U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan’s Budget Proposal: Catholic Subsidiarity or Social Darwinism?

U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan, Chairman of the House Budget Committee

Gil Bailie of The Cornerstone Forum (Facebook page) prompts the following discussion by posting a link to an article from The California Catholic Daily of 4/12/12. The article, entitled “Subsidiarity is Really Federalism,” includes an interview in which U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan, Chairman of the House Budget Committee, explains how his Catholic faith guided him in drafting his 2012 Budget proposal. Raph Martin is the first to respond:

Raph Martin He hasn’t studied his Catholic faith well enough!!! What he proposes is the contrary of the Church’s social teachings which is always concerned about the needs of the poor and needy. I would suggest he do a serious reading of Pope Paul VI’s encyclical On The Development of Peoples (Populorum Progression). What had at one time been viewed as the “third world” is now on the home front!

The Cornerstone Forum Thanks Raph. The goal of lifting the poor out of poverty and empowering them to live productive lives is one that is shared by serious liberals and conservatives. The issue on which they disagree is how best to do that. The results to date of the efforts of recent decades doesn’t constitute an indisputable case for the liberal approach. A full debate on these things, sans the stereotypes, is long overdue. Thanks again. My best.

Doughlas Remy Paul Ryan and other Catholic free-market fundamentalists have seized on the word “subsidiarity,” from Catholic social teaching, to further their own aim of transferring even more wealth to the one percent. This is not the kind of “wealth redistribution” that Jesus had in mind when he counseled the rich man to give all that he had to the poor. (Ryan must have got it backwards somehow.) And it is not what Pope Benedict XVI had in mind when he addressed the issue of poverty in his 2009 encyclical (“Charity in Truth”) and later through the Pontifical Council’s document of October 2011 (“Toward Reform in the International Financial and Monetary System in the Context of Global Public Authority”).

Jesuit Thomas Reese described the 2011 document as “closer to the view of Occupy Wall Street than [to that of] anyone in the U.S. Congress.” Meanwhile, right-wing neoliberal Catholics Nicholas Hahn and George Weigel actually railed against Vatican document, questioning its authority and calling it “incompetent babble.”

The idea of “subsidiarity” doesn’t call for a dismantling of government services for the poor. It only claims that nothing should be done by higher authorities that could be done at lower levels of participation. There is certainly some wisdom in this idea, but the question in our era of globalization and macro-economics is how efficiently and effectively can local charities address the problems of poverty, hunger, and homelessness? And if they can address these problems, why aren’t they doing so? And should government programs be dismantled before local charities have proven themselves?

The Vatican document is very critical of neoliberalism (or market fundamentalism), as espoused by Paul Ryan, Weigel, Hahn, and others. It supports government regulation as a means of controlling greed.

Over 90 percent of government assistance for lower-income people consists of Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid nursing-home care for seniors, school lunches, Head Start, preschool programs, environmental and financial regulations, Pell grants, and mortgage guarantees.

These are all losers in Paul Ryan’s budget. And who are the winners?

The winners are the dogs of greed and militarism. Ryan’s budget includes tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans and for corporations, cuts Medicare and Medicaid spending, and does little to get military spending under control.

We know what the Vatican would think of Paul Ryan’s budget. And there can be little doubt about what Jesus would think.

Yes, it’s time for a conversation about this.

Ayn Rand

George Dunn Is this the same Paul Ryan who has publicly expressed his admiration for Ayn Rand and her gospel of selfishness? Do you share Ryan’s admiration for this avowed foe of Christianity?

Doughlas Remy @George: Thanks for bring this up. It’s dynamite. The Ryan-Rand connection totally overshadows the Ryan-Jesus connection in every way. Jesus was obviously NOT an important part of Ryan’s moral development.

He says, “The reason I got involved in public service, by and large, if I had to credit one thinker, one person, it would be Ayn Rand.” [um…not Jesus?]

For anyone not familiar with Rand, one of her central tenets is that financially successful people are inherently superior and that government should not redistribute any of their wealth to the poor, who are, I guess, inherently inferior. Jesus, of course, constantly exhorts his followers to aid the poor.

As one measure of how important Rand is to Ryan, he requires his staffers to read her novel “Atlas Shrugged.”

I read it myself many years ago and always thought of it as the antithesis of Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount.

Any thoughts, Gil?

Doughlas Remy I highly recommend the following article from The New Republic: “Ayn Rand and the Invincible Cult of Selfishness on the American Right.”

