Mirror of Justice

A blog dedicated to the development of Catholic legal theory.
Affiliated with the Program on Church, State & Society at Notre Dame Law School.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Ryan, Dolan, (and Rand) on budgets and Catholic teaching

Here is Rep. Paul Ryan's April 29 letter to Archbishop Dolan; here is Archbishop Dolan's reply.  The exchange is well worth reading, I think, especially as a follow-up to the much remarked public letter to Speaker Boehner, which was signed by a number of Catholic academics.  (As I indicated, in an earlier post, I thought the letter to Boehner overstated the alleged conflict between his voting record and "the Church's most ancient moral teachings", but that's water under the bridge.) 

Speaker Boehner reponded, in a statement, to the Ryan-Dolan exchange:

“I welcome Archbishop Dolan’s letter and am encouraged by the dialogue taking place between House Republicans and the Catholic bishops regarding our budget, the ‘Path to Prosperity.’ Our nation’s current fiscal path is a threat to human dignity in America, offering empty promises to the most vulnerable among us and condemning our children to a future limited by debt. We have a moral obligation as a nation to change course and adopt policies that reflect the truth about our nation’s fiscal condition and our obligation to future generations, and to offer hope for a better future. Our duty to serve others compels us to strive for nothing less. As Chairman Ryan notes in his letter to the archbishop, Americans are blessed to have the teachings of the Church available to us as guidance as we confront our challenges together as a nation.”

Michael Sean Winters, at NCR, and others are underwhelmed by Ryan's letter and -- in Winters's case -- skeptical about the possibility for consonance between the vision proclaimed in the Church's social-teaching tradition and that on display in the work of Ayn Rand.  I don't share (what seems to be) Winters's view that Ryan's reported interest in the (banal and turgid) writings of Ayn Rand has, in his budget, simply been translated into proposed policy.  (By the way, for Rand-haters, David Hart's essay on the occasion of the "Atlas Shrugged" movie is a must-see.) 

One does not have to like Ayn Rand (and I don't), or to be a "Catholic neo-con", to think that (a) it is both profoundly immoral and stupid to continue accumulating debt burdens at our current rates, (b) deep cuts in spending are required, and (c) these cuts require more than the usual promises of increased attention to "waste, fraud, and abuse" and "corporate loopholes" and will have to touch popular social-welfare programs (and defense spending).  Winters is right, of course, to say that Rand's vision is less attractive (because it is unsound) than is Pope Benedict's; but this fact does not eliminate the need to attend more seriously than, say, Sen. Reid has been willing to do to the need to cut spending and to design carefully any tax increases so as to avoid stunting growth.


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I don't like Rand either but don't know the extent to which Ryan likes her and for what reasons. But this whole debate is so useless - debate the extent to which Ryan's own thoughts and actions comply with CST. Not whether Rand's words and actions do. Does Ryan really have to go through and articulate what policies of Rand's he does and does not like? Arguing against Ryan by citing Rand, no matter how much he likes her, is dishonest.

Posted by: John | May 24, 2011 4:56:19 PM

It is very true that continuing to accumulate debt is a real problem that will require difficult choices to address (though it is also true that the worry of Rep. Ryan and many others is conveniently dated to just after the 2008 election). But to acknowledge the problem is not to automatically accept Ryan’s solution.

Remember we were running surpluses a short 10 years ago. We turned these into deficits through tax cuts overwhelming benefitting the wealthy, steep increases in spending on items like defense and an unfunded expansion of Medicare, two unfunded wars, and the worst recession since the Great Depression. Catholic social teaching has some things to say about the choices we made over the last decade, most of them not very positive. And Ryan himself supported most of these choices. In other words, we got to this point by doing certain things, and spending too much on poor people was not one of them.

Our tax rates are at record lows and among the lowest in the world. If we went back to the tax rates of Reagan or Clinton (both consistent with strong economic growth), or if we had the tax rate of Canada (still one of the lowest in the developed world and doing better than us economically), the deficit would be gone. Even doing a very Catholic thing by shifting the payroll tax from a regressive to a flat tax (let alone a progressive one) would solve most of the problem.

Ryan’s plan calls for fixing the problem by making deep cuts in programs that benefit the poor, especially healthcare for children and the disabled. In fact, 2/3rds of his savings come from these kinds of cuts. It leaves in place defense spending. It leaves in place tax cuts for the wealthy and adds even more. It abolishes the healthcare reform law that covers the uninsured (a law that actually reduces the deficit) and replaces it with….nothing at all. (I thought prudential judgment was over what to do about the problem of the uninsured, but this always seems to easily slide into doing nothing.)

Surely at some point economic policies that continually coincide with global military hegemony and the very specific economic interests of the already wealthy and powerful, while at the same time using the deficit crises such policies cause to justify deep and painful cuts to the most vulnerable in our society, must violate Catholic society teaching. Prudential disagreement is real and legitimate, but it is not a blank check to support anything.

Budgets are not just fiscal choices, they reveal moral priorities, and it is clear from reading Ryan’s budget and Benedict XVI’s Charity in Truth side by side that they represent very different and very opposing sets of priorities.

