Paul Ryan and His Catholic Critics

In today’s Washington Post, the paper’s Dana Milbank treats us to “A faith-based lesson for Paul Ryan.” He takes Ryan to task for his Georgetown University speech last Thursday defending the House Republican budget. Earlier, it seems, Ryan had told the Christian Broadcasting Network that his budget was crafted “using my Catholic faith” as inspiration. That was more than the reliably liberal U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops could bear. Never shy about instructing Congress on the moral dimensions of the federal budget, the bishops wrote to Members, Milbank notes,

 saying that the Ryan budget, passed by the House, “fails to meet” the moral criteria of the Church, namely its view that any budget should help “the least of these” as the Christian Bible requires: the poor, the hungry, the homeless, the jobless. “A just spending bill cannot rely on disproportionate cuts in essential services to poor and vulnerable persons.”

“To their credit,” Milbank continues, “Catholic leaders were not about to let Ryan claim to be serving God when in fact he was serving mammon.” And he adds that a group of Jesuit scholars and other Georgetown faculty members had already written to Ryan to say that his budget “appears to reflect the values of your favorite philosopher, Ayn Rand, rather than the Gospel of Jesus Christ.”

No shrinking violet, Ryan met his critics head-on with a lengthy defense of his budget on both factual and moral grounds. As Milbank quotes him:

the faculty members would benefit from a “fact-based conversation” on the issue. “I suppose that there are some Catholics who for a long time thought they had a monopoly … on the social teaching of our church,” … but no more. “The work I do as a Catholic holding office conforms to the social doctrine as best I can make of it.”

Not so, says Milbank, but he never grapples with the pressing economic facts that Ryan set out, preferring instead to speak of the bishops’ “rebuke” to Ryan’s “fanaticism.” He quotes Ryan’s “challenge to the theologians’ theology”—“The holy father himself, Pope Benedict, has charged that governments, communities and individuals running up high debt levels are ‘living at the expense of future generations’”—but then rests content to conclude that “even Jesus said to render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s,” omitting the pope’s final words: we are “living in untruth.”

The bishops, too, are living in untruth. Just as they failed to grasp that their promotion of Obama’s health care overhaul would entail intractable questions about abortion and contraceptive coverage, so too they fail here to grasp not only the economic implications of our burgeoning welfare state but the moral implications of the pope’s point—that just as it is wrong to live at the expense of future generations, so too is it wrong to live at the expense of our neighbors, which is the ultimate point toward which Ryan is driving. And no biblical story captures that point better than the parable of the Good Samaritan.

A year ago, when the new 111th Congress was first wrestling with these same issues, I wrote in the Wall Street Journal that people like Milbank and the bishops

 ask, implicitly, how “we” should spend “our” money, as though we were one big family quarreling over our collective assets. We’re not. We’re a constitutional republic, populated by discrete individuals, each with our own interests. Their question socializes us and our wherewithal. The Framers’ Constitution freed us to make our own individual choices.

The irony is that Jesus, properly understood, saw this clearly — both when he asked us to render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and unto God what is God’s, and when he spoke of the Good Samaritan. [Milbank and the bishops] imagine that the Good Samaritan parable instructs us to attend to the afflicted through the coercive government programs of the modern welfare state. It does not. The Good Samaritan is virtuous not because he helps the fallen through the force of law but because he does so voluntarily, which he can do only if he has the right to freely choose the good, or not.

Americans are a generous people. They will help the less fortunate if left free to do so. What they resent is being forced to do good — and in ways that are not only inefficient but impose massive debts upon their children. That’s not the way free people help the young and less fortunate.

Far from “fanatical,” Ryan’s budget, respecting the bounds of the politically possible, is a responsible approach to addressing the bipartisan budgetary sins of the past. It rejects the path that “dissolves the common good of society, and dishonors the dignity of the human person,” Ryan told the Georgetown audience. And it offers a better path than we’ve been on, a path “consistent with the timeless principles of our nation’s founding and, frankly, consistent with how I understand my Catholic faith.” By returning power to individuals, families, and communities, he concluded, “we put our trust in people, not in government.”