Raph Martin The 1%ers, it seems to me, don’t have a clue about people struggling to exist without food, shelter, a job, health care, survival, and basic ordinary needs. Add to their tampering with ecology and the rape of the earth for oil, natural gas, water rights in addition to its ongoing pollution by groups that only see dollar signs as a measure of progress and turn away from the basic needs of the billions of poor people living on this planet. Where’s the vision for a sustainable environment and society? Cutting expenditures to and from the needy poor as Ryan proposes we do- while mouthing Catholic social justice ethics under the rubric of “subsidiarity” shows how far he is from Jesus’ radical vision to “love one another.” Catholics need to be wary of the Paul Ryans of our society who align themselves with power politics, militarists, and the corporate world and then try to silence their critics-yes, even by quoting scripture and claiming Catholic theologians on their side. (Ayn Rand resurrected?) Let’s take a lesson from history: Many German Catholics, rather than critique their bishops when Hitler came to power, followed the lead of their bishops who didn’t see Nazism as a challenge to the Church. They chose to “save their souls” rather than “lose them” and showed Catholicism as aligned with the state rather than the gospel. It seems to me that once again Jesus’ message got lost in the transition.

Brian Graham I see no way to reconcile Ryan’s peculiarly self-serving views with Pope Benedict’s magnificent call to a profound cultural renewal based on charity, holistic understanding and “a new humanistic synthesis” in his encyclical Caritas in Veritate. I trust linking this article was meant to facilitate a robust discussion about the relationship between Catholic faith and politics, rather than an endorsement of this particular point of view. To me, Ryan’s comments suggest he has not given serious consideration to the Encyclical at all. He vainly attempts to build a Catholic argument to support his political views, but one has to completely overlook the encyclicals in order to get there. No thanks.

Doughlas Remy Religious leaders have slammed Ryan for using his Catholic faith to justify cutting programs that help the poor:

It’s the height of hypocrisy for Rep. Ryan to claim that his approach to the budget is shaped by Catholic teaching and values,” said Fr. John Baumann, S.J., founder of PICO National Network. […] “A central moral measure of any budget proposal is how it affects “the least of these” (Matthew 25). The needs of those who are hungry and homeless, without work or in poverty should come first.”

Read the full article here.

The Cornerstone Forum Ayn Rand? If only we could adjudicate the question of how to help those who cannot help themselves by critiquing a third-rate, crackpot, Libertarian novelist who has been read by a tiny fraction of one percent of our fellow citizens, even if one of these was Paul Ryan. Have you read Ayn Rand? Neither have I, for the same reasons you and hundreds of millions of others haven’t. How much more convenient it must be to go on and on about Ayn Rand than to face the realities with which Paul Ryan has been grappling for the last few years. Who wants to take a long hard look at the actual effect on the poor of the liberal programs designed to help them or the tsunami of debt that will soon bankrupt those programs? Ryan, to his credit, has tried to address these issues.

My point was – and is – that Paul Ryan has introduced into our political vocabulary arguably the most salient word in the lexicon of Catholic social teaching, and that this should be celebrated. To have an argument about what subsidiarity is and how it should work is a huge step in the right direction. I’m all for that argument, even though I have no special contribution to make to it. But to jump at the chance to pillory the man who is trying to incorporate the concept of subsidiarity into our political discourse because of his taste in literature hardly helps. The more we can argue about subsidiarity, the better.

The question – not the theological question, of course, which is a bigger question, but the public policy question – is how to empower those who stuck in poverty to become economically productive members of the middle class? When it comes to that challenge, getting one’s knickers all twisted about Ayn Rand is as useless as anything I can imagine. I haven’t read Paul Ryan’s budget proposals; I haven’t time to do so; it’s not what I’m called to do, but he’s actually trying to address some problems that won’t go away, and all he is getting for his efforts is carping from those who find it easier to criticize his proposals than to come up ones of their own.

“Subsidiarity respects personal dignity by recognizing in the person a subject who is always capable of giving something to others,” Benedict XVI wrote in Caritas in Veritate. “By considering reciprocity as the heart of what it is to be a human being, subsidiarity is the most effective antidote against any form of all-encompassing welfare state.” The pope insisted in that same encyclical that the effort to help the poor “is always designed to achieve their emancipation, because it fosters freedom and participation through assumption of responsibility.”

Here, then, are a few more terms we need: emancipation, freedom, participation and responsibility. My wife volunteers at a center for the homeless. When she hands someone in need a meal or clothes, both she and they recognize that an act of generosity has taken place, and both she and they feel grateful for having been present when it did. The principle of subsidiarity insists that not every exchange can take place on so personal a level, but that efforts should be made to have them take place at the most intimate and local level possible.

