An opportunity for a real policy debate between two Catholics

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Paul Ryan’s budget — his signature contribution to public life — has been criticized by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops for failing “a basic moral test” because it fails to put the needs of the poor and vulnerable first. Catholic sisters hit the road over the summer and this week in Ohio with a “Nuns on the Bus” tour that calls attention to Ryan’s proposed cuts not only on direct assistance programs such as Medicare, Medicaid and food stamps, but to Catholic social service agencies. These faith-based groups often receive more than half of their revenue from federal grants and contracts.

Beneath wonky budget debates is a fight for America’s soul. Ryan is a leader in a growing libertarian and anti-government movement that aims to radically downsize the American social contract. The language of “makers and takers” has become common currency. Elected officials eager to appease Tea Party activists or corporate donors howl “Socialism!” to describe America’s long-established and comparatively moderate social assistance programs. Ryan once praised the libertarian cult heroine Ayn Rand as the reason he become involved with politics. Her philosophy of radical individualism and contempt for religion and charity, defined in books like Atlas Shrugged, has moved from a common adolescent phase to an influential political philosophy.
This is why more than 150 theologians and Catholic scholars have issued a declaration this week – “On All of Our Shoulders: A Catholic Call to Defend the Endangered Common Good.” To quote the document, “Mr. Ryan and his Catholic supporters must be informed—as pro-choice candidates and Catholics who vote for them are perennially and appropriately reminded—that some of his positions are fundamentally at odds with the teachings of the Catholic Church. We fear the Church’s legitimate disagreement with the inadequate exemptions in the Obama administration’s contraceptive insurance mandate will lead some bishops to avoid giving due scrutiny to Ryan’s disagreements with or misunderstandings of the Church’s social teaching.”

It is uncommon for social philosophy to figure in American politics. Ryan is an unusually philosophical politician. This is evident in his remarkable 2005 speech to the Atlas Society (which must be listened to in its entirety on audio, as the transcript is incomplete). The speech amounts to a manifesto linking philosophy, analysis and strategy. Ryan turns to Atlas Shrugged to “check my premises so that I know that what I’m believing and doing and advancing are square with the key principles of individualism.” Guided by Rand’s principles, he judged “defined benefit” safety net programs such as Social Security and Medicare to be “collectivist” and “socialist.” To address these problems, he proposed privatizing Social Security and Medicare into individually funded programs in order to “change the dynamics in this society” and to form “believers in the individualist capitalist system.” Ryan has sought to distance himself from Rand, but has addressed neither the depth of his previously professed commitments nor the fact that his policies have remained unchanged by his disavowal.

Rand’s ideas inform Ryan’s budgets. He warns of a safety net becoming “a hammock that lulls able-bodied citizens into lives of complacency and dependency.” This fear, so jarring in the midst of the Great Recession, is enacted in policy. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, Ryan’s budget achieves 62% of its designated savings from cuts to programs for low-income Americans.

Ryan has attempted to use Catholic social doctrine to defend draconian cuts. In response, the declaration highlights 5 principles of Catholic social doctrine that concern the human person, the common good and the nature of government that are in danger of being forgotten or distorted. Catholicism rejects both collectivism and individualism to teach that we are dependent upon and responsible for one another. Human flourishing requires goods that can only be achieved together.

After decades of “starve the beast” tax cuts, our predictable fiscal crisis provides America an opportunity to reconsider its priorities. This historic debate between two Catholics provides an opportunity for often ignored Catholic doctrines to contribute to this needed discussion.

Miller is the Gudorf Chair in Catholic Theology and Culture at the University of Dayton.