Does Paul Ryan Threaten the Common Good?

An organization called Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good came out on October 9 with what it announced was a “Catholic Call to Protect the Endangered Common Good.” It is entitled “On All of Our Shoulders,” and it has no less than 157 signatories describing themselves as “Catholic theologians, academics, and ministers concerned for our nation and for the integrity of the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church.” The document purports to be a response to what it characterizes as a grave crisis—what it calls a “tipping point,” in fact—in the life of the nation. However, it turns out to be largely a critique of some of the positions of Congressman Paul Ryan, the Republican candidate for vice president.

While Paul Ryan is indisputably a major public figure, both on account of his service in Congress and, especially, his current candidacy, it is questionable whether his election, or that of any vice president, could by itself have the effect on the “common good” that is projected and feared in this portentous document. For rather than being a serious, detailed critique of any actual policies realistically likely to be enacted, even in the event of a Republican victory, it focuses instead on Paul Ryan’s supposed continuing adherence to and reliance on the libertarian theories of the late Ayn Rand and her novelistic tract, Atlas Shrugged.

In 2005 Paul Ryan delivered a laudatory address to the Atlas Society in which he praised Ayn Rand’s libertarian ideas opposed to collectivism and socialism. By focusing on this Atlas Society address, the Alliance for the Common Good people have little difficulty showing that Ayn Rand’s atheistic libertarianism is hardly compatible with Catholic social teaching. They even score a valid point against Ryan himself where he states that today’s public policy questions involve a “fight of individualism versus collectivism.” For Catholic social teaching decidedly does not champion unbridled “individualism” (but it hardly champions the “collectivism” to which Ryan is opposed, either).

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Having established on the basis of this 2005 speech of Ryan’s that he remains an unreconstructed Randian libertarian, as they seem to believe, the authors of the Call go on to assert—they only assert, they do not show—that the vice-presidential candidate’s more recent policy and budget proposals are instances of the same Randian libertarianism. The possibility that such Ryan proposals might actually be enacted through the regular American political process is what seemingly “endangers” the “common good.”

The authors of the Call seem particularly fearful that what they style “the Church’s legitimate disagreement with the inadequate exemptions” in the current Health and Human Services (HHS) birth prevention mandate being imposed on Catholics and the Church might prevent some Catholic bishops from realizing how far Ryan’s proposals diverge (they think) from Catholic social teaching.

They raise no objections to the HHS mandate itself, by the way, but only to its “inadequate exemptions.” This HHS mandate requires that Catholics and Catholic institutions must henceforth by law positively act against Catholic teaching (by directly paying for insurance policies which compulsorily provide contraception, sterilization, and abortion-inducing drugs); but this absolutely unprecedented imposition by the federal government on an entire religious community—talk about endangering the common good!—apparently arouses no concern by comparison with the fear that some of Paul Ryan’s budget proposals might actually work their way through both houses of Congress and end up with a presidential signature.

Yet this Alliance for the Common Good people have in no way shown that Paul Ryan’s budget proposals actually are instances of Randian libertarianism; they simply claim that this is “evident throughout the budget resolutions he has sponsored.” Yet they provide no examples. Their method is confined to reminding us that, yes, more than seven years ago in a speech Paul Ryan espoused a number of libertarian ideas; ergo, his current budget proposals must thus necessarily be contrary to Catholic social teaching!

Furthermore, they seem to think that Ryan’s well-known espousal of privatizing certain aspects of Social Security and Medicare somehow constitutes evidence of opposition to these programs. What would seem more likely, however, as he has declared, is that he wishes to save them—both programs currently being on trajectories which observers on all sides have agreed are “unsustainable.”

Similarly, Ryan’s proposal to turn Medicaid over to the states would seem to the unbiased observer to be a wholly valid example of Catholic “subsidiarity,” dealing with a problem at a lower level closer to the problem being dealt with. Nevertheless, his critics seem to think that his advocacy of any change at all in what they call existing “safety net” programs again simply amounts to opposition to these programs.

Significant in all this is that while Ryan’s positions are meticulously critiqued, existing federal government programs are simply assumed to be consonant with Catholic social teaching. No analysis of them is offered or suggested—no danger to the common good there!

But how does any of this constitute some kind of crisis or “tipping point” in the life of the nation? Is not this Call really a gross overreaction on the part of people who ought to know better? It fails to show that the common good is endangered. The alarmist and doomsday tone it adopts is entirely and even ludicrously disproportionate to the actual facts and examples it cites. Nor do the citations earnestly brought forward from Pope Benedict XVI and Blessed John Paul II even seem to apply. And how any of it relates to the “integrity” of the teachings of the Church is even more questionable.

More than that, the identity of some of the signatories raises very serious questions regarding their implied claim to be “defenders” of Catholic teaching. What can we think when any such as the following come forward as champions of Catholic teaching?

•  Richard Gaillardetz, a theologian who told a Los Angeles religious education congress that—contrary to Lumen Gentium #25—Catholic magisterial teaching is not binding upon the faithful until it is ”received” by them.

•  Elizabeth Johnson, C.S.J., a theologian who effectively mocked divine revelation by titling a book, She Who Is, and who has recently been the subject of an extended critique by the U.S. bishops’ Committee on Doctrine.

•  Thomas Reese, S.J., the secular media’s favorite gadfly spokesman on things Catholic who once unsuccessfully tried to sabotage the Catechism of the Catholic Church and later had to be removed as the editor of the Jesuit magazine America, reportedly at the request of the newly elected Pope Benedict XVI himself.

•  Sandra M. Schneiders, a Sister, Servant of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, recipient of many honors from the liberal theological establishment, who in her book Beyond Patching, declared the Bible to be intrinsically sexist, so flawed as to be indeed beyond patching, and hence in need of a new feminist hermeneutic.

Such as these are somehow the defenders of the integrity of Catholic teaching? A similar question could also be raised about others on the list of the 157 signatories to the Call to Protect the Endangered Common Good. But the common good deserves better.


  • Kenneth D. Whitehead

    Kenneth D. Whitehead is a former career diplomat who served in Rome and the Middle East and as the chief of the Arabic Service of the Voice of America. For eight years he served as executive vice president of Catholics United for the Faith. He also served as a United States Assistant Secretary of Education during the Reagan Administration. He is the author of The Renewed Church: The Second Vatican Council’s Enduring Teaching about the Church (Sapientia Press, 2009) and, most recently, Affirming Religious Freedom: How Vatican Council II Developed the Church’s Teaching to Meet Today’s Needs (St. Paul’s, 2010).

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