In my opinion, moreover, and in light of the manifest inadequacy and unsustainability of current entitlement programs, those whose responsibility it is to help the poor need to address things like the actual statistics about the effect on the poor of public policies which – despite the good intentions of their advocates – incentivize the disintegration of the family – from which flows almost all the intractable social, moral, economic, and political problems of our society. We need to take a long, hard look at the social science data on the correlation between second or third generation welfare dependency and high school drop out rates, substance abuse, delinquency, criminality, out of wedlock births, the paucity of employable skills, and so on. Most of the kneejerk reaction to real efforts to do something that both works and that our currently bankrupt society can actually afford seems to assume that there is nothing wrong with the status quo that can’t be fixed by throwing more money at it – someone else’s money. Tragically, that is not so. It has failed many of those it was intended to help, and if nothing is done to change their plight, they will suffer further degradation when the money runs out, as it soon will. Serious adults are trying to find a better approach. It’s not as if the looming collapse of the European social welfare state isn’t providing a glimpse of where things are headed if we fail to find more workable solutions.

All this is just a little PS. Greetings to any who might want to keep at it, but I’m finished.

George Dunn Ryan’s affiliation with the Ayn Rand cult is merely a matter of his “taste in literature”? Would you regard it as equally trivial if he expressed the same deep admiration for Friedrich Nietzsche or credited Nietzsche as the inspiration for his entry into politics? Surely Rand’s rabid hatred for the Christian virtues exceeds anything found in Nietzsche, whose critique of Christianity was nuanced and qualified. Don’t you see that? Oh, that’s right. You haven’t read her! Well, as someone who has, I can assure you that her philosophy is vile in ways that must turn the stomach of anyone who loves the gospel. Read her yourself, Gil, and see what I mean. Then think about the fact that her “philosophy” is the real inspiration for the economic programs you so naively laud.

Doughlas Remy Gil, you are apparently unaware of the enormous influence that Ayn Rand’s novels have had in American political life. Here are a few facts and quotations that I culled from the New Republic article that I linked to earlier:

Her biographer, Jennifer Burns, says, “Rand has been the ultimate gateway drug to life on the right.” Alan Greenspan said it was Rand who convinced him that capitalism was moral. The New York Times called her the “novelist laureate” of the Reagan administration. A 1991 Library of Congress poll found that Atlas Shrugged was the most influential book in America after the Bible. Half a million copies of her books are sold every year.

I read Ayn Rand’s two most famous novels when I was in my twenties and personally know many others who have read them. She may have been third-rate and crackpot, but her so-called “Objectivist” philosophy was enormously seductive to the naive and worked its way into the fabric of political and economic discourse in this country and the U.K.

Paul Ryan’s high regard for Ayn Rand is not trivial, and George Dunn was correct in asking if you would think so highly of Ryan if the greatest influence on his thinking had been Friedrich Nietzsche.

Paul Ryan is not trying to implement the concept of subsidiarity so much as he is trying to exploit it. Neo-cons like Ryan espouse a kind of “inverted-Marxism.” Both the neo-cons and the Marxists want(ed) to see the state “wither away” (or made so small that it can be “drowned in the bathtub” as Grover Norquist said). While the Marxists’ “grand narrative” ended with the triumph (dictatorship) of the proletariat, the neo-con’s grand narrative culminates in completely free and unfettered markets. (I suppose you could say that the theo-con’s ultimate hope is for unfettered freedom for their own religious views and practices.)

While the recent Papal documents I cited call for more individual and local participation in efforts to address poverty, they also call for more efforts by governments and supra-national entities like the World Bank. Look again at the very title of the 2011 Pontifical Council’s document: “Toward Reform in the International Financial and Monetary System in the Context of Global Public Authority.” This is why I say Paul Ryan is misrepresenting Catholic social teaching. His “subsidiarity” and the Vatican’s have little in common, and the Vatican has spelled this out in no uncertain terms. The mere fact that the neo-cons are so upset with the Vatican about the 2011 document should be your clue.

Ayn Rand—not the concept of subsidiarity—provides the key to understanding why Paul Ryan wants to gut government welfare programs. It’s much more than just his “taste in literature” that worries me.

Why do you say that Ryan’s critics are unwilling to come up with proposals of their own? This is just not true, and I can tell you why in a future comment. In the meantime, I would recommend that you read Timothy Snyder, Richard Wilkinson, Joseph Stiglitz, Paul Krugman, and Robert Reich, for starters. They will take you out of your comfort zone, but if you genuinely want to know what liberals are proposing, you’ve got to start somewhere.

I’m glad to see that you want to have a conversation about this, and I hope you will stick with it. Maybe familiarizing yourself with Paul Ryan’s budget proposal or with his mentor Ayn Rand is not what you were “called to do,” but you have ventured into a territory where you pretend to speak with some clarity, so maybe it’s time to just dig in, do the homework, and make sure you’re on solid footing.

