Wisconsin Congressman Paul Ryan was back in the news today, promoting his budget proposals and his take on Catholic social teaching in an interview with CBN. Critics, including the U.S.C.C.B., have assailed Ryan’s budget as too hard on the poor, but he apparently doesn’t see a contradiction in the proposals he will use in negotiation with Congressional Democrats and his Catholic faith. During his chat with CBN’s David Brody, Ryan equates subsidiarity with the American political concept of federalism and he limits Catholic concepts of subsidiarity and solidarity, which he seems to jumble together, to essentially individual and community based expressions of civic engagement.
“To me, the principle of subsidiarity, which is really federalism,” Ryan said, “meaning government closest to the people governs best, having a civil society of the principal of solidarity where we, through our civic organizations, through our churches, through our charities, through all of our different groups where we interact with people as a community, that’s how we advance the common good. By not having big government crowd out civic society, but by having enough space in our communities so that we can interact with each other, and take care of people who are down and out in our communities.”
Ryan sees a narrow to nonexistent role for government in anti-poverty efforts. He reduces the preferential option for the poor, which he acknowledges as a “one of the primary tenets of Catholic social teaching,” to meaning “don’t keep people poor, don’t make people dependent on government so that they stay stuck in their station in life.”
This maintains a binary understanding of government and culture that outflanks any positive role for government in responding to human need. There is little room for nuance or subtlety through that unforgiving filter. The outcome from such a perspective is wonderfully beneficial for people who seek a reduced role of government and the resulting reduction in tax burdens, which, it is worth noting, are currently at historic lows for all classes of Americans.
In this interview with CBN and in the mainstream media when Ryan surfaces such notions, the practical implausibility of a charity-based safety net is never discussed. Though many argue it is not spending enough to respond to the continuing crisis among the nation’s growing poor, the federal government is still spending billions each year in various health and anti-poverty services. For instance in fiscal 2012, it spent $35 billion to continue rental assistance to 4.7 million families. Assuming Ryan sincerely believes charitable agencies bankrolled by private giving can step in to provide assistance in the absence of government (and allowing that from his perspective $35 billion was probably too much to spend to begin with), can anyone imagine that the nation’s charities could so realign their infrastructure and unify their efforts to replicate and replace even this one federal anti-poverty commitment?
Certainly no one can say that every federal dollar spent on poverty reduction has proved well invested; few Catholics support an over-defining or unwarranted role for government; and no one desires that poverty in America become a generationally fixed reality because of state-induced dependency. But are our options really as stark as no government or an obliterating, infantalizing government? When Ryan surveys contemporary poverty he sees government interventions that have not only not succeeded, they have created generational self-replications of poverty. In doing so he ignores any number of other variables, for example, the continuing malperformance of underfunded public education systems in urban and rural communities, the excessive costs of higher education and limited options for vocational and skills retraining, the continuing shift to single parenthood (often mistakenly assessed by conservatives as an outcome of the public aid system, and not a driver to the same) that are, among many other forces, propelling modern poverty.
America’s left is frequently charged with fear mongering, but Ryan engages in his share here, assuring that without drastic reductions in social spending, for example, the complete revamping of Medicare, the nation is doomed to crash on Hellenic shores as if such emergency measures were the only way out of our current fiscal woes. He also ignores growing evidence that austerity at this time is possibly a complete recipe for disaster as the nation’s timid recovery totters along (Just take a gander at poor old Ireland: "Poverty Spreading Across Irish Society.")
Ryan seems to ignore issues that might complicate his analysis. He simply leaves out the notion of positive subsidiarity--defined neatly in the OED as “the ethical imperative for communal, institutional or governmental action to create the social conditions necessary to the full development of the individual, such as the right to work, decent housing, health care”—and focuses on the concept’s preferential option for “smaller essential cells of society” (186). But that preference does not exclude or prohibit a role for higher social players, like state and federal government, to intervene when it is appropriate for them to do so. In fact they are required to do so in a morally well-ordered society. From the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church (188):
Various circumstances may make it advisable that the State step in to supply certain functions . One may think, for example, of situations in which it is necessary for the State itself to stimulate the economy because it is impossible for civil society to support initiatives on its own. One may also envision the reality of serious social imbalance or injustice where only the intervention of the public authority can create conditions of greater equality, justice and peace.
Ryan’s analysis also takes as a given that the problem of persistent poverty in the United States is too much federal intervention, not too little, ignoring the fact that poverty levels were at their lowest at the end of the Great Society program and have been creeping up steadily since and that growing evidence suggests the nation's well-touted welfare reform does not lead to happy outcomes during economic downturns. His budget proposals similarly assume that the problem of federal overspending emerges exclusively out of its social welfare budget, not the defense budget, interest on past overspending on defense or ill-advised tax breaks for the wealthiest. Hence his planning for fiscally reforming America absolves defense spending and seeks even deeper tax cuts (to 25 percent) for America’s wealthiest. Ryan does seem open to closing tax loopholes and that may mean, according to the kindest analysis, more overall tax revenue even as rates are cut back further. We shall see.
At any rate his performance on CBN did not go unnoticed. "If Rep. Ryan thinks a budget that takes food and health care away from millions of vulnerable families upholds Catholic values, then he also probably believes Jesus was a Tea Partier who lectured the poor to stop being so lazy and work harder," said John Gehring, Catholic Outreach Coordinator at Faith in Public Life. "This budget turns centuries of Catholic social teaching on its head and completely ignores the U.S. bishops' recent call for a budget that puts defense cuts on the table and protects food stamps and other vital safety nets.”
And Ryan’s commingling of Republican budget aims with Catholic social teaching drew a scathing response from Graeme Zielinski, Communications Director for the Democratic Party of Wisconsin: "For Paul Ryan to claim that the Catholic social teaching that emphasizes participation, solidarity and care for the least is the backbone of his divisive and exclusionary budget is an act of political cynicism.”
Zielinkski said, “The American bishops have since the end of World War I called for government to provide a safety net to the orphan, the widow, the disabled, the poorest among us. Paul Ryan would shred that net while giving tax cuts to the richest and shredding a juridical system to oversee the market and protect other human beings. There are more than a few Catholics like me who are opposed to the Ryan budget precisely because of our faith, not in spite of it. It was Blessed John Paul, after all, who wrote, ‘It is right to struggle against an unjust economic system that does not uphold the priority of the human being over capital and land.’"