Representative Paul Ryan’s proposed budget, including drastic cuts to food stamps, Medicaid, and other government assistance programs, has drawn the condemnation of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. The bishops condemned the Ryan budget for “’failing to meet [the] moral criteria,’ of protecting human dignity, prioritizing the needs of the hungry and homeless and promoting the common good.”
Perhaps the grassroots activism of many lay Catholics, including the Good Friday protest—or “advertisement for love”—organized by Occupy, Catholics and Catholics United outside St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City with a banner reading, “Were you there when they crucified the poor?”, helped draw the attention of the bishops to the gross inconsistency between Catholic Social Teaching and the Ryan budget. Sensus fidelium, and all that.
Anyway, later, when Ryan was scheduled to speak at Georgetown University, over eighty Georgetown faculty members signed an open letter condemning his economic policies. The letter denounced the proposed drastic cuts to anti-hunger programs and to Pell Grants and rebutted Ryan’s claims that his budget aligned with the Catholic Social Teaching principle of subsidiarity:
Subsidiarity is not a free pass to dismantle government programs and abandon the poor to their own devices. This often misused Catholic principle cuts both ways. It calls for solutions to be enacted as close to the level of local communities as possible. But it also demands that higher levels of government provide help—“subsidium”—when communities and local governments face problems beyond their means to address, such as economic crises, high unemployment, endemic poverty, and hunger.
But the real zinger in the letter was this: “In short, your budget appears to reflect the values of your favorite philosopher, Ayn Rand, rather than the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Her call to selfishness and her antagonism toward religion are antithetical to the Gospel values of compassion and love.”
Apparently the chastisement by the Georgetown faculty hit a nerve. Rep. Ryan rushed to paint himself as nothing but a stalwart Catholic Thomist in an interview with National Review. His enthusiastic devotion to Ayn Rand was nothing more than an “urban legend,” he retorted—and labeling him an Objectivist was unfair: “I reject her [Rand’s] philosophy. It’s an atheist philosophy. It reduces human interactions down to mere contracts and it is antithetical to my worldview. If somebody is going to try to paste a person’s view on epistemology to me, then give me Thomas Aquinas.”
So, which is it? Is Paul Ryan’s favorite philosopher Ayn Rand or Thomas Aquinas?
“You know, it doesn’t surprise me that sales of The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged have surged lately, with the Obama administration coming in, because it’s that kind of thinking, that kind of writing that is sorely needed right now…But more to the point is this: this issue that is under assault, the attack on democratic capitalism, on individualism and freedom in America, is an attack on the moral foundation of America. And Ayn Rand, more than anyone else, did a fantastic job of explaining the morality of capitalism, the morality of individualism. And this to me is what matters most. It is not enough to say that President Obama’s taxes are too big, or the health care plan doesn’t work for this or that policy reason—it is the morality of what is occurring right now and how it offends the morality of individuals working toward their own free will, to produce, to achieve, to succeed, that is under attack.”
The morality of capitalism? The morality of individualism? That doesn’t sound like Catholic Social Teaching, which has been intensely critical of individualism and of allowing capitalism to take priority over moral values. And it certainly doesn’t sound like Thomism.
If Thomas Aquinas, not Ayn Rand, were Paul Ryan’s favorite philosopher, he would condemn usury. He would crack down on the big banks and end the foreclosure crisis. He would support legislation for a jubilee on student loan debt, instead of slashing Pell Grants. He would fight for the just wage–a real living wage, not a mere minimum wage–that everyone deserves merely in virtue of his or her dignity as a human person. He would abandon Chicago School economics. He would demand a just price for basic necessities, and charitable aid to those unable to afford them. Instead of slashing benefits for the poor, the sick, the young, and the elderly, he would create a budget that prioritizes the needs of the poor and the vulnerable, not the wealthiest one percent.
But Paul Ryan is not a Thomist. He can talk all he wants about Aquinas’ “epistemology,” but he’s an Objectivist at heart. American exceptionalism, capitalism, individualism and selfishness go much further towards explaining Ryan’s policies than anything found in the pages of the Summa. The logical contortions that Ryan will have to go through in an attempt to argue that his profoundly immoral budget is somehow “Catholic,” have only just begun—as has the Catholic mass resistance to this assault on the poorest and the most vulnerable among us.