Last week I argued that Catholicism’s engagement with Marxism in the twentieth century provides some context for the controversy over the relationship between Paul Ryan’s Catholic faith and his political views, a controversy intensified by the release of the “On All of Our Shoulders” statement. I suggested that both sides in this debate have made important points, but also one-sided ones. In this post I want to elaborate on this suggestion.

To summarize, in the earlier post I claimed that four principles emerged from Catholics’ engagement with Marxist-inspired political movements:

  • Catholic support for a policy also supported by adherents of another ideology does not necessarily imply support for that ideology.
  • Catholics can cooperate with adherents of another ideology in areas of shared support.
  • Catholic engagement with an alien ideology requires cautious discernment, especially since elements of an ideology cannot easily be separated from one another.
  • A Catholic’s Christian faith must be the guiding principle when engaging with an alien ideology; the ideology should not draw them toward positions inconsistent with their faith.

Critics of Ryan have drawn a close connection between his philosophical beliefs and the policies he has promoted. For example, “On All of Our Shoulders” claims that supporters of Ryan “argue that his Ayn Rand ‘inspired’ individualist and anti-government vision and the policies they inform are themselves legitimately Catholic.  They are not.” Although the statement certainly makes the case that Randian individualism is incompatible with Catholic belief, it is a leap to conclude that this necessarily taints Ryan’s policies, as well. There might be reasons other than radical individualism to support those policies, and in at least one case there must be, since Ryan’s proposed reform of Medicare was co-sponsored by Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon, a liberal Democrat.

As I described in my earlier post, in post-war Europe, Catholics worked with Marxists to accomplish shared goals such as the nationalization of key industries and the establishment of a robust welfare state, and although this involved soul-searching on the part of Catholics, they recognized that this cooperation did not entail support for “communist” policies. Similarly, the policies advocated by Ryan should be judged on their merits rather than dismissed because of Rand’s influence on Ryan, which has sometimes been the case. For example, Gerald Beyer criticizes Ryan’s “libertarian ‘government is the problem’ approach” that leaves “the taxpayer to do as she or he pleases with her income and assets,” but does not describe a single policy that supposedly embodies that approach. Although arguably this is a fair description of some of Ryan’s policies, my point is that this argument is not made, it is simply assumed.

Robert George has claimed that “On All of Our Shoulders” is partisan for not sufficiently calling out pro-choice Catholic politicians. Unlike George, I take the signers at face value on why they did not focus on abortion, but I still believe that the statement is biased (although not partisan) for treating the issue of intellectual influence inconsistently.

For one, although the statement decries the influence of libertarianism on our political discourse, it ignores the fact that there are also libertarian policies that are clearly consistent with Catholic social teaching. For example, many libertarians support immigration reform. Are the U.S. bishops then to be criticized for the influence of individualistic, anti-government views on their teaching on this issue? No, of course not.

Second, there is no enquiry into the intellectual roots of progressive policies. Many of the architects of progressive reforms such as those of the New Deal were ardent advocates of German idealism and pragmatism, and held views on the relationship between the individual and the state at odds with the Catholic vision. This is not to say that Catholics should oppose progressive causes, but rather to point out that long ago Catholics developed a modus vivendi with progressives despite their divergent philosophies. It is unfair to rule out a priori a similar development concerning libertarianism.

Critics of Ryan also downplay ways in which his policies do in fact reflect aspects of Catholic social teaching. At America’s blog, Vince Miller calls attention to Ryan’s 2005 address to the Atlas Society, an organization devoted to the teachings of Rand, in which he argues in favor of the privatization of Social Security. Miller claims that the speech reveals “a political philosophy completely at odds with the principles of Catholic Social Doctrine,” but I would argue that while there are flaws in Ryan’s speech, there are also elements of it consistent with Catholic social teaching overlooked by Ryan’s critics. Miller highlights those lines from the speech he believes are most problematic, including the following:

 I would like to have more people on our team who are owners and believers in the individualist capitalist system than on the other side, and if every worker in this country becomes an owner of real wealth, of seeing the fruits of their labor come and materialize for their benefit, then that’s that many more people in America who are not going to listen to likes of Dick Gephardt and Nancy Pelosi, Ted Kennedy, the collectivist, class warfare-breathing demagogues.

Yet the idea that workers should be “owners of real wealth” is a consistent theme in Catholic social teaching. Pope Leo XIII, who in Rerum Novarum advocated for workers’ ownership of property (#5), like conservative political leaders such as German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck and British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli, advocated for justice for workers precisely to lure them away from the socialists and create the sense that the working class and the owning class were “on the same team” (see for example ## 19 and 34).

