Ethics & Public Policy Center

Ryan vs. Georgetown

Published in National Review Online on April 26, 2012


George Weigel

Distinguished Senior Fellow and William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies


There is snobbery, and then there is academic snobbery.

Snobbery is often instinctual and inadvertent, and if it's cruel, it's the cruelty of the unthinking. Academic snobbery is deliberately cutting, snarky, intended to wound, and usually clumsy in asserting its own superiority.

Snobbery was the immediate reaction of English historian Christopher Dawson's mother to the news of her son's impending conversion to Catholicism: Mrs. Dawson wasn't bothered so much by questions of doctrine, she told her son, but by the sad fact that he'd “now be going to church with the [Irish] help.” Academic snobbery is the letter from more than 80 Georgetown faculty members delivered to Representative Paul Ryan (R., Wis.), prior to his delivering the university's annual Whittington Lecture on April 26. In that letter, the Hoya pedagogues not-so-subtly suggested that Ryan was a Catholic ignoramus, presumed to instruct the congressman on the meaning of the Catholic social ethical principle of subsidiarity, and concluded on an arch note, redolent of tenured arrogance: “Along with this letter, we have included a copy of the Vatican's Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, commissioned by John Paul II, to help deepen your understanding of Catholic social teaching.”

(And if you're a good boy, Paul, we might let you audit Georgetown courses on Catholic social doctrine; that would help you better understand colleagues on the Hill such as Nancy Pelosi, Dick Durbin, Barbara Mikulski, and Rosa DeLauro.)

The Georgetown letter's substance, to stretch a term, is the same old, same old: a bedraggled catalogue of complaints about the Ryan budget “gutting” various federal programs, with results the Hoyas promise will be “devastating.” Those with memories that reach back into the mid-1990s will remember the same apocalyptic warnings coming from the same intellectual quarters about federal welfare reform; those warnings were accompanied by, indeed based on, the same simplistic understanding of the Catholic “preferential option for the poor” as a preference for more and more government. The welfare apocalypse never happened. Empowerment strategies helped end patterns of welfare dependency. But you will learn none of this from the Hoyas, for one of the other notable features of academic snobbery is its addendum to Love Story moral theology: Moral superiority means never having to say you're sorry (or wrong).

The Georgetown letter also embodied the Catholic Left's unfortunate habit of cherry-picking papal statements. No one risks contradiction by suggesting that the election of Joseph Ratzinger as Pope Benedict XVI seven years ago caused mass heartburn on the Georgetown faculty. Yet here are seven dozen or so Georgetown faculty members quoting Benedict XVI at Paul Ryan: “Subsidiarity must remain closely linked to the principle of solidarity and vice versa.”

Alas, for the rhetorical force of that presumed pontifical slam dunk on the Ryan budget, that was precisely the point Paul Ryan had made on EWTN's The World Over on April 20. Perhaps on the well-founded assumption that EWTN is not required viewing at Georgetown, Ryan drove the point home again in his Whittington Lecture. Insisting that America needed a better approach to poverty than the Obama spend-a-thon (which, he argued, was accelerating a “debt crisis in which the poor would be hurt the first and the worst”), Ryan proposed that a new approach “should be based on the twin virtues of solidarity and subsidiarity — virtues that, when taken together, revitalize civil society instead of displacing it.”

Thus, Ryan demonstrated that he is entirely familiar with the social doctrine of John Paul II, with its insistence on what the pope called “the subjectivity of society” — what the Anglosphere calls “civil society.” Civil society, Catholic social doctrine insists, is an essential component in shaping free politics, free economics, and the vibrant public moral culture needed to bend the energies of democracy and the market toward empowerment, inclusion, and genuine human flourishing. And that brings us to another facet of recent papal social teaching that the Georgetown faculty might consider more carefully: the warnings John Paul II raised about the corrosive effects of the “Social Assistance State” on the moral sinews of the free society, a process of deterioration the pope saw at work in Europe toward the end of his life.

