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.
Ryan continued the discussion in a thoughtful interview with Raymond Arroyo on EWTN, again (on April 19) doing so with respect and humility (as recounted by Kathryn Lopez):
These budgetary debates "are matters for prudential judgment.… People of good will can have differences of opinion on these kinds of issues -- there's plenty of room to disagree about how to advance the common good, advance these principles." That's what the laity in public life are called to do. Ryan is not presenting himself as the poster boy for Catholic social thought, but as a Catholic in public life taking Catholic moral principles seriously. "I cannot claim exclusive justification for my political philosophy and point of view on economics using the social magisterium any more than a liberal can for theirs," Ryan said.
Ryan had stressed these points for a full year, in just this tone of utmost respect. So what can account for the fury and nastiness of the GU professors' letter?
THE LETTER BEGAN politely and respectfully enough, but in the first sentence of the second paragraph it went straight for the jugular: "However, we would be remiss in our duty to you and our students if we did not challenge your continuing misuse of Catholic teaching to defend a budget plan that decimates food programs for struggling families, radically weakens protections for the elderly and sick, and gives more tax breaks to the wealthiest few." They didn't disagree with him, they "challenge[d] him." They didn't strive to convince him he was wrong; they announced categorically that he had "misuse[d]" Catholic teaching. And they accused him of promoting a plan that did a series of dastardly things (none of which it does -- but more on that shortly).
Then came this bit of histrionic and flagrantly dishonest character assassination: "In short, your budget appears to reflect the values of your favorite philosopher, Ayn Rand, rather than the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Her call to selfishness and her antagonism toward religion are antithetical to the Gospel values of compassion and love."
First, Ryan has flat-out denied that Rand is his "favorite philosopher," or that he agrees with her selfishness and antagonism toward religion. Like many other prominent figures, he has often credited Rand with inspiring him in important ways about the virtues of individual liberty, and has insisted that she is right to say there is a morality in free markets -- but he also long has cited several other intellectual influences and has for years spoken and written about the duty owed to the poor (while also maintaining a devout personal Catholicism). In fact, one of his biggest arguments is that the current entitlement system sends too small a percentage of benefits to the poor:
[T]he structure of some of our largest entitlement programs has decreased the share of government transfer payments going to lower-income households and increased the share going to wealthier seniors…. A prudent course of action for policymakers would be to advance sensible reforms to the unsustainable benefit structure of these programs so that government is doing a better job of directing assistance to those that need it most, while giving less help to households that need it least.
All of this information about Ryan's views was readily available before the professors' April 24 letter. In their zeal to draw blood, however, the faculty ignored it and distorted his views along with his budget. Their vitriol continues in accusations that he proposes "gutting government programs," "abandoning the poor to their own devices," and "walk[ing] away from the most vulnerable." These accusations are, to put it mildly, poppycock.
The principles of subsidiarity, generational responsibility, and dangers of the welfare state, all emphasized by Pope John Paul II, are meant to be and indeed are far more readily understandable by a reasonably informed layman than are the arcane and complicated workings of the federal budget. Perhaps, then, the Hoya 90 are just plain ignorant about the latter. But I challenge them to show how the Ryan budget would "decimate… radically weaken protections for… gut [or] … abandon" the poor, the sick, or the elderly.
Do these ivory-basement would-be philosophes not understand the difference between slashing a program and, on the other hand, letting it rise only slightly faster than inflation rather than substantially faster than inflation? Do they not know that even under the Ryan plan, benefits to the poor would continue to rise? Do they not know that his proposal for Medicaid is based on the successful welfare reform proposal that Congress badgered Bill Clinton into signing in 1996, after which poverty rates substantially decreased (as did some key social pathologies) even as the government spent less money? Do they not know that his proposals for Medicare reform mirror the system already used for Medicare Part D, which has worked like a charm to keep premiums about 40 percent below original projections? Do they not know that his entitlement proposals across the board are means-tested to a greater degree, in favor of those at lower incomes, than current law allows?
