This past Monday night, Speaker of the House Paul Ryan addressed a town hall in his home state of Wisconsin. One of the participants, the Sinsinawa Dominican Sister Erica Jordan, gained a national spotlight by asking Ryan:
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.
Ryan responded that he does take to heart Catholic teaching’s focus on alleviating poverty, but he believes that fostering economic growth and mobility are better at alleviating poverty than cumbersome government programs. Indeed, in 2014 Ryan proposed a plan for alleviating poverty in the United States, Expanding Opportunity in America, and two years earlier gave a speech at Georgetown University in which he outlined his own thinking in relation to Catholic social teaching.
Writing at National Review Online, Alexandra DeSanctis takes to task those who have been critical of Ryan’s response to Sister Jordan, for the chutzpah of arguing Catholic teaching with a sister, for example, or for daring to explain poverty to her. DeSanctis is right that some of these responses are silly, yet her response is not much better. For one, she draws most of the criticisms of Ryan from Twitter, hardly the place one looks for intelligent discourse, and seems unaware that a much more serious and sustained debate about Ryan’s policy proposals and their relation to Catholic social teaching has been going on since 2011, when he was named chair of the House Budget Committee. Second, she claims that “those on the left” do not grasp Ryan’s position because “they never bothered to understand Catholic social teaching in the first place,” yet DeSanctis herself never cites any of that teaching nor does she explain what Ryan’s critics have wrong about it. She likewise ignores that some of Ryan’s harshest critics have included scholars who have devoted their careers to studying Catholic social teaching, not to mention the United States Catholic bishops themselves.
For example, in 2012, Bishop Stephen Blaire of Stockton, California, speaking on behalf of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development, wrote that the budget proposed by Ryan’s committee failed the “basic moral test” of “protect[ing] and not undermin[ing] the needs of poor and vulnerable people” through its proposed cuts to programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and the Social Services Block Grant. More recently, Bishop Frank J. Dewane of Venice, Florida, representing the same committee of bishops, wrote letters to both the House and Senate, rejecting both of their proposed health care bills, the former of which Ryan had endorsed, as morally unacceptable for cutting Medicaid funding and for endangering the health insurance coverage of millions of Americans.
Of course, in making these judgments, the bishops are drawing on the long tradition of Catholic social teaching, especially the encyclicals of the popes going back to Pope Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum in 1891. They are also drawing on their own teaching, such as the 1986 pastoral letter Economic Justice for All, as well as their history of advocacy, particularly beginning with the establishment of the bishops’ Social Action Department in 1919 (now the Office of Domestic Social Development). Despite significant evolution, Catholic teaching has consistently proposed that the government has a key role in ensuring that the economy works toward the common good and that all people are able to exercise their rights (including rights to shelter, health care, employment, etc.), although civil society and the market itself also play important roles, as well.
DeSanctis seems unaware of the irony that her own publication, National Review, has been harshly critical of Catholic social teaching for over fifty years precisely because of the latter’s challenge to the ideas she espouses. After the publication of Pope John XXIII’s social encyclical Mater et Magistra in 1961, the National Review’s founder William F. Buckley wrote approvingly that conservative Catholics had been making the quip, “Mater si, Magistra no” (Aug. 21, 1961, p. 77), expressing their rejection of the document’s teaching on the economy. During the drafting process for Economic Justice for All, National Review ran several articles critical of the bishops’ efforts, including one by William E. Simon entitled “The Bishops’ Folly” (April 5, 1985, pp. 28-31) and an editorial by Buckley (Dec. 31, 1986, pp. 18-19). More recently, George Weigel authored his much-mocked analysis of Pope Benedict XVI’s Caritas in Veritate, distinguishing the supposed “gold pen” and “red pen” that authored the encyclical, in which he excises from the document those parts inconsistent with his own worldview. And more recently still, Samuel Gregg has called Pope Francis’s critique of free market ideology in his apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium “rather questionable.” If it is Ryan’s critics who fail to understand Catholic social teaching, why has DeSanctis’s own publication been so consistently critical of its teaching on the economy?
DeSanctis herself appeals to the “the essential distinction between nonnegotiable Church teaching and prudential questions,” stating that:
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.
This is true as far as it goes, but as many have pointed out, including David Cloutier at this blog, the appeal to prudential judgment does not mean that one can believe whatever one wants: to demonstrate the virtue of prudence, one’s judgment must be fitting, that is, consistent with the truth about the human person and society as taught by the church, and wise, that is, capable of bringing about what is truly good in a given set of circumstances. As I mentioned earlier, over the past few years several criticisms of Ryan’s proposals have been made on precisely these terms, namely that they are based on an individualistic anthropology alien to Catholic teaching and that they will not actually promote human flourishing as Catholic social teaching understands it.
For example, the 2012 statement “On All of Our Shoulders: A Catholic Call to Protect the Endangered Common Good,” written and signed by a number of Catholic scholars and leaders, criticized Ryan and others for their individualistic anthropology and misuse of the traditional principle of subsidiarity as synonymous with smaller government. Writing at this blog, Meghan J. Clark further elaborated a proper understanding of subsidiarity. Likewise, the Catholic economist Anthony Annett has explained how Catholic teaching sees the place of the economy in society.
On the practical side, Clark has written here and elsewhere on the success of government programs such as SNAP for alleviating poverty and the problems that would be caused by cutting their funding or converting them to block grants, as Ryan has proposed. From a different perspective, I have criticized Ryan’s anti-poverty plan for failing to adequately include families, neighborhoods, and other community associations as part of its vision of human flourishing. I have also written (here and here) on the flawed anthropology behind the House and Senate health care bills. DeSanctis fails to address these or the many other serious Catholic critiques of Ryan’s ideas, let alone secular ones such as the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities’ critique of his anti-poverty plan.
Although ignoring all this, DeSanctis appeals to the scholars Arthur Brooks and Michael Novak for some intellectual heft:
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.
Of course, nothing of the sort has been shown, since no developed country with a substantial welfare state has ever adopted the far-reaching sorts of policies advocated by Ryan and others, let alone left the alleviation of poverty up to “free enterprise and economic growth.” Brooks and Novak have certainly claimed what DeSanctis attributes to them to be true, but that is another matter entirely. Brooks and especially Novak are intellectuals whose interpretations of Catholic teaching should be taken seriously, but they are by no means authoritative interpreters of the tradition (Novak himself clearly recognized that his thought cut against certain aspects of it), nor are their arguments without serious flaws. In an upcoming book, for example, I will outline in more detail than would be possible here some of what I consider to be the key weaknesses in Novak’s defense of democratic capitalism (although I also find more to admire in his work than probably some of the others cited in this post).
As I mentioned at the outset, DeSanctis is certainly right that some of the responses to Ryan’s remarks to Sister Jordan were silly, but others simply expressed frustration that he has never seriously addressed the real criticisms that have been made of the policies for which he advocates, both practical criticisms and critiques of his appeals to Catholic teaching. Although perhaps understandable for a politician, it is disingenuous for a writer such as DeSanctis to accuse others of not understanding Catholic teaching when she appears to be unaware of these long-standing criticisms and the teaching behind them.