Liberal Catholic Critics of Paul Ryan Misread Catholic Social Thought

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In Kenneth D. Whitehead’s short essay in this magazine, the recent liberal Catholic manifesto, All on Our Shoulders, is helpfully but incompletely criticized.  At the core of his argument rests the claim that the document constructs a straw man out of Paul Ryan’s 2005 address to the Atlas Society, in which Ryan praised the free market principles that are a significant part of Rand’s comprehensive individualist philosophy.  Whitehead further notes that the manifesto makes no effort to demonstrate the causal connection between Randian libertarianism and Ryan’s actual proposals.

Two of my most admired colleagues and a close family friend, who has been a true model for me of the scholarly life, are signatories of the manifesto, and, as I first read it, I found its quotations from Catholic social encyclicals—specifically from Caritas in Veritate—provocative in three respects.  I give voice to those provocations with no small reluctance, because, if I am right, then those I respect are, on one central matter at least, wrong.

Let me begin.  First, the manifesto and its selections from Benedict’s writings remind us that “individualism” is antithetical to what the Catholic Church knows about the nature of human persons.  The Church has, after all, read Aristotle, and, like him, has looked with open eyes on human history and everyday human experience.  Any account of the human person that defines it primarily in terms of the good of individual autonomy misrepresents our inherent and lifelong dependency on the wisdom of the species, the friendship of community, and the grace of our Maker.  Further, that inherent dependency of our first nature anticipates the communal nature of our “second nature,” that is, what we look like when we are perfected as human beings.  We are not simply born weak and dependent infants so that we may eventually grow into big, strong, “rugged” individualists as liberated from all other social ties as we are from our mothers’ milk.  Rather, those human beings are most perfect who have most richly and intricately entered into communities, who have gowned themselves in layer upon layer of social roles, the highest of which being participation in the that Perfect Community, the Body of Christ.  The authors the manifesto no doubt share with me this anthropology.

No sooner did I sense our deep concord, than a second provocation sundered it.  The manifesto’s quotations reminded me of how troubled have been the details of the Church’s social pronouncements.  Pope Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum (1891) attempts to recover St. Thomas Aquinas’s philosophy of politics and property for the modern age, and in some respects succeeds; but, as Ernest L. Fortin has shown, Leo’s thinking seems to have been sufficiently imbued with John Locke’s liberal contractarian understanding of these matters that the document does not properly reflect Aquinas’s thought and does, inadvertently, reinscribe the Lockean conception of property on a new philosophical basis.  Pius XI would later reinterpret Leo’s text, reconciling it more fully to Aquinas and Church tradition (Quadragesimo Anno 46).

Populorum Progressio Requires a Careful Reading
Paul VI’s Populorum Progressio (1967), which is the invisible patron of the Shoulders manifesto, is a rich source of theological reflection on the nature of “integral human development,” synthesizing the anthropology of Blaise Pascal, Jacques Maritain, and Henri de Lubac in a compelling—but ultimately inadequate—way.  Paul’s articulation suggests that the charitable and governmental work of human development—welfare programs, education, and so forth—is incomplete if the whole human person is not cared for.  Thus, secular welfare should be open to a sense of the religious longing of every human being, and it should be guided by a clear conception that the health of the body is but a prelude to the necessary, if imperfect, happiness possible in this life of contemplating and praising God.

Like Leo’s, Paul’s encyclical attempts to be faithfully Thomistic, but winds up giving us what Tracey Rowland has called a “theologically colored” understanding of the human person.  It seems to presume that human nature has an immanent, natural set of needs that must only be “tinted” or “crowned” with a vision of the transcendent.  Benedict has been one of the great critics of this anthropology, noting that it fails to understand that the whole person—and the whole of creation—is transformed by the revelation of the Father and the presence of the Holy Spirit.  One cannot know what a human being needs if the innermost reality of the person remains an enigma opaque to a merely secular reason.  Christ completes human nature and saves it, but, before all that, Christ fundamentally reveals man to himself.  In brief, Populorum was a major teaching document whose best element still contained certain inadequacies of articulation that its sources escaped, and which much of Benedict’s career as a theologian has sought to remedy.

But here is the more damning point.  Populorum offers a woefully specific, program that endorses many of the shop-worn modern efforts to raise up the post-colonial world.  Paul hopes that developed states will persuade their wealthiest citizens to pay more in taxes in order to support non-governmental and international development agencies abroad.  The record of half a century of this platform has been decidedly mixed.  The global South has grown, on average, poorer than it was when Paul was writing.  Further, Paul’s hope for integral human development has been utterly dashed and dismissed with contempt.  Far from cultivating man’s deepest aspiration to know and love God, many relief and development agencies conspire to undermine even the moral and religious traditions of the people they serve.

