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The Georgetown gang that couldn’t think straight.
Forgive the personal nature of the column, but after a week of cooling off, I cannot walk away from the asinine letter that nearly 90 Georgetown professors, including some of my very favorite former teachers, wrote to U.S. House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan before his attention-getting April 26 speech on the Hoya Hilltop. The letter is arrogant, ignorant, puerile, nasty, and dishonest.
Others such as George Weigel and William McGurn have masterfully answered the professors’ ill-informed agit-prop. But in a small sense at least, I was the one who started this flap, so I’ll weigh in at the risk of doing so less impressively than Weigel and McGurn.
Background: My Georgetown undergraduate degree was in a Theology/Government double-major, the former earned under the guidance of (among others) letter signatories John Haught, James Walsh, S.J., William McFadden, S.J., and Anthony Tambasco. I have kept in touch with three of them, enthusiastically recommended Haught’s books, and spoken glowingly of them on occasions too numerous to count. Collectively, they taught me not just the substance of Christian theology but also an approach to scholarship, sorely lacking in this letter, which encouraged polite disagreement and rejected intellectual rigidity.
In my senior thesis in Theology, I had the temerity (as a Catholic-leaning Anglican) to explicitly challenge the idea that Catholic theology necessitates any particular economics or government programs or policies. Partly along the lines of insisting on rendering to Caesar those things that are Caesar’s, I quoted even liberal theologians to the effect that “the Kingdom of God is not a program of social reform.” Our faith can (and should) inform our political and policy considerations, I wrote, but it hardly offers explicit directives about how to structure welfare programs or whether it is a good idea to finance a particular project. We cannot ignore broad religious imperatives to care for the poor, but how to best do so is a matter on which faith is ill-equipped to dictate.
Fast forward to last May 5, exactly a year ago tomorrow. For my friends at Catholic Advocate, I wrote a column on exactly the topic that a year later has exploded into a national dispute between Rep. Ryan and the Georgetown 90. Unless I missed something, mine was the first piece in print that addressed these very issues of how Ryan’s budget specifically might comport with Catholic social teaching — especially the concept of “subsidiarity,” which is the preference for pushing decisions and authority to the smallest, most close-to-home unit possible. After a detailed analysis both of the writings of Pope John Paul II and of Ryan’s budget (a topic I also have deep experience with, as a former staff member of the House Appropriations Committee), here was my conclusion:
The point is not to say whether or not it will work, or whether it is wise policy, and the point certainly is not to say that Catholic teaching requires supporting the Ryan plan. The point is that, by being fully in accord with Catholic principles writ large, the Ryan plan can be adjudged on its merits as a serious contribution to the debate, without Catholics somehow worrying that it in any way violates the Christian imperative to care for “the least of these.
Catholic teaching does not endorse any particular program for elderly health care. But it does give guidance as to whether or not a program is within a broad range of acceptable outcomes. Applying the precepts of Pope John Paul II especially, one can conclude that the Ryan plan passes that test with ease.
So in a sense I started the public debate on the comportment of Ryan’s budget with Catholicism. If I may suggest so, please note the humility of those assertions I made above, and (if you link to the whole column) of the entire argument. We conservatives never claim to have the only good or right Christian answer to how to help the poor, but many of us — Ryan included — do take seriously the Biblical injunction to do so. “Examine the details of [Ryan’s] proposals,” I wrote, “and you’ll see stark examples of subsidiarity in practice. What American political liberals describe as an assault on Medicare and Medicaid is nothing other than subsidiarity applied to those programs in order to save them.”
What we ask in return is a little respect (and humility) from those on the left who favor differing policy prescriptions. As we shall see, that respect, and certainly the humility, is sorely lacking in the letter from the Georgetown 90.
BUT LET’S EXAMINE how Ryan himself began to engage this aspect of the budgetary question. Nowhere has he made the arrogant claim that his budget is required or necessary according to Catholic teaching, nor has he overly aggressively cited Pope JPII’s authority. Instead, in response to longstanding and repeated criticisms from some Catholic functionaries, the congressman last year engaged then-Archbishop (now Cardinal) Timothy Dolan in a dialogue on the subject. That dialogue was informed, it must be emphasized, by Ryan’s background as a top think-tank aide to former Cabinet member and U.S. Rep. Jack Kemp, who (even while breaking widely from liberal orthodoxy on the topic) was almost universally respected for his deep concern for those in poverty or distress. Ryan has insisted all along, with no reason to doubt him, that his intentions are deeply imbued with a Kempian interest in helping the poor. (Ryan also did work for devout Catholic William Bennett, another longtime and thoughtful advocate of ensuring that “the least of these” aren’t left behind.)
Dolan’s whole reply was very much along the lines of this passage (my own emphasis added):
[Y]ou rightly pointed out Pope John Paul’s comments on the limits of what he termed the “Social Assistance State.” Your letter is correct in observing that the Church makes an essential contribution to society when she raises up moral principles to help guide and inform decisions about public policy in a compelling way. We bishops are very conscious that we are pastors, never politicians. As the Second Vatican Council reminds us, it is the lay faithful who have the specific charism of political leadership and decision (Lumen Gentium, 31; Apostolicam Actuositatem 13). The high call to public service which you have nobly answered entitles you and all our elected officials to our respect and constant prayer. Thanks to you and your colleagues for accepting that call.
This was a serious dialogue, mutually respectful and constructive. But Rep. Ryan wasn’t out there randomly claiming Christ’s mantle for his budget; instead, he seriously discussed the concerns of the faithful specifically when asked about them — with the subject first getting major national attention after a Drudge link to an April 10 TV interview Ryan did. The interview was conducted by David Brody of the Christian Broadcasting Network. It was only in that context, and perfectly appropriate therein. Without notes, off the cuff, Ryan made this wholly unexceptional, entirely orthodox claim:
To me, the principle of subsidiarity, which is really federalism, 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.
This should not have stirred up a hornet’s nest, but it did. The Left cannot abide having a conservative make a moral claim, even with due humility, about our budgets; the Left cannot abide a challenge, even an unexceptional one, to their own claims to moral superiority.
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