The recently released, “On All of Our Shoulders,” which criticizes VP candidate Paul Ryan’s use of Catholic Social Teaching, was signed by over 150 Catholic theologians. While I disagree with critics who believe the statement to be partisan and agree with the signers that “prudential judgement” can be stretched too far, I am less certain that Ryan has stepped over the line. More importantly, for the good of the church, I think it is best to affirm a wide space for prudence rather than seeking to rein in the use of CST.
The carefully-worded statement questions Ryan’s claim that he agrees with the principles of CST, but has used prudential judgement to come to different ideas about which policies best support those principles. The signers write, “prudence demands both knowledge of the principles of Catholic Social Doctrine and honest attention to the details and realistic consequences of policies.” They insist that we must ask, “Are our actions and policies consistent with the ideals we proclaim? Or would an honest assessment reveal they are guided by less laudable motives?”
They then review basic CST principles, including the social nature of human persons, and the necessary role of government in promoting the common good and the preferential option for the poor. The signers claim that Ryan’s defense of his budget is at odds with these fundamental principles.
Daniel Finn agrees in a piece at Commonweal, arguing that claims of prudence don’t add up. For example, Ryan claims we cannot afford to help the poor as much as we do now, but Finn points out that Ryan favors tax cuts, so really we cannot afford social programs because we are choosing not to tax the wealthy. Similarly, Ryan claims that churches and social agencies can pick up the slack if government programs are cut, but Finn argues that these programs get much of their budget from the government already and could not operate without these funds. Finn concludes that prudence cannot explain Ryan’s priorities and “something else must be going on.”
That “something else,” both “On All of Our Shoulders” and Finn claim, is some form of Randian individualism. I will leave the debate about Rand’s influence on Ryan to others, though Ryan’s Georgetown speech should be noted, especially the line, “In this war on poverty, poverty is winning. We need a better approach.” This is not to say that his defense is fully adequate. Even Rusty Reno of First Things acknowledged at a panel in St. Louis on October 4 that Ryan is “a work in progress,” and joked that he hoped Ryan read First Things.
Whether in the long run, or for that matter, in the shorter run, Ryan’s policies would better serve poor and middle-class Americans than those more collectivist ones favored by the Democrats (and, I have no doubt, all or most of the signers) is not something that can be determined purely on the basis of the principles of Catholic social teaching. There are Catholic bishops and other good Catholics who are critical of Ryan’s budget proposals and others, sharing the same fundamental principles, who support them. It is a disagreement among reasonable Catholics—and people generally—of goodwill.
So what is the role for the Church in speaking on these matters that require prudence? Is it that there are certain Bishops (or what have you) that are uniquely qualified as experts in both the principles of CST and economics (or whatever the necessary policy field is) that they can lay down a kind of prima facie rule of policy? That they could set down the Church’s provisional position that could be theoretically contradicted, but the burden of proof is on the one doing the contradicting?
I’m just struggling to come up with a role for the Church where prudential policy judgments are a necessary part of the conclusion. For the last several months this blog has been insisting that there is some role, but its not clear what it is.
I appreciate your concerns – and I agree with a broad understanding of prudence. However, part of the point being made by Dan Finn and myself (through not only signing the statement but through numerous blog points over the past year) is that it is not just a question of CST principles (which I believe are being improperly defined and applied) but that “something else” is concrete evidence of the social sciences. It isn’t a matter of just reasonable disagreement on application of agreed upon principles when the evidence over 30 years shows those policies do not and never have done what it is they are being claimed to do. Furthermore, Ryan’s flippant statement about in the war on poverty, poverty is winning is just that – flippant, manipulative simplification of the last fifty years of US history related to poverty – effective programs to cut it and the intentional choices to move away from real attention to poverty most specifically since the 1980s.
In one key way I agree with the quote from George – something else is necessary – we need evidence-based economic policy and social protection. Part of the pointing to something -else – whether we discuss Rand or not – is a series of economic positions based upon an economic ideology that rests on a view of humanity incompatible with the theological anthropology of Catholic social teaching.
That’s a great question. I think the USCCB’s pastoral letter on economic justice is a great model. It’s part principle and part application, and the bishops make it clear that the principles carry far more authority than the policy analysis. So they apply CST and argue for some policies over others but do not insist that all Catholics must agree with them on the precise shape that welfare must take, for example. They show us how to do this kind of analysis and invite us to do our own.
