critics were given higher placement. The first actual reference to something that Ryan said occurs in the 7th paragraph of the story--after two opening paragraphs of editorial commentary, three paragraphs given over to his critic, and another completely indefensible claim that Ryan—who clearly went to Georgetown to challenge liberal Catholics—was trying to “quell the debate.”

“I was disappointed,” said Father Tom Reese. The liberal Jesuit, who exercises such a strange fascination over reporters inside the Washington beltway, was the hero of the RNS story. Commenting on Ryan’s concern about the yawning federal deficit, Father Reese voiced his magisterial opinion that “Pope Benedict, along with the bishops, would have no problem with raising taxes as part of a comprehensive budget solution.”

(It’s a refreshing change to notice Father Reese invoking the authority of the Pope. If he shown such deference to papal authority more often in the past, he might still be editing America magazine. But leave that aside…)

Maybe Pope Benedict would indeed approve of tax increases. But the Holy Father has carefully steered clear of expressing his own opinions on public-policy disputes that involve both economic and political analysis. He—the Pope, that is, not Father Reese—has respected the fundamental division of labor set forth in Catholic social teaching: that it is the duty of bishops to set forth general moral principles, and the duty of laymen to apply those principles to specific political problems. The teaching magisterium of the Catholic Church claims no expertise in economic analysis, and encourages bishops and priests to avoid partisan disputes.

Along with the grotesquely skewed “news” coverage of Ryan’s speech, RNS provided another column in which David Gibson made a more straightforward argument that Ryan’s budget fails to meet the standards established by Church social teaching.

Gibson—whose column was honestly labeled as “analysis”—made the accurate observations that many conservative Catholics misunderstand a central element of Church social doctrine, assuming that the principle of subsidiarity always means that public-policy problems should be tackled by government at the local level. Actually the principle of subsidiarity calls for government action at the appropriate level, the level at which the social problem can be most effectively addressed.

Unfortunately, in his critique of Ryan’s presentation, Gibson glossed over the possibility—the probability, I would argue--that the local level of government usually does have the best opportunities for addressing social problems. Gibson seems to assume that local and state governments cannot effectively solve the problems of poverty in America—that only a federal government programs can help people in need. Ryan assumes the opposite, and after 50 years of federal anti-poverty programs, it is time for thinking Catholics to grapple with his arguments.

Neither David Gibson nor Father Reese offered any persuasive answer to Ryan’s most compelling point about the federal budget. The US government is drowning in red ink, the Congressman warned. Continued spending on welfare programs, however well intentioned, will inevitably lead to a fiscal disaster. That disaster will be most harmful to the poor, because the poor always suffer most in any hard economic times. Ryan’s budget pares federal welfare spending now in an effort to stave off that disaster.

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Show 5 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: Bellarminite1 - Apr. 30, 2012 11:49 PM ET USA

    Far too many (mostly progressives) want to use the Federal government as their surrogate for charity. But the Federal government is the least efficient, most impersonal way to help the poor, the unemployed, etc. Mr. Ryan is on the right track.

  • Posted by: John J Plick - Apr. 28, 2012 2:59 PM ET USA

    All this microscopic examination of the "school of thought" that Representative Ryan follows is all well and good, but it is basically moot when sifted through the grid of reality. One, we can't afford unlimited social programs, and two, the United States Government is NOT a branch of the Catholic Church, and three, even if it were, it would certainly not be the place of the Georgetown faculty to tell it (the USA) what to do.

  • Posted by: djpeterson - Apr. 28, 2012 11:43 AM ET USA

    Just to clarify; Ayn Rand a Russian-American writer, who proudly championed atheism, coined the phrase “the Virtue of Selfishness.” In 2005 Cong. Ryan stated at a D.C. gathering “The reason I got involved in public service - by and large, it would be Ayn Rand.” He gave out Ayn Rand’s books to his friends and staff. Some scholars asserted the ‘free market’ dogmas Ryan supports are heavily influence by materialism and utilitarianism, and rely on the thought of the atheist economist F.A. Hayek.

  • Posted by: Barbnet - Apr. 27, 2012 8:23 PM ET USA

    The former bishop of my diocese is also past-president of Pax Christi. Check out Pax Christi's web page giving full support to Occupy Wall Street: http://paxchristiusa.org/resources/occupy-wall-street/. It strikes me as very intolerant of economic reality This past year, the U.S. treasury borrowed over one trillion dollars, or $5,000 for every adult and child in the USA. Ditto 2010 and 2009. The future projection? According to OCB: 1T deficits will continue. 2 + 2 is never 10

  • Posted by: mdepietro - Apr. 27, 2012 7:11 PM ET USA

    One wonders if there is a top marginal tax rate that the critics of Congressman Ryan's budget would consider enough. It is interesting that the critics of Congressman Ryan's budget seem immune to facts. It seems pretty obvious that Ryan's central argument, we are facing a debt crisis driven largely by entitlement spending that will lead to catastrophe if not fixed is true. I do not see any of his critics suggesting an alternative. Even confiscating the wealth of the "rich" would not be enough.

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