Marc A. Thiessen, a Washington Post columnist and former speechwriter for President George W. Bush, has complained bitterly at Bishop Stephen Blaire’s “attack” on Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.). Thiessen defends Ryan as a “a faithful Catholic who says his budget work is informed and guided by the social teaching of the Church.” And yet, in a letter to the House Agriculture Committee, Bishop Blaire had the effrontery to write that just solutions to the nation’s fiscal problems “require shared sacrifice by all” — and to suggest that Ryan’s budget plan was not a just solution by this measure. Not much of an attack by Washington standards, but some conservatives may have forgotten how it feels to be criticized by a Catholic bishop, and so Thiessen has responded to this pastoral nudge as if it were a below-the-belt punch.
Thiessen notes that you will not find the phrase “shared sacrifice” in the Catechism of the Catholic Church and concludes that it is nothing more than “a reelection slogan for the Democratic Party.” One might as well point out that you will not find the word “pro-life” in the Cathechism and conclude that its use by a Catholic bishop is therefore nothing more than Republican Party boilerplate. The Church’s teaching about the importance of “shared sacrifice,” otherwise known as solidarity, is no more in doubt than its condemnation of abortion. But Thiessen has a bad habit of dodging and redacting Catholic teachings that don’t fit GOP dogma. Two years ago he wrote a book arguing that, while the Church may now oppose torture, nowhere does it say anything about “enhanced interrogation,” which he went on to justify by abusing the principle of double effect.
If Thiessen had bothered to look into the matter, he would have found that the Catechism has some rather provocative things to say about the responsibilities of the state. “Certainly, it is the proper function of authority to arbitrate, in the name of the common good, between various particular interests; but it should make accessible to each what is needed to lead a truly human life: food, clothing, health, work, education and culture, suitable information, the right to establish a family, and so on” (§1908). Perhaps Thiessen would argue that here the phrase “make accessible” means no more than “allow people to sell,” or that the term “authority” doesn’t have to mean the state. But he would have to expand the scope of his imaginative re-interpretations to include other official church documents that make Catholic social teaching more explicit and harder to fudge. Some of the faculty at Georgetown University recently sent Paul Ryan the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church; maybe they still have a spare copy they could send to Thiessen.
But enough with Thiessen’s argument-by-search-term. And let’s pass over his stray remark that Bishop Blaire “has near-zero competence to judge what military spending is necessary or unnecessary.” (If you want competence like that, you’d better talk to one of those nameless government bureaucrats Republicans are always complaining about, or at least to a former White House speechwriter.) And let’s not worry about whether Ryan is, in Thiessen’s words, “a good Catholic layman.” I have no doubt Ryan goes to Mass every week, loves his wife and children, and is truly contrite about his recent enthusiasm for the works of Ayn Rand.
The problem isn’t Ryan’s personal piety; it’s his policy priorities. Make that “priority.” For all his grim talk about our national-debt emergency, Ryan’s new budget, like his old budget, is really organized around the single imperative of reducing taxes, especially for the rich. It is very specific about this: it would bring down the top personal income-tax rate from 35 to 25 percent and reduce corporate taxes to the same rate. True, it promises to offset the effect of these lower rates by closing loopholes, but these loopholes are left unspecified (as loopholes almost always are). Ryan has specifically promised not to close one of the most egregious loopholes, the one that allows income on capital to be taxed at 15 percent. To make up for the revenue lost because of the tax cuts, Congress would have to find $700 billion worth of other loopholes to close. But don’t worry: Ryan and the rest of the GOP congressional caucus will figure that out later.
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