Sorry for the long comment, but I’m really not sure how the economic policies pursued by Ryan and his allies over the last year can be at all consistent with Catholic teaching. If these priorities don’t violate our tradition’s very developed teaching on this matter, than what does it take to actually do so?

Defending Ryan’s budget in Catholic terms reminds me of those liberal Catholics who twist themselves in knots to square Pelosi’s abortion position with Church teaching—it requires a real ability to ignore the plain meaning consistently expressed in Catholic teaching.

Posted by: Dave Cochran | May 24, 2011 5:05:20 PM

I've just about given up reading Winters. His posts yesterday take the cake; in one post he declares (with a Frenchman's wave I imagine) that it is "unnecessary" for Dolan (or any serious Catholic I gather) to engage with the Ryan's "Randian" ideas, but in a subsequent post, lauds the recent the efforts of a set of moral theologians to engage Peter Singer's work, claiming such engagement is at the heart of the Catholic theological enterprise. So let's get this straight, conservative ideas are unworthy of engaging, even perhaps fraternal correction, but a man who considers live animals more worthy of rights than a certain class of live-born humans must be engaged if we are to be truly Catholic. This is of course to ignore his frequent ad hominems on anyone who disagrees with him, such as Prof. George (with the notale exception of Prof. Garnett, whom he frequently lauds). His naked partisan cheer-leading is tiresome, and I'm waiting for someone he respects (Prof. Garnett, cough, cough) to substantively engage him on the issue.

Posted by: Josh | May 25, 2011 10:24:00 AM


I would certainly agree that Ryan's budget doesn't measure up with Charity in Truth, but we must not lose sight of the fact that one is an encyclical directed at global institution, while the other is a (primarily) political document crafted for a specific audience. Moreover, I'm not quite sure the characterizations of Ryan's budget by Catholic liberals such as Winters are accurate. For example, he frequently says that Ryan wants to "destroy" Medicare by voucherizing it. Well that is factually untrue, as Ryan himself said on this morning's Morning Joe; there is not a voucher in his plan. The other main assertions for the claim that Ryan's budget are that it guts programs for the poor and raises taxes on the rich, i.e. a "reverse Robin Hood". Again, when one examines both of the claims outside of the partisan rhetoric, they prove false. Ryan wants to introduce into Medicare (and Medicaid I believe) a means-testing feature that would ensure that the poor and vulnerable get the lion's share of the government support. I have not seen a single progressive Catholic engage seriously with the idea of means-testing (which was also endorsed in Simpson-Bowles). Secondly, it is true that Ryan opposes letting the Bush tax cuts expire (something with which I mildly disagree), BUT progressive Catholics ignore the larger tax proposals in Ryan's Roadmap, i.e. comprehensive tax reform. Does the Gospel require us to tax people earning $X at X rate? I don't see such a requirement in either the Gospel, Charity in Truth, or the larger body of Catholic Social Teaching. So I fail to be convinced that the "evaluations" of Ryan's plan by progressive Catholics is anything other than Democratic Party talking points dressed up in a Catholic robe. I don't agree with the totality of Ryan's budget, and I'm very uncomfortable with this statements about Rand, but he is right to point out that unless we fundamental reform entitlements, we will have a bigger economic crisis on our hands, and the poor and vulnerable will be the most affected. That is the "plain meaning" that we should laud Ryan for accepting.

Posted by: Josh | May 25, 2011 10:34:29 AM

After reading Cardinal Dolan's letter, I can't say that I find anything objectionable in it. He seems to be only acknowledging Congressman Ryan's mention of CST in his letter to Archbishop Dolan and not accepting his proposals.

What I do find objectionable is the manner in which Congressman Ryan and his political allies are trying to take the letter and use it as an endorsement from the Church for their point of view. It is another example of the Catholic "Right" (for lack of a better term) trying to co-opt CST for their own purpose. They did this with the invasion of Iraq, with the use of torture (and in Senator Sanotorum's case, are still doing it) and they are now doing it with our country's financial situation. Their actions in cases such as these are contemptible. I agree with Josh that conservative ideas should be engaged by Catholics (even though I think today's right and the GOP are as accurate a description of conservatism as Hogan's Heroes was of World War II) but one should realize that those on the Right will distort CST and those ideas.

I actually applaud Congressman's Ryan even trying to mention a way to reform Medicare. I have some problems with leaving folks to the whims of the private market in healthcare but that could be rectified in later versions. I would only trust Congressman Ryan more if he had voted against Medicare Part D and the funding of our invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan. All three of these have been pure deficit spending. He's also from Wisconsin and I'd love to know if he's ever tried to tackle farm subsidies.

Professor Garnett, I agree with your general views about the debt. However, you've got one big problem-the American people. Look at what happened in Jack Kemp's old district last night. There are too many of our fellow citizens who want to cut government but don't want their portion touched.

Posted by: Edward Dougherty | May 25, 2011 11:16:08 AM

Seems to me Josh has MSW exactly right. He never apologized for his devilish treatment of RPG, one of the most unchristian things I've ever seen on the web. As far as I'm concerned he's worse than worthless; someone like this is more liable to corrupt one's mind than to inform it.

This is not to say, of course, that I wouldn't love to see him repent.

Posted by: JAB | May 26, 2011 1:32:45 AM