Yes,the economic pastoral is an excellent model….it also doesn’t accept any and all versions of welfare as legitimate applications of those principles…
The question asked by “On All of Our Shoulders” is really quite simple: If Paul Ryan has abandoned Ayn Rand’s philosophy as the touchstone of his policies, and embraced Thomas Aquinas, then why haven’t his policies changed? Ryan is good at sloganeering: “the preferential option for the poor is not a preferential option for big government.” But he’s not very good at explaining how cutting food stamps will help the hungry. It’s comforting to believe that giving the poor a hand up, not a hand out, is the best way for government to intervene, but the call to feed the hungry is not answered by cutting food stamps and replacing them with nothing. And if you’re looking for a misapplication of prudence, have a look at this recent study that shows how Paul Ryan’s Medicare plan would likely cost most seniors more money:
This shouldn’t surprise anyone. But there is another totally predictable side effect: When you start cutting “premium support” checks to seniors, rather then including them in the old-fangled Medicare program, you deplete the group-purchasing power of the government.
“In one key way I agree with the quote from George – something else is necessary – we need evidence-based economic policy and social protection. Part of the pointing to something -else – whether we discuss Rand or not – is a series of economic positions based upon an economic ideology that rests on a view of humanity incompatible with the theological anthropology of Catholic social teaching.”
But Ryan (and many others, including his mentor, Jack Kemp) have the same argument: some forty-odd years after the “Great Society”, poverty & its attendant evils are still with us, and in some ways, the efforts of the Great Society programs have contributed to the intransigence of the problem. In fact, far from being a Randian talking point, this is precisely the point that lead to the emergence of neo-conservatives like Michael Novak in the late 70s & 80s who were abhorred at how big government programs de-humanized individuals and societies. There’s was an empirical, as well as ideological, point.
As a supporter of Romney & Ryan (with qualifications), what is troubling to me is that the kerfluffle over Rand & Ryan belies the degree to which Ryan’s proposals AGREE or significantly mirror the President’s proposals. It belies to me how small policy proposal differences get enshrouded in a battle with apocalyptic overtones. Again, whatever you think of Ryan’s views on Rand, I simply think it inaccurate on the basis of both Ryan’s past voting record and current proposals to state that Ryan’s premises are based on a view of humanity incompatible with Catholic doctrine. Rather than stating the debate in such a highly categorized way, I wish we would draw a bit more on the pragmatic tradition on American thought in this debate. As David Brooks says in his column this morning, both sides should the view that my side is “objectively correct”, and is therefore entitled to a total political victory.
Meghan and Grant,
Thanks for these comments. I think the statement is right to criticize Ryan’s praise for Rand in 2005 as incompatible with CST principles. I also agree that some policies simply can’t be reconciled with CST. I appreciate the expertise that Finn and Clark bring to economic policy and welcome their critique of Ryan’s plan on economic grounds. I agree with Grant that if Ryan wants to cut SNAP, he needs to articulate a much better subsidiarity-inspired alternative.
The argument that Ryan must still be Randian, even if he says he isn’t, is more difficult. Doesn’t charity require us to take people at their word when they say, “I used to think that, but I don’t anymore”? Many conservative Catholics I know who support Ryan (while also criticizing aspects of his plan) are not Randian at all. They’ve never read her and don’t care to. They articulate, must better than Ryan himself, a CST-inspired vision of a somewhat smaller government. So even if Ryan doesn’t and maybe can’t make the strongest case himself (as David Cloutier noted in another post), it may still be possible to make that case.
The other argument is that Ryan’s policies won’t work. Meghan says we have 30 years of evidence against supply-side economics and Grant cites a study showing Ryan’s Medicare plan won’t work. But if Ryan is wrong is his judgement that his policies will work, is he misapplying prudence or just making a bad prudential argument? The Economist recently polled economists about the plans of both candidates: http://www.economist.com/node/21564175. They agree that Obama has a better grasp of economics and they rate his plan higher than Romney’s. But when they evaluate specific policies (e.g., tax reform, entitlement reform, fiscal discipline) they are much more divided. So it seems that there is some reasonable argument here.
Wouldn’t it be more helpful to have these arguments (on economics, abortion, healthcare, etc.) instead of ruling them out?
Part of the problem here – which isn’t really a problem limited to Rand – is that at least, in my opinion, is that when you’re economic policies are predicated upon a view of the human person incompatible with Catholicism’s understanding of the human person this needs to be addressed.
Yes we should take seriously what someone says….but if those statements are not born out in their actual practices then that counts too. This is Grant’s point – if he has changed his views on Rand and embraced Aquinas – then that concretely would change the policies he proposes and pushes.
I agree it is important to ask – is he misapplying prudence or just making a bad prudential judgment….but there’s also a 3rd aspect that must be included here and that is his responsibility for his ignorance is relevant (which is greater as not only an elected official but as chairman of the house budget committee)
No one is ruling out those arguments. But when one candidate touts his Catholic bona fides, and received episcopal support, it is perfectly natural for Catholics to ask how his shift from Ayn Rand to Thomas Aquinas as touchstone affects his policy priorities. This is a man who as recently as 2009 posted a campaign video declaring that “the morality of individualism” was “what matters most.” This is a man who in 2010 differentiated between “makers” and “takers.” Does anyone doubt that his commitment to “the morality of individualism” influences his budget priorities? Or, I should say, priority: decrease taxes, especially for the rich. Why wouldn’t a Catholic wonder whether his commitment to individualism steers the cuts to food stamps in his budget?
Meghan made a comment that deserves some attention: “It isn’t a matter of just reasonable disagreement on application of agreed upon principles when the evidence over 30 years shows those policies do not and never have done what it is they are being claimed to do.” I was thinking exactly the same thing, although I would have gone back nearly 50 years to the Great Society programs.
It should be pretty clear that Meghan and I are denouncing completely different policies and it is reasonable to ask: if we can’t even agree on what the facts are how justifiable is it to assert that there is “something else” at work behind the differences in proposals? The charges she makes against Ryan “is he misapplying prudence or just making a bad prudential judgment….but there’s also a 3rd aspect that must be included here and that is his responsibility for his ignorance is relevant” seem to me to be applicable to those levying the charges against him. There is a total disconnect between the two sides over what was responsible for past problems and how to solve them now but if no convincing argument has been made that Ryan’s policies are wrong there is no possible argument to be made that they are immoral.
To the question of what role the bishops should play in solving our economic problems I would say: none. They have neither the expertise nor the responsibility to interject themselves in those discussions. They would surely be justified in pointing out where there are holes in the programs but they should not suggest how those deficiencies can best be resolved; that is a lay responsibility. “Just as we desire lay people not to usurp the rights of clerics, so we ought to wish clerics not to lay claim to the rights of the laity.” (Fourth Lateran Council)
Friends, I am getting much from the exchange here and from Prof. Hanlon-Rubio’s initial reflection. Perhaps your comments above include what I’m about to say but I haven’t been able to identify it (potentially totally my fault!). It seems to me that part of my serious questioning of Ryan’s policies vis a vis his use or misuse of CST is defining the proper role of government. This, I think, is a bit different from what specific policies to take in order to “opt for the poor”, though they are related.
What I am getting from Ryan’s proposals, but really much more from Romney, is that care for the poor and vulnerable is not the proper role of government. What I’m getting from that camp is the conservative and/or somewhat libertarian position that care for the poor and vulnerable needs to be delegated to intermediary institutions, mainly in the private sector. In this case the role of government is not to ensure a floor of basic goods for an entire society to participate in the common good and flourish, but, rather, the role of government in this case is to ensure the necessary policy conditions to enable intermediary institutions to effectively perform these functions.
If this is a correct reading of the current Republican position, and I believe that to a great extent it is, then I think it’s an incorrect reading of the proper role of government in CST. As Clark has written elsewhere and Gallichio points to above in Aquinas, the principles of human dignity, the option for the poor, and distributive justice all assign a fairly robust role to the government with regard to the material well being of the people. Which policies best get us there can be discussed. This is really the place where prudence ought to be applied, amply as Prof. Hanlon-Rubio suggests, such that we are able to make corrective decisions at adequate times when our vision of large or small government produces victims or increases the material vulnerability of any sector of the population. However, whether or not government needs to be responsible for a floor of basic goods for its citizenry (and, I would add everyone in the land, citizen or not) is really not up for prudence within the context of CST.
I do look for corrections or further clarifications on this point from folk in this thread.
MT – It is unclear why you believe Republicans think “that care of the poor and vulnerable is not the proper role of government.” Why should we not believe they agree with the Church on the principle of subsidiarity and simply think that we have a too intrusive government now and everyone would be better off if the government did less and lesser agencies did more. To say that government presently does too much is not an argument that it should do nothing at all and I disagree with you that distributive justice assigns “a fairly robust role to the government.” It is true that there are things the government alone can do but fact that provides no support for the conclusion that we need a big government.
What I struggle with in these debates, however, is dealing with the rationale behind them. It seems the objective is to prove Republicans in general and Ryan and Romney in particular are sinful so as to avoid having to debate specific proposals. Ryan in particular has crafted a comprehensive plan for the economy and if his budget document contains anything contrary to CST it should be simple to point it out without dismissing his entire document and not dealing with it. So pick something in his budget and demonstrate how it violates CST.
If there are no proposals to eliminate necessary government programs that support the poor then perhaps you go too far in assuming this is a Republican objective. If there is no evidence that specific policies violate CST then perhaps it is incorrect to make that charge.
I thank Julie for this post, and for in the comment above, really doing a nice job identifying the three “levels” of argument that are going on here. I think the later exchanges in the comment thread are at risk of conflating the levels – which is easy to do, since they are in fact connected.
I wonder if we can refine this by attention to VP Biden’s comments on abortion, and make some analogies/disanalogies. Biden states that he sincerely believes that life begins at conception – that he accepts the church’s teaching on this. But then he goes on to make the now-standard argument that this is a belief that is not shared by all (true) and that he doesn’t think it is government’s role to impose this belief. The evident problem with this argument is that if he really thinks that the fetus is a person, he’d have to want to protect it from being murdered, just as he would oppose slavery… even if others held the belief (as they did) that slavery was justified. Frankly, there is no coherent argument to support what Gov. Romney said about allowing some abortions if one believe in life at conception, except on pragmatic grounds – which is in some sense, the same grounds Biden is appealing to. Pragmatically, we do not have a social consensus on fetal personhood.
If Biden is correct at the level of fundamental principle, but we suggest that his application of the principle is… well, incorrect, but by this, we really mean imprudent, in the sense of not seeing things properly, do we accept that he is not in violation of Catholic teaching, but then try to argue that his policies “don’t work” – that is, it is factually incoherent to say you’re for this principle and then stand by and tolerate the social practice? And for Ryan, do we treat his claim to be in favor of the poor in the same way we treat Biden’s claim that he believes life begins at conception? I’m curious as to how the three levels that Julie discusses can be applied in consistent ways.
This is really a way of getting at the Clark/Finn point about “concrete evidence” – can a Catholic politician profess certain principles or beliefs, and this is sufficient, even if what follows in practice in incoherent and cannot be squared with factual claims? It strikes that is what Biden is doing on abortion, but would it mean that Ryan could be doing something similar on economics?
“In this case the role of government is not to ensure a floor of basic goods for an entire society to participate in the common good and flourish, but, rather, the role of government in this case is to ensure the necessary policy conditions to enable intermediary institutions to effectively perform these functions.”
But isn’t it the case that the role of government is BOTH/AND? Furthermore, I believe a strong case can be made that Ryan’s proposal with respect to Medicare does exactly that. His proposal is to allow Medicare participants to choose from among a menu of policy options, including the current Medicare system, & receive a fixed amount towards paying the premiums for those plans. In fact, this approach was just endorsed by the American Medical Association last weekend. As have lots of people without any obvious Randian sympathies (e.g. David Brooks).
After reviewing the comments, however, I am a bit confused about what is the precise critique of Ryan here. The Statement and early commentary suggests that the concern is over Ryan’s “first principles”, such that one could still reach Ryan-esque policy results without the “taint” of Rand. But comments above seem to suggest that at least some of Ryan’s policies themselves are to be disallowed as the fruit of the poisoned tree, i.e as directly reflective of Rand’s influence. Those specific policies are not, however, enumerated. If his entitlement reforms are the target, again, I simply don’t think it’s fair to conclude that those policies are off the table as essentially Randian given that many people, including many Democrats, have supported variations of them.