And, of course, all of this works off a domestic spending baseline higher than at any time in American history, rather than from a condition of federal penuriousness. Let's take a good baseline year for non-security discretionary spending. Consider the fiscal year 2000 -- when the decidedly empathetic, "feel-your-pain" specialist Bill Clinton was president and had broken the budgetary will of the Republican Congress, when spending levels were plenty high enough to keep poverty rates historically low while the "social safety net" was perfectly strong -- and when Democratic senators like Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Bob Kerrey were touting a Medicare proposal almost identical to the one Paul Ryan is suggesting now. Domestic discretionary spending then was $283.58 billion. Allow for six percent population growth over the next decade and the baseline would be $300.56 billion. Now apply the government's official inflation calculator for the last 12 years and the equivalent amount of social spending is $400.23 billion. Almost nobody in the year 2000 would have said that, 12 years later, that Clinton-level baseline of $400 billion would amount to a gutting, a slashing, a hard-hearted dismantling of government obligations to the poor.
Yet in 2012, that same apples-to-apples comparison of non-security discretionary spending stands not just at $400 billion, but at $525.66 billion. That's a 32.3 percent increase in government generosity, even after taking population growth and inflation into account. (In just four years, Pell Grants have increased by 20 percent. More dramatically still, food stamp spending from 2002 to 2012 has risen by an astonishing 270 percent.) For Paul Ryan now to ask merely for a slowdown in the rate of growth (not an absolute cut) from the current, historically extravagant levels of spending is hardly for him to be trying to effectuate "values… antithetical to the Gospel values of compassion as love," despite the ludicrous and scurrilous claims in the professors' letter.
Read the entirety of the letter and the tone is that of a Dickensian orphanage proprietor taking a paddle to a horribly delinquent child. There is no room for discussion, none for honest disagreement, none for mutual respect; it's just (an attempt at) a sneering smack-down from self-appointed societal betters against an uppity inferior who knows not his place. Weigel was right in his column to call their attitude "chippy, even ugly."
Against this ugliness, Ryan himself stayed classy and constructive. The idea he said in his speech in Georgetown's Gaston Hall, is to "revitalize civil society instead of displacing it…. We aim to empower state and local governments, communities, and individuals -- those closest to the problem. And we aim to promote opportunity and upward mobility by strengthening job training programs, to help those who have fallen on hard times." And, specifically related to his faith, he said: "Serious problems like those we face today require charitable conversation. Civil public dialogue goes to the heart of solidarity, the virtue that does not divide society into classes and groups but builds up the common good of all."
Remember that it was Ryan who reached out to Archbishop Dolan, not vice-versa -- and privately, not for some sort of publicity stunt -- just three days short of a year before his speech at Georgetown. This is a man of moral seriousness, doing exactly as his faith requires him to do: trying, with his deep knowledge of his professional subject, to apply the teachings of that faith to his professional conduct.
ONE WONDERS WHERE these professors were when Georgetown covered up the Jesuit cross at the request of the Obama White House. And did they welcome President Obama with a letter "challenging" him on his record in favor of infanticide (by opposing bans on partial birth abortion and even by opposing bans on destroying "born-alive" infants whom doctors intended to abort)? Of course not. Lord forbid they should challenge somebody on the left who violates a clear and unambiguous Catholic doctrine -- but if somebody on the right merely disagrees with a position of their own that has a far more tenuous and ambiguous connection to merely interpretive Catholic teaching, well, that ideological apostasy must be met with all guns blazing!
When four of the letter's signers were teaching me, they were far more open-minded, less ideological, and more collegial -- and certainly not insufferably boorish, which was what their letter to Ryan was.
The budget battles in Washington are battles of political philosophy and policy-analysis, not of theology. Paul Ryan never claimed otherwise. But I think most honest observers will agree with George Weigel, the pre-eminent expert on John Paul II, that Ryan's approach is far more consonant at least with that Pope's thinking than are the fulminations of 90 professors who understand the federal budget no better than the ordinary American understands how to work an abacus.