The United Nations as a whole has always been a trifling tool of American foreign policy, but those neo-liberals duped into believing the UN an important institution have at least known the satisfaction of forcing the governments of small, mostly failed, states to give up what few principles they had otherwise maintained in order to secure the carrot of financial aid.  Some good has been done in these places, but the overall effect has been a denial of legitimate human aspirations to live well in this world and to know God, and the fostering of a culture of ideological technocrats and aliened, passive clients.

Populorum contains passages that recommend true subsidiary practices in development, akin to those now being practiced, such as “micro-lending,” to help native populations engage in free enterprise.  Further, it emphasizes that the agency and good will of foreign States is not primary, but subordinate to the building up of local political, social, and economic institutions.  But such lines are not those of which Shoulders reminds us.

Caritas in Veritate Rectifies Populorum’s Shortcomings
Caritas in Veritate
, commemorating the fortieth anniversary of Populorum, chastens many of the earlier work’s hopes for globally administered development.  Its theological anthropology, on which I have written elsewhere, is stunningly satisfactory, with Benedict resituating Paul’s “integral humanism” in a more profound context that captures how all reality is constituted by the charity of God.  Similarly, its passages on social policy are various and nuanced—but, sometimes, to the point of risking coherence.

Caritas laments the “dehumanized form of development” (11) that resulted from the modern West’s placing “too much confidence” in “those institutions” of charity and development that Paul VI had hopefully endorsed.  Indeed, Benedict observes that a significantly complicated, because “globalized,” modern scene has made true human development far more a challenge.  The spirit, rather than the prescriptions, of Paul’s teaching remains salient today.

And so, Benedict states that the appropriate response to these new conditions involves an increased allocation of “socio-economic resources” to the “local level” (27); a reversal of the attack on the dignity of human life in the developing world that has been waged by the technocratic advocates of abortion and contraception for decades; a renewed respect for the inherited moral knowledge of all peoples (28); and a similar restitution of “social capital,” that is, those communal ties and institutions that large states and technocratic welfare programs desiccate and sweep away (32).

Further, quoting John Paul II, Benedict emphasizes that the essential character of truly human work is that the worker be “working ‘for himself'” (41).  From St. Thomas to Leo XIII, and onward, the Church has understood any kind of communistic work as both inefficient and dehumanizing.  Man works better when he works for himself.  Indeed, Catholic social doctrine began with Leo’s simple desire to help the proletariat escape wage slavery by accumulating the capital they would need to own shop and hearth.  But, more fundamentally, work is only truly human when human reason is active and has “something belonging to itself” in its toil.  Only the conditions of free enterprise and of private property make this possible—but, Benedict warns, these are not the only necessary conditions nor do they furnish the only suitable models for “business activity” (41).

The Holy Father advocates various forms of social and economic bonds and institutions, and believes that the recent crises besetting the world economy ought to lead to a radical pluralization of such bonds, rather than a continuance of the four-hundred-year-old trend of increasing consolidation and centralization in economic life.  Moreover, what applies in the market also applies in the polis; he calls for the promotion of “dispersed political authority, effective on different levels” (41).  The relative uniformity and monopoly on politics of the modern state should give way to dispersal, devolution, and pluralization, so that the globalization of economic activity is countered by both a diversification of economic “types” and an increase in the number, depth, and kind of local and regional communities.  Finally, the political and economic realm need to be chastened so as to better respect the “centrality and integrity” of an institution that is, at once, prior to politics and the first, and truest, economy: the family (44).  To respect it entails the state’s deference not its activism, and the market’s restraint not its reengineering into the family’s patron.

In this context, Benedict calls for the reform of international governmental, economic, and financial institutions, so that they “acquire real teeth” (67).  He goes on.  To realize many of the reforms for which Caritas calls, Benedict insists that “there is an urgent need of a true world political authority … vested with effective power to ensure security for all” (67).   This categorical recommendation has been latched onto by the Catholic left and lamented by conservatives, such as Rod Dreher, generally sympathetic with Benedict’s call for justice to be understood only as charity’s “minimum measure” (6).

The reader will immediately recognize Benedict’s prescriptions as nuanced, as a call for pluralization rather than homogenization, for dispersion rather than centralization, even as he expresses a reserved but serious desire for some sort of world political authority.  But, am I right in claiming such nuance risks incoherence?

