[It is probably impossible for anyone interested in addressing Catholic social teaching and its real life application to avoid talking politics. I have no intention of making this blog a partisan project. I don’t feel any strong loyalty to either major political party in the United States, and there’s no doubt in my mind that both of them fall far short of the ideals that Catholic social teaching presents, each in their own specific and significant ways. I’m sure the shortcomings of both will come up here, and I’ll also address the more general issue of “being political” when it comes to talking Catholic social teaching in a post sometime. I felt the need to say it now, though, since this is the first post here that has a political tone to it.]
If a doctor doesn’t know she’s supposed to be healing people, her patients are in trouble. If a teacher has somehow failed to realize that teaching kids is the point of the job, his students will be the losers. Similarly, one would hope that a politician would have a good understanding of the very purpose of government. Of course, being human, they all fall short of living out the principles at times. But having the wrong definition in mind to begin with is bound to lead to big problems.
A comment offered by Congressman Paul Ryan in defense of his controversial budget plan caught my eye yesterday. Ryan, a Catholic, has been both praised and criticized for the way he proposes to shape the federal budget. From a Catholic social teaching standpoint, in my opinion, it not only falls far short of the priorities a just and moral budget ought to reflect, but it works against many of those priorities. What caught my eye seems to help explain the shortcomings.
In a commentary Ryan offered in defense of his plan, he wrote, “Promoting the natural rights and the inherent dignity of the individual must be the central focus of all government policy.”
This is worth pointing out, especially because Ryan is Catholic; because he’s appealing to moral principles to defend his plan; and because it tells us how he sees his role as legislator. Note the emphasis on “the individual” in this sentence. From a Catholic point of view, he is mistaken about the purpose of government, and the difference between what he says and the way the Church sees it is significant, because it reflects the very criticisms of the Ryan budget plan that so many have been offering.
In fact, the whole purpose of government, as the Church sees it, is the protection and the promotion of the common good. For example, the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches, “It is the role of the state to defend and promote the common good of civil society, its citizens, and intermediate bodies” (CCC 1910). In his landmark 1963 encyclical on human rights, Pacem in Terris, Pope John XXIII wrote, “The attainment of the common good is the sole reason for the existence of civil authorities. In working for the common good, therefore, the authorities must obviously respect its nature, and at the same time adjust their legislation to meet the requirements of the given situation” (n. 54).
Many have argