The Catholic controversy about the Paul Ryan budget

Politically active progressive Catholics never expected this. They expected “Catholic social teaching” to be their trump card in every political debate — the magic phrase they uttered to somehow shame conservative Catholics into supporting this or that liberal initiative. What business did Paul Ryan have to use “Catholic social teaching” to justify his ideas?

Yet, that’s exactly what he has done. In an interview with the Christian Broadcasting Network released Tuesday, Ryan said Catholic social teaching informed the thought that went into his controversial budget proposal. Politico reports:

Ryan said that the principle of subsidiarity — a notion, rooted in Catholic social teaching, that decisions are best made at most local level available — guided his thinking on budget planning.

“To me, the principle of subsidiarity, which is really federalism, meaning government closest to the people governs best, having a civil society … 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,” Ryan said.

The Wisconsin Republican said that he also drew on Catholic teachings regarding concern for the poor, and his interpretation of how that translated into government policy.

“[T]he preferential option for the poor, which is one of the primary tenets of Catholic social teaching, means don’t keep people poor, don’t make people dependent on government so that they stay stuck at their station in life, help people get out of poverty out onto life of independence,” said Ryan.

Predictably, some of the aforementioned progressive Catholics are pretty upset about his comments:

Nearly 60 progressive Catholic leaders released a statement Friday, condemning Budget Chairman Paul Ryan’s assertion that his budget proposal was shaped by his Catholic faith.

“When a high-profile Catholic congressman is mangling church teachings, that should be challenged,” John Gehring, Catholic Outreach Coordinator for Faith in Public Life, the organization that put together the statement, told POLITICO.

I agree! When a high-profile Catholic congressman is mangling church teachings, that should be challenged! That goes for Catholic congresswomen, too — and it doesn’t get any more high profile in the House of Representatives than the position of Speaker. So, I’m assuming John Gehring was as outraged as I was when Nancy Pelosi said she’s bothered by the fact that Catholics have that “conscience thing.”

More to the point, though, what does Catholic social teaching say about budgeting and economics? Is Paul Ryan “mangling” church teachings? Catholic Online’s Keith Fournier offers a helpful primer in social doctrine as outlined by Cardinal Renato Raffaele Martino, president of the “Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace,” in the “Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church.” Here’s a little bit of what Fournier has to say:

The social doctrine offers principles to help us order our economies. It does not propose any particular economic theory. It insists that every economic order be at the service of the human person, human freedom, human flourishing and the family. We are to give a love of preference to the poor, recognizing our solidarity with them. However, this call to solidarity is to be applied through the application of the principle of subsidiarity, rejecting all forms of dehumanizing collectivism, either of the left or the right.

The market economy has been affirmed in recent social teaching – when properly understood and morally structured. However, the Catholic Church stood against the materialism of the atheistic Marxist system and now properly cautions Nations which have adopted a form of liberal capitalism of the dangers of “economism” or materialism which promotes the use of persons as products and fails to recognize the value of being over acquiring.

Does the sincere attempt to understand and apply Catholic social doctrine lead inexorably to support for the Paul Ryan budget? Not necessarily. (I would argue that it does lead inexorably to a rejection of abortion.) The point is, social doctrine is not a political prescription; it’s a framework for thinking about the ordering of society. Paul Ryan was right to consider it as he crafted his budget — and Catholics are right to consider it as they contemplate his budget. What’s not particularly faithful is reducing our social doctrine to mere politics, instead of seeking to elevate our politics to the level of social doctrine, the principles of which, strictly speaking, are not particularly Catholic or even religious, but reflective of a desire for human flourishing.

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David Strom 6:01 AM on June 06, 2023