Raph Martin I’m in total agreement with you, Doughlas, and I’m sure Gil will graciously respond to the invite. He’s done a marvelous commentary back in 1995 on what he called The Famished Craving: The Attention of Others, the Fascination for the Famous, and the Need for Faith. I’d love to see him bring Randian thought to the fore and analyze it in light of the present flurry over Paul Ryan’s attempt to promote justice based on his understanding of subsidiarity.

The Cornerstone Forum The [following article] is hardly the last word, but it is part of the necessary debate:

“The Limits of Subsidiarity,” by Peter Brown. From The Catholic Thing, April 14, 2012.

Doughlas Remy That is an excellent article. Peter Brown makes an excellent case for a hybrid model of social welfare, one that marshals resources both at the individual or family level and at the level of the state. Neither the subsidiarity nor the solidarity model is sufficient by itself. The goal of both models is to spread risk and absorb shocks, and they should work in tandem.

The subsidiarity model is very appealing, and I’m sure most of us would like to see it strengthened. However, as Brown points out so well, it has faced unprecedented challenges in the last century. Families are dispersed all over the country—and indeed, the world—and a single serious illness can bankrupt an ordinary middle-class family.

The way to grow the middle class is to ensure that everyone has guaranteed access to good nutrition, education, health care, housing, and affordable public transit. No one should be without any of these basic goods in a society as rich as ours.

Let’s stop ducking and covering whenever we heard he words “welfare state” and “socialism.” Some of the most successful countries in the world have blends of free-market capitalism and socialism, and, yes, they are in Europe. Europe is not facing crisis because of its welfare states. It is facing crisis for basically two reasons: (1) Greece had high levels of income disparity and the rich were paying almost no taxes–a scenario that is now unfolding in this country as well–and (2) The Euro zone had a monetary policy but no fiscal policy. It couldn’t have a fiscal policy because each country in the zone had its own budget and its own treasury. This was a serious design flaw because it prevented the zone as a whole from acting to address fiscal crises in member states, but it had nothing to do with socialism or welfare. Some of the most socialistic countries in Europe have a lower debt-to-GDP ratio than the U.S.

Doughlas Remy Gil, I’m sure you can’t have failed to notice today’s “first reading” at Mass. It’s from the Acts of the Apostles 4:32-35:

“The community of believers was was one heart and mind, and no one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but they had everything in common. With great power the apostles bore witness to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great favor was accorded them all. There was no needy person among them, for those who owned property or houses would sell them, bring the proceeds of the sale, and put them at the feet of the apostles, and they were distributed to each according to need.”

Raph Martin I was also struck by that reading this morning, Doughlas…I asked myself whether the wealthy today would be willing to do what the early community of disciples was willing to do? Or is the Ananias spirit the norm?

I have a friend in Toronto -T. Schmidt-an adult educator who has taught thousands of Catholic teachers about Social Ethics, the extraordinary teaching of the Roman Catholic church as it relates to the Common Good of the broader community. This teaching about the Common Good began with Pope Leo Xlll in 1891 and is built on the inherent dignity of each human person. Let me quote him and add on a passage from an early encyclical that deals with the dignity of the person and his/her labor. He says: “It broadly resembles the call to compassion and justice at the heart of all religions. No matter what the social issue , solutions must ultimately proceed to the fundamental bedrock of the dignity of the worker and not slavish attention to the market which neither honours labour or the environment.” He appends a quote from the encyclicals of Leo XIII and Pius XII. “Wealthy owners of the means of production and employers must never forget that both divine and human law forbid them to squeeze the poor and wretched for the sake of gain or to profit from the helplessness of others.” It seems to me that Ryan’s strategy is about destroying the Common Good by tearing away programs that would benefit the poor and the needy so that they too could eventually contribute to the common good. When he learns Catholic social justice then he can speak in its name. Until then people should be wary of his misinterpretations of Catholic teachings.

[Raph Martin links to the following website:]

Election 2012: Catholics Vote for the Common Good
A coalition of national Catholic organizations have gathered to make the 2012 election season a time when Catholics can challenge candidates to develop positions more in line with the Common Good.

Doughlas Remy Thanks, Raph. It is so heartening to hear from Catholics who hold fast to their church’s teachings about social ethics–and to learn about Catholics for the Common Good. I just visited their website and, though I don’t see eye-to-eye with them about several issues, I do appreciate their stance on social justice. I myself am not a Catholic, but the things you have written have left me with a much more favorable impression of Catholicism than I’ve been having in recent years.


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