Pius XI, who first articulated the principle of subsidiarity in Quadragismo Anno 79-80 (1931), also saw the need for a robust centralized state—”with teeth”—but he tasked it only with restoring those conditions that once made the flourishing of family and local, communal life possible independent of its administration.  He writes, when

we speak of the reform of institutions, the State comes chiefly to mind, not as if universal well-being were to be expected from its activity, but because things have come to such a pass through the evil of what we have termed “individualism” that, following upon the overthrow and near extinction of that rich social life which was once highly developed through associations of various kinds, there remain virtually only individuals and the State.  (78)

For Pius XI, an activist role for the State should be a temporary or provisional measure.  Benedict’s call for greater international authority seems similarly conditional.  We would be wise to read his recommendations as consonant with Pius’s, and we would do well to judge them in light of the frightful history of centralization during the last several centuries that has led many modern states to pretensions of absolute sovereignty that only Christ the King rightly possesses.  The Popes propose only that the State must act today that it may “wither” tomorrow.  But the Shoulders manifesto holds up the welfare state as a permanent public good, and treats any signs of its reduction of scope and power as a sign that the “common good” has been forgotten and the whole of society is about to lapse back into a brutal state of nature.

For my part, I think Benedict is correct to recommend the dispersal of authority and pluralization of political and economic forms, but I see no evidence that either Pius XI or Benedict XVI are right to propose that decisive action by a centralized state can somehow restore to the world “that rich social life … [of] associations of various kinds.”  This sanguine hope has always been the signature weakness of Catholic social thought, from Hilaire Belloc onward.

The prophetic Tocqueville and reflective Roger Scruton have both observed that, as a matter of history, the highest political authority always tends to centralize, to swallow up, lesser powers, robbing lower, more localized institutions of their integrity.  Subsidiarity may be an enduring principle of social forms, but it is not one that can be instituted top-down.

The Need for Charity in Interpretation
My response to the second provocation was so extended, that I shall make my third with dangerous brevity.  When I open up my copy of Caritas in Veritate, I find that the authors of the Shoulders manifesto have inaccurately cited the text (in endnote 25).  Further, their quotations are threaded together by ellipses.  These small details give me pause.

I teach my students to read everything in a spirit of charity, and would do the same whether I assigned them Ayn Rand, Paul Ryan’s speech, or the Shoulders manifesto. They are expected to encounter the words of another in a spirit of love that keeps the eyes and heart open, that seeks to account for their interpretation by means of a constant return to the text; and, they are expected to scrutinize whether the slant they place on this or that passage is consonant with the spirit of the larger whole of which it is a part, or to account for what fissures they find in terms of that spirit.  To construct a straw man out of one speech given by Paul Ryan seems a failure of this sort of charity.  To assert, without demonstration, that the motives of his policy recommendations emerge from Rand’s “libertarian” objectivism rather than, as Ryan claims, the thought of Thomas Aquinas, seems a similar violation.

But I would hazard one point more.  Ryan has not proposed ending a single federal program.  He would reserve to the federal government budgetary authority regarding those welfare programs he would alter.  He has simply sought to exercise that authority in order to reduce the astronomically bloated budget deficit and—no small matter this—he has sought to devolve the day-to-day administration of those programs to levels of authority closer to the people they would serve.  It is simply untrue to brand this “individualistic.”

It sounds to me as though Ryan believes in a federal authority “with teeth,” but he would like it to exercise only what authority it must, leaving more competent, because more dispersed and localized, authorities to make those hard decisions that affect—not the faceless clients of the absolute state, but—human beings.  He appreciates, with all readers of Aquinas, that persons more fully realize their political nature the more closely to them political life—and political decision making—is practiced.

For those of us who take all of Church teaching seriously, Ryan’s proposals, however imperfect, are consonant with what we know about human nature, what we desire regarding the scale and richness of political and economic forms, and what must be done as a matter of prudence to prevent future generations from suffering under the weight of debt that ill-conceived welfare and military expenditures are, as I write, still foisting upon them.

(Photo credit: Win McNamee/Getty Images)

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James Matthew Wilson is Associate Professor of Religion and Literature in the Department of Humanities and Augustinian Traditions at Villanova University. He is the author of a chapbook of poems, Four Verse Letters (Steubenville, 2010) and of Timothy Steele: A Critical Introduction (Story Line, 2012), and a collection of poems entitled The Violent and the Fallen (Finishing Line Press). His latest book is titled The Fortunes of Poetry in An Age of Unmaking (Wiseblood Books, 2015). Readers can learn more about his writing at

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