Rep. Paul Ryan has long enjoyed a reputation as a wonk’s wonk. Here was a Republican politician happy to engage in substantive conversation about tax policy, debt, and the future of entitlement programs. The press, accustomed to elected officials far less interested in the nitty-gritty of policy-making, believed it had discovered a serious man on Capitol Hill. Others were impressed that Ryan, a practicing Catholic, didn’t shy away from discussing how his faith has helped shape his policies.

Yet, as Ryan’s national stature has increased, so has scrutiny of his record. He has been well served by media coverage contrasting his allegedly Catholic-infused policies with Vice President Joe Biden’s strained attempts to reconcile his prochoice politics with church teaching. But before long, the same press corps that had portrayed Ryan as a no-nonsense deficit hawk began reporting his long-standing avowal of the works of Ayn Rand as the touchstone for his political life. In 2005, Ryan told a crowd of Rand devotees that he looks to Rand’s writing to make sure his policies “square with the key principles of individualism.” And in a 2009 video he praised her for upholding “the morality of individualism” as “what matters most.” One might detect the influence of Rand’s individualism in Ryan’s 2011 description of the social safety net as a “hammock” that fosters “dependency.”

Rand, an atheist, considered charity a sign of weakness. Ryan’s Randian views—notably his budget plan’s drastic cuts to food stamps, which now aid 46 million—did not sit well with many Catholics. That includes the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, which repeatedly criticized Ryan’s budget last spring, days after Ryan claimed that it is informed by Catholic social teaching. “The preferential option for the poor,” Ryan said, “means...don’t make people dependent on government.”

Not so. The preferential option means the needs of the poor ought to come first, even if that means giving them food as well as job training. As Ryan continued taking heat for his Randian views, he pivoted, dismissing reports of his devotion to Rand and naming Thomas Aquinas as his real inspiration. In April he identified the “exploding federal debt” as our greatest threat. Defending that position, he cited fiscal conservatives’ favorite papal utterance, “We are living at the expense of future generations,” which appears in Benedict XVI’s book-length interview Light of the World.

Ryan did not mention Benedict’s Caritas in veritate (2009), which affirms the government’s role in establishing “systems of protection and welfare,” and laments “cuts in social spending.” Indeed, Ryan doesn’t explain how his policies reflect the church’s traditional support for government’s role in securing the common good. Instead, he passes off laissez-faire economics as Catholic teaching.

Despite all this, Ryan has been rewarded with the public support—but not, we are assured, the political endorsement—of a few bishops, including the president of the USCCB, Cardinal Timothy Dolan. These bishops, some of whom rightly rebuked Joe Biden for his prochoice views, have vouched for Ryan’s Catholic bona fides.

Last month, a group of Catholic scholars published “On All of Our Shoulders,” a critique of the libertarian streak running through American conservatism and now given unprecedented influence by Ryan’s nomination. Ryan’s ascendency is the culmination of a forty-year effort to delegitimize government and undermine the very idea of a common good. This development poses a mortal danger to democracy. “America is at a tipping point,” the authors write, and “libertarian views of government” are now part of the mainstream. “We live at a time when the social indifference of libertarian thought is achieving broad cultural legitimacy and political power.”

One of the few resources we have to repair this damage, to provide a vocabulary and a philosophy about public goods and the very idea of “society” as something more than the sum of individual choices, is the Catholic understanding of the person. That’s why “On All of Our Shoulders” is right to denounce a political philosophy that celebrates some people as “makers” and dismisses the rest as “takers.”

No one denies that capitalism has been a great engine of progress and prosperity or that self-interested economic activity can be moral. But the market by itself will not secure the common good—as a century’s worth of papal encyclicals remind us. “On All of Our Shoulders” calls us to remember the responsibility of government to protect the most vulnerable. It is a call that Catholic Americans—indeed all Americans—cannot afford to ignore.


Published in the 2012-11-09 issue: 
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