Paul Ryan’s budget and Catholic social doctrine

By Albert de Zutter

Copyright 2012

Paul Ryan, touted by Republicans as their financial guru, claims that his Catholic faith informed his budget plan, citing the Catholic Church’s “principle of subsidiarity” and “preferential option for the poor.” In defending his plan Ryan said the preferential option for the poor “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 a life of independence.”

Analyzing that statement, it appears Ryan’s premise is that government support in the form of unemployment compensation, food aid or welfare forcibly prevents the poor from becoming independent, and that all it would take for them to be free and prosperous would be for the government to stop helping them.

Wow. This is what passes for economic, political, religious, social and moral intelligence?

Let’s examine Ryan’s claim that his Catholic faith helped him shape his budget, which would substantially reduce taxes for the ultra-rich and disastrously cut programs for the poor and those in the economic middle, a middle which has been barely hanging onto or losing buying power over the last 10 years.

Authentic Catholic teaching on social justice is founded on three principles: the common good, subsidiarity and solidarity. The common good refers to “the good of all people and of the whole person.” It is the duty of government to promote the common good. This it does through “commitment to peace, the organization of the state’s powers, a sound juridical system, the protection of the environment, and the provision of essential services to all, (emphasis added) some of which are at the same time human rights: food, housing, work, education and access to culture, transportation, basic health care, the freedom of communication and expression, and the protection of religious freedom.” (“Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church,” No. 166)

The Ryan budget reduces or eliminates current provisions for most of these human rights. On subsidiarity, cited by Ryan as inspiring his budget, the Catholic Church does not at all teach that “government closest to the people governs best,” as Ryan said in defending his budget. It teaches that higher orders of society (the federal government, for example) “must adopt attitudes of help (subsidium)  —  therefore of support, promotion, development — with respect to lower-order societies” (states, counties, municipalities, churches, unions, professional associations, etc.) so these can “properly perform the functions that fall to them,” and not be swallowed up in a higher entity. Subsidiarity involves “economic, institutional or juridical assistance offered to lesser social entities.” (Compendium, No. 186) So while Ryan posits an either/or and better/worse interpretation of subsidiarity, the Church teaches a collaborative model, which is followed by many federal programs.

Regarding “the preferential option for the poor,” the Church teaches that “the poor, the marginalized and in all cases those whose living conditions interfere with their proper growth should be the focus of particular concern.” This concern “cannot but embrace the immense multitudes of the hungry, the needy, the homeless, those without health care and, above all, those without hope of a better future.” (Compendium, No 182) In its discussion of the preferential option the Church cites the words of St. Gregory the Great: “When we attend to the needs of those in want, we give them what is theirs, not ours. More than performing works of mercy, we are paying a debt of justice.”

These teachings are a far cry from Ryan’s plan of “helping people get out of poverty and into a life of independence” by cutting off all support and using the money thus “saved” to lavish another tax cut on the wealthy.

Ryan omits the principles of the common good and of solidarity in his claim to base his budget on Catholic teaching. Solidarity, the Church teaches, is a commitment to the good of all, “because we are all really responsible for all,” according to Pope John Paul II, a concept, by the way, that President Obama has been citing recently.

“The principle of solidarity requires that men and women of our day cultivate a greater awareness that they are debtors of the society of which they have become part,” the Church teaches. In other words, nobody who achieves success does so without the necessary help of society, “the indispensable legacy constituted by culture, scientific and technical knowledge, material and immaterial goods, and by all that the human condition has produced.” (Compendium, no. 195) This idea, too, has become a part of the President’s current message.

Matthew 25 tells us that we are expected to respond to the hungry, the thirsty, the sick, the homeless stranger, the imprisoned and the naked, or face judgment. “The least of these” require our help as a society. We cannot expect them to pull themselves up by their sandal straps.