I agree with MT that CST holds as a principle an understanding of the role of government. So Ryan can certainly be criticized if he indicates that he doesn’t hold that view. (And Grant is certainly right to point out other things that Ryan has said that must be criticized.) But I’m not sure that I agree the role is to “ensure a basic floor of goods” if ensure means provide those goods.
I would say CST defines human rights to certain basic goods that everyone should have (e.g., food, shelter, healthcare, education, etc.) but envisions shared responsibility for ensuring that everyone has those goods. It privileges local/communal/familial means to many of those goods. while having a very positive view of government’s role for other goods. But I would think that Catholics could support universal healthcare, Obamacare, or some other market-based plan as long as they believe that everyone deserves healthcare and that their plan is the best way to get there.
Meghan makes a good point about our responsibility to have good social science to back up our views. Vincible ignorance can certainly come into play here. But the article I cite from The Economist seems to suggest significant divisions among economists about policy. (Again, this doesn’t mean Ryan hasn’t said some things that can’t be called smart policy.)
My main concern is not to defend Ryan (I have a sign for the other side in my yard), but to keep the prudential dialogue going. In sexual ethics, the church has had to learn from its critics about many things. We still have a lot of listening to do. Perhaps in social ethics, too, we can learn from those who are saying there are better ways of solving these problems.
Grant asks, “Why wouldn’t Catholics wonder about Ryan, given the things he’s said?” I see that. I’m in a different place because I know good people who hold similar economic views and really do believe in CST, because I believe that all of the acrimony between those with opposing views on Catholic sexual teaching has hurt the church, and because I sincerely want to build common ground among Catholics who, I suspect, disagree less than we think.
David – It should be pointed out that Biden’s claim to accept the Church’s teaching that life begins at conception is misleading inasmuch as this teaching is not simply a matter of faith but a matter of fact; his claim is on the order of saying he accepts the Church’s teaching that the Earth revolves around the sun. That said, there is surely still disagreement about the point at which a human life becomes a human person but since the latter term is completely arbitrary the argument is somewhat meaningless.
The difference between Biden’s position on abortion and Ryan’s position on the economy seems pretty straightforward: the Church has a clearly enunciated position on abortion that Biden has rejected while there is no position on the specifics of economic policy that Ryan could have rejected had he chosen to do so. The argument has not been made that proposal X violates CST, rather it is simply asserted that in some vague sense Ryan’s overall philosophy has led him away from Church teaching, but how can it be claimed that his political philosophy violates CST when no such violation is evidenced in his proposals?
Regarding Romney’s “incoherent” position of supporting abortion in the cases of rape, incest, or to save the life of the mother it is worth remembering that JPII indicated that if there is no chance of eliminating abortion one may validly support an intermediate position. Even if the government could control abortion by simple legislation (which it obviously cannot do at the moment) there would be little possibility of denying it in all circumstances; society simply would not accept a complete ban at this time.
Re Romney/Ryan on abortion: Well, the key issue is whether they believe such abortions to be wrong, but are willing to tolerate them. Or whether they believe a woman has a “right” to an abortion in such a situation. The former would be an example of the pope’s intermediate position; the latter would not be. The problem is that, at that point, one has two “wrong, but tolerate” views – one much broader than the other. I’m not making ANY kind of argument that Biden is “better” on abortion – clearly not – but both positions must be “wrong, but tolerate” positions.
Re economic teaching: If we are talking “economic policy X” the Church does not have specific views (though it DOES reject certain things and insist on others, such as workers’ rights, a just wage, no theft, some kind of obligation to care for the poor, etc.). But the Church equally does not have a “policy X” position like this on abortion. It says a just society has no abortion. It says a just society pays workers justly. It says a just society cares for people who are sick. It says a just society has a military that follows just war principles. If “Democrat X” believes (as some, but not all, Democrats do) that a just society is one in which everyone has a right to abortion, then this is gravely wrong. But if “Republican Y” believes as a matter of principle that a society can pay whatever wages the market sets or can leave the provisioning of health care purely to market forces, then that is also gravely wrong. (Note: I am not saying the actual policy proposals of R/R believe these things.)