The US election was finely balanced, despite the attempts by the BBC to suggest otherwise. The vote was split roughly half and half, and Catholics were roughly split in line with the country as a whole – though practising Catholics voted more heavily for Romney.
This election was crucial. Religious freedom is under threat in the US; Supreme Court judges will most likely be appointed in the next four years; and, on the economic side, unpayable debt is piling up. This is not a good time to be a young American, an unborn American or a not-yet-conceived American. Obama is a strong supporter of many things that the Catholic Church regards as totally illicit.
Given this backdrop, it is interesting that a 157 left-wing Catholic academics, intellectuals and priests issued a strong critique of Catholic, pro-life Republican Vice-Presidential candidate Paul Ryan. The 157 wrote asking whether a Catholic can follow the late libertarian and individualist philosopher Ayn Rand. Paul Ryan has said that he is influenced by Rand.
It is certainly true that it is impossible to accept the basic principles of Catholic social teaching and follow Rand to the letter. Catholic social teaching utterly rejects her ideals of individualism and selfishness and promotes as absolute primary values love, charity and solidarity. It would be reasonable to argue that Paul Ryan should be much clearer, as a Catholic in public life, about exactly which aspects of Rand he thinks are valuable. Nevertheless, it is very clear that Ryan understands the social obligations that all human persons have to each other in charity, solidarity and reciprocity through society and community. The attack of the 157 was ungenerous at best.
Indeed, it is certainly possible for a Catholic to be sympathetic to Rand’s attack on big government and the corporate state even if more fundamental aspects of Rand’s thinking are not compatible with Catholic social teaching. Whilst Catholic social teaching rejects individualism, it certainly does not promote collectivism. Ryan’s 157 critics built their case by selectively quoting Catholic social teaching documents whilst ignoring foundational principles of that teaching. In addition, they took important aspects of Catholic social teaching, demonstrated why they are incompatible with the beliefs that man is not a social being and the complete abolition of state provision for the poor, and left the reader to conclude that there was a strong Catholic case to be made against Ryan.
Paul Ryan was open to attack because he is one of the few US politicians to be honest enough to debate the specifics of policy and to try to come up with solutions to the US’s appalling debt and runaway government spending problems. The 157 attacked Paul Ryan’s specific policies using Catholic social teaching and yet the Church states again and again that she proposes no political model: ‘The Church, by reason of her role and competence, is not identified in any way with the political community nor bound to any political system…The Church and the political community in their own fields are autonomous and independent from each other’ (again Gaudium et spes).
Particularly controversial for the 157 were Ryan’s plans to cut welfare spending. According to Catholic social teaching, the government has a responsibility for the common good and it has some role in the provision of welfare but to suggest that this makes Ryan’s plans for reductions in spending illicit from the Catholic point of view is outrageous. The authors of the letter hedge their bets with suggestions that they are just providing balance to the debate but the mask slips when they say: ‘It is impossible to justify this [Ryan budget plan] as a serious exercise of the preferential option for the poor.’
If the 157 had returned to the foundational principles of Catholic social teaching and put aside their political prejudices, they would have written a very different letter. They would have pointed out that all politicians have a duty to promote the common good – human flourishing for all, but would have recognised that there are good reasons for differences of opinion on how that can come about.
They would have mentioned solidarity, but gone on to point out that: ‘Solidarity is first and foremost a sense of responsibility on the part of everyone with regard to everyone, and it cannot therefore be merely delegated to the State’ (Caritas in veritate). They would have recognised that the state is not the vehicle through which society comes to the fullness of charity. Why? Because: ‘Only in freedom can man direct himself toward goodness’ (Gaudium et spes). This is a message reiterated in Centesimus annus – indeed, throughout Catholic social teaching because of the very nature of our being. They would also have admitted that Obamacare and the current US education systems do not provide sufficiently for family autonomy in the way that the principle of subsidiarity demands, even if they could not bring themselves to accept Paul Ryan’s solutions to these problems.
It is ironic that the 157 went to great lengths to explain that we must examine public policy proposals in a spirit of prudence and warned their opponents (such as Paul Ryan and his supporters) that there are great dangers in applying the principle of prudence merely as a guise for ‘craftiness’ to, in effect, promote their own pre-conceived ideas. In fact, the authors were the crafty ones, turning facts on their head. They argue, incredibly, that in the US there has been a reduction in regulation over the last 40 years. They argue that, after decades of tax cuts, there should be consideration given to revenue increases rather than programme cuts. There have been no decades of tax cuts: the US government tax take before the recent temporary stimulus package was about one fifth higher as a proportion of national income than a generation ago. And, of course, the spending binge has been even greater than the tax rises as huge amounts of debt have been built up. Of course, Catholics can support the dramatically increased role of the US government of recent years - but it is not against Catholic social teaching to cry ‘enough is enough – we must think again!’
The 157 wrote the letter to detract attention from the abortion debate on which readers of this blog will have different views. The great foundational principle of Catholic social teaching is the dignity of the human person. The Catholic Church believes in the dignity of labour; the Church believes in the dignity of labour because, and only because, she believes in the dignity of the human person; the Church believes that personhood starts at conception and this is why the Church opposes abortion. The fact that these influential Catholic leftists are trying to make a decisive intervention in favour of two candidates (for president and vice president) who do not come remotely close to accepting the Catholic Church's view of the dignity of the human person from conception is very telling.
When it comes down to it, on crucial issues, the differences between Ryan and Romney and the critics were prudential whereas the differences between Obama and Biden (who is also a Catholic) and the Catholic Church on the issue of the dignity of the human person from conception are fundamental. As the Compendium of the social doctrine of the Church suggests: ‘state action in the economic sphere should also be withdrawn when the special circumstances that necessitate it end.’ What those circumstances are and when they apply are prudential matters which politicians need to debate. But, this statement in the Compendium gives no comfort to those who believe that simply loading debt on future generations or raising 40 per cent of national income in taxes to finance current levels of US spending can necessarily be justified by Catholic social teaching.
This is an abridged and edited version of an article that appeared in the Catholic Times on 16th November 2012