This theme continues in later encyclicals. In Quadragesimo Anno (1931), Pope Pius XI claims that while most workers are no longer reduced to “pauperism,” the condition of “non-owning workers” is still an injustice that can only be remedied through the acquisition of property.  In Mater et Magistra (1961), Pope John XXIII writes that even though in his time many workers’ material needs are met through social insurance programs (#105), the ownership of property is still necessary: “But it is not enough to assert that the right to own private property and the means of production is inherent in human nature. We must also insist on the extension of this right in practice to all classes of citizens” (#113). Although Leo XIII understood property solely in terms of land, John believes that “the more widespread distribution of property” can also include “shares in medium and large business concerns” (#115).

The Second Vatican Council’s Gaudium et Spes also asserts that property is “a cause of security not to be underestimated, in spite of social funds, rights, and services provided by society,” and adds that  “Private property or some ownership of external goods confers on everyone a sphere wholly necessary for the autonomy of the person and the family, and it should be regarded as an extension of human freedom” (#71). And actually sounding somewhat Ryanesque, Pope John Paul II writes in Centesimus Annus: “A person who is deprived of something he can call ‘his own’, and of the possibility of earning a living through his own initiative, comes to depend on the social machine and on those who control it. This makes it much more difficult for him to recognize his dignity as a person, and hinders progress towards the building up of an authentic human community” (#13).

The purpose of all this is not to claim that Catholic social teaching supports the privatization of social security, but rather that it is not “completely at odds with the principles of Catholic Social Doctrine,” either. Ryan’s desire that increasing numbers of Americans be property-owners certainly is not, and whether a pension system that not only ensures a minimum standard of living for retirees but also makes them the owners of real assets meets the requirements of justice is a conversation worth having.

Miller is certainly right, however, to criticize Ryan for interpreting the issues we face as a nation through the lens of an individualist/collectivist binary. Despite the overlap with Ryan’s views, the magisterial documents cited above are certainly not reflective of an “individualist” mindset. Each of the passages cited is soon followed by a description of the “social function of property”: “in the plan of the Creator all of this world’s goods are primarily intended for the worthy support of the entire human race” (Mater et Magistra, #119). Catholic social teaching presents us with a communitarian vision that defies individualist and collectivist categories. Ryan’s advocacy for Randian individualism is cause for concern, and something that many of his conservative defenders have not adequately dealt with.

To be fair to Ryan, despite his lavish praise for Rand, from what I can tell, the main thing he has derived from her work is a focus on personal initiative and responsibility. To my knowledge, he has never advocated selfishness as a virtue or expressed disdain for the weak (and in fact one notable thing about his Atlas Society address is how different it is from Mitt Romney’s notorious comments about “the 47 percent”). As many have noted, if Ryan is a Randian, he is not a very good one. But this is precisely what makes his passionate advocacy for Rand so foolish and frustrating. It is as if one joined the Communist Party simply because one cared for the poor. What he values about Rand’s philosophy can already be found in Catholic social teaching, so turning to Rand as a guide only creates the possibility of introducing false principles into his thinking, which could contribute to genuinely harmful policies.

The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s warning about the use of Marxist analysis by liberation theologians could equally well apply to Randian objectivism: it is very difficult to hold to one part of the philosophy without dragging along the rest. A great strength of “On All of Our Shoulders” is its criticism of how individualism has infiltrated Catholic discourse. For example, it notes how “prudence” has been misused to downplay important social issues that do not involve “intrinsic evils.” Others have claimed, contrary to numerous magisterial statements, that government services can be completely replaced by charity or that taxation is an unjust form of coercion. David Cloutier has noted how individualism has even impacted Catholic thinking on salvation.

The Catholic Church’s past experience with Marxism teaches us that conservative Catholics need to be much more on guard against the infiltration of individualistic (rather than personalistic) tendencies into their thinking and should not let Ryan off the hook so easily for his enthusiasm for Rand. It also teaches us, however, that Catholics often find strange bedfellows in their policy advocacy, and that critics of Ryan should not dismiss his policies solely on the grounds of his libertarian-influenced beliefs. Paul Ryan’s prominent role in American politics today has, for good and ill, put Catholic social teaching front and center in our public conversation, but that conversation should also be informed by history and what the Catholic tradition has already learned.