Adapting themes from John Paul II in the 2003 apostolic letter Ecclesia in Europa [The Church in Europe] and Benedict XVI in his 2011 address to the German Bundestag, Paul Ryan has carefully measured history's verdict in Europe. The massive and increasing space that national governments and Brussels occupy in European public life has further constricted the already-sclerotic associational and philanthropic instincts of Europeans. And the decay of those instincts has helped erode the political culture that makes rational democratic decision-making possible (cf. Greece; Italy; etc.). Ryan, applying history to his reading of the implications of Catholic social doctrine, argues that the United States need not go down that road and can combine compassion with fiscal responsibility and a vibrant civil society. He has also laid out a path toward that end and is quite prepared to debate and modify his proposals when persuaded that there are better ways forward. Have the Georgetown faculty who wrote Ryan forgotten that one of the great achievements of modern Catholic intellectual life is the dialogue between history (Blessed John XXIII's “great teacher of life”) and theology? That's not an unreasonable conclusion to draw from their letter, in which men and women who imagine themselves Ryan's moral and intellectual superiors ignore the evidence of contemporary history and thus have little to add to the debate but a tattered defense of failed public-policy strategies and programs — a defense made even more implausible by its insouciance about the debt crisis and its burdening of the poor.

Paul Ryan knows that Catholic social doctrine is not some sort of doughnut machine that plops out ready-made answers to complex questions of public policy. There is no — repeat, no — direct line from the principles of Catholic social doctrine to judgments on levels of WIC funding, food-stamp funding, or Pell Grant funding, three issues on which the Georgetown faculty claims moral certainty when the relevant mode of moral analysis is prudential judgment. Ryan knows that and is prepared to explain why that's the case. That willingness, plus Ryan's refusal to concede the moral high ground to the Catholic Left in the public-policy debate, plus the intelligence, good humor, and conviction he brings to these arguments, helps explain why he's the Catholic Left's worst nightmare. The Catholic Left recognizes that; and thus, predictably, things have turned chippy, even ugly.

In one of its nastier moments, the Hoya professoriate suggested that Ryan misconstrues the core Catholic social-ethical principle of subsidiarity as “a free pass to dismantle government programs and abandon the poor to their own devices.” Bosh, and arrogant bosh at that. Whatever else you may think of Paul Ryan, he is an uncommonly well-informed congressman and a thoroughly decent man; to suggest that he has so grotesquely distorted (or, in the words of the Georgetown letter, “profoundly misread”) Church teaching for callous ends is snobbery compounded by calumny.

What Ryan has in fact done is to follow Benedict XVI and push the subsidiarity-solidarity debate forward, suggesting that there is a kind of moral and political space where solidarity — the moral imperative to live responsibly with and for others — and subsidiarity — the anti-totalitarian, pro-civil-society principle of Catholic social doctrine — intersect. At that broad intersection, there are no obvious answers to public-policy questions, and e
specially to budgetary questions. But there is prudential judgment: the weighing of risks and benefits; the calculus of probable consequences; the fitting of ends to appropriate means.

Prudence, the Catechism of the Catholic Church notes, “is called auriga virtutum (the charioteer of the virtues); it guides the other virtues by setting rule and measure.” Prudence is the cardinal virtue that allows us to live creatively at the intersection of solidarity and subsidiarity. No one lives at that intersection in a creative way by repeating tired shibboleths about abandoning the poor to their own devices and having the federal government “walk away from the most vulnerable.” Indeed, if the Georgetown letter accurately reflects the depth of thought given to these hard questions on the Hilltop, parents pondering a quarter-of-a-million-dollar education for their children there might want to inquire closely into what their sons and daughters are getting into.

Charity requires that one not judge an entire university and its impact on students by the political shenanigans of seven dozen faculty members, and another theological virtue, hope, suggests that no one is quite invincibly ignorant. If those Georgetown faculty members who wrote Paul Ryan would actually engage Ryan and those of his cast of mind, rather than consigning them to the outer darkness of the uncaring, some creative thought that takes into consideration the full richness and subtlety of Catholic social doctrine just might result. I won't hold my breath, especially in an election year when Paul Ryan's Hoya correspondents are very likely to vote for the president who lied to the head of the U.S. bishops' conference and who demanded, with the full force of federal power, that the Church do things the Church teaches are morally wrong.

But once the Health and Human Services mandate and the Obama administration are unhappy memories, one can hope that that conversation at the intersection of subsidiarity and solidarity will be convened. Paul Ryan would be open to it. Perhaps his Hoya correspondents, following Vatican II's injunction to read the signs of the times and recalling the classic Jesuit emphasis on the importance of examining conscience, will then be ready to join.

- George Weigel is a distinguished senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon chair in Catholic Studies.

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