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).

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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  • publiusnj

    Given a choice between any Republican and any candidate of the Abortion Party (i.e., the Democrat Party), I will back the Republican (or, in the rare circumstance when his/her views are too close to the Abortion Party’s, sit out the election). Not only is the Democrat Party the Abortion Party, it is also the Gay Marriage Party and the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell Party and the Embryonic Stem Cell Research Party and the “Keep God Out of Our Platform” Party. Indeed, it recently proclaimed a new assault on Christianity and Traditional Western Values, so it should now also be called the “Shove the Obligation to Pay for Contraception Down the Throat of the Catholic Church Against Its Conscience Rights” Party.

    • hombre111

      And the Republicans are the make people poorer than they were party, and poverty is one of the main causesa for abortion.

    • hombre111

      And the Republicans are the make people poorer than they were party, and poverty is one of the main causesa for abortion.

  • respectlife

    When it comes to “common good” it should be based on Catholic teachings not the government. Clearly there is a difference and Catholics should not lump the two as one common good. Beware when the government gives because it is usually based on their values, not the values of Jesus and His Church’s teachings. Read some of writings from our beloved John Paul II and do not be fooled by the values of evil.. Pray for our church leaders and may God Bless John Ryan and Romney.

  • I will wager any money that Paul Ryan, who is a bookish man, has read the social encyclicals of Leo XIII, Pius XI, Pius XII, John Paul II, and Benedict XVI, and that his critics have not. They seem to equate Catholic Social Teaching with statism and collectivism. And that is to turn those encyclicals inside out.

    • Adam_Baum

      They seem to equate Catholic Social Teaching with statism and collectivism.


      • John200

        That disease afflicts our Catholic statists, that is, the ones who do not know that socialism is anathema.

    • John200

      I am not certain whether Mr. Ryan has read the encyclicals. He may have a good sense of our faith without deep exploration of the recent developments in it.

      I suspect Mr. Ryan’s critics have not read the encyclicals; they might have burned them.

  • HigherCalling

    CACG seems to have fallen into the easy trap of isolating particular elements of Catholic Social Teaching that they find politically appealing, and treating them as the whole of Catholic truth. That used to be called heresy. The only answer I can come up with to why this trap works so well on presumably educated adults, is that their morally immature, liberal politics not only trumps, but informs and defines, their faith.

    I’ve mentioned before Chesterton’s observation that the world is full of old Christian virtues gone mad. They’ve gone mad because they’ve been isolated from each other and are wandering alone. Isolated and alone, they cause great damage — more damage than their opposing vices. Christian virtues work for the good of the individual and of society only when they work alongside each other where they can be balanced by the whole. Exactly the same holds for Catholic social teaching. “Social Justice” and “The Common Good” are particularly appealing to Leftist elements in the Church and in the broader society. They’ve separated these principles from the whole of Church teaching, twisted, redefined, and elevated them to a position of importance where they cause more harm than good. Catholic social teachings, like the Christian virtues, work only when they are balanced by the entire package of Catholic truth. Isolated, they become heresies, and they are destructive.

    The “common good” must be balanced and informed by the good of the family and the individual. “Social justice” must be balanced and informed by real justice which demands absolute truth, not relative truth. Solidarity must be balanced by Subsidiarity (I confess to elevating Subsidiarity at times). And all of these principles must be balanced by the whole of Catholic truth (right reason informed by the Incarnation), or we will see more of this destruction and insanity. The secular culture and modernist Catholics have no right to hijack and abuse Catholic teachings for a political agenda that inevitably works to tear down the Church and the culture.

    • Michael Paterson-Seymour

      Hegel put it very well, when he said “If the state is confused with civil society, and if its specific end is laid down as the security and protection of property and personal freedom, then the interest of the individuals as such becomes the ultimate end of their association, and it follows that membership of the state is something optional. But the state’s relation to the individual is quite different from this. Since the state is mind objectified, it is only as one of its members that the individual himself has objectivity, genuine individuality, and an ethical life. Unification pure and simple is the true content and aim of the individual, and the individual’s destiny is the living of a universal life. His further particular satisfaction, activity and mode of conduct have this substantive and universally valid life as their starting point and their result.” G W Hegel, “Philosophy of Right” 258

  • Alecto

    It’s late in the election process, but I am heartened by the attempt of the bishops to clarify for voters the differences between intrinsic evil, for which the “CCTPTCG” advocates, and the permissible prudential disagreements on social justice positions like government funding of poverty programs and tax policy. Listening to bishop Lori of Baltimore and others explain the Church’s position, I have examined my conscience and decided that I need to do more as a Catholic to show my belief in the power of true charity. If more people do even a little, we won’t need government social safety nets. We will be the safety nets for our neighbors and those who need us.

    Of course the total ruin of our economy and currency collapse as a consequence of the government interference advocated by the CCTPTCG will necessarily cause many, many people to suffer…more than I believe people understand. We should prepare ourselves for the inevitable suffering which always follows when government makes promises it cannot fulfill and on which the most vulnerable in our society have come to rely.

    • Adam__Baum

      You are on to something. The problem is we treat poverty as an absence of income or wealth, when those conditions are very often symptoms of a greater underlying problem. I’m thinking now of a young woman I know, the twenty-something daughter of an acquaintance-pregnant and unwed, publicly and emotionally lamenting the sudden departure of her consort and indignant over his lack of fidelity and employment (posting every detail on social media). She actually made a post with a conclusion that you should be able to expect more of a boyfriend, mindless of the fact young men are notorious for itinerant and transient affections and loyalties-she’s in the very situation a thoughtful marriage is designed to help avoid.

      She will no doubt “need” food stamps, medicaid, subsidized housing and daycare, not as a safety net, but as a way of life . Of course there will be the indirect costs such as the intervention of the courts with issues of support and visitation. (There is something particularly pernicious about having parents as visitors). Society will call her a “single mom”, not as an ominous warning to others but as an honorable title. Indeed, she already has a cadre of idiots telling her that, despite her fully-on-display lack of discretion and equanimity, she’ll be a “great mom” and that the father is disposable.

      She has placed emotional and economic limits on herself and her child, and even if she maintains secure and stable employment, her child will suffer from a lack of a father. Her child will be an impediment to marriage, should she ever discover its value.

      Her child’s first steps and first words may not be made in her presence.

      Sexual libertines are indifferent to the individual and aggregate economic effects effects of commonplace illegitimacy-they’ll robotically intone the need for “comprehensive family planning’ or “contraception”, as if making young women into receptacles will do anything about people who conceive without regard for wedlock. Of course the tax burdens placed on the more responsible are strong inducements to postpone or even avoid completely, parenthood.

      The seething left, some that post and pose here, doesn’t care about the moral effects of making sin costless, in fact they welcome it, since it affirms the welfare state as necessary.

      Meanwhile, the ruling class finds ever electoral pliability through more dependency and desperation among ever greater numbers of voters who are compromised by the fact that the are directly and conspicuously dependent on government. and therefore see it as a costless spring of benefits. When massive numbers of people can vote themselves benefits while bearing no costs-it is a conflict of interest.

      Statists know that the most reliable electoral affirmations of the unbounded state come from “single mothers” who use the state as an ersatz husband and provider-even as the chattering classes praise their “independence”. Perhaps that’s why the left endeavors to keep women from marrying and being “married moms”.

      Fiscal disorder starts with moral disorder.

      • Sarah M

        Yes and how are you reaching out to her and those like her? We Catholics identify the problem and don’t do much to come up with solutions. We all know what the problem is, so let’s talk about what to do about it. Otherwise we are just being cynical.

        • Adam_Baum

          Sarah: You fall into a trap when you believe there are “solutions”. There are no solutions, just trade-offs. In this world, if you try to make sure that you never allow a bad thing to happen, you often prevent good things from happening-in statistics-there are “Type 1” and “Type 2” errors-if you need to know more-look it up-my explanation would only remind others why statistics taught poorly is commonly called sadistics.

          As for “reaching out”, since she has responded to her parents (and others) with public “f-bombs” when they show the slightest disapproval of her actions (why can’t people be happy for me)-exactly what would you have me do?

          I am not a cynic-I don’t think anybody is beyond hope-but I am skeptical of my poor powers to affect those who are unwilling to consider that THEY making a mess.

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  • Robert

    Randian libertarianism was the underlying philosophy of many of the early internet entrepreneurs. And given the widespread proliferation of pornography and other filth and useless hate filled sites it seems pretty certain what the end result of this philosphy in action is. Rather than attempting to actually distance themselves from the state these internet entrepreneurs quickly sold private data to the state. This shows the type of deceit behind the libertarian philosophy as it is spelled out by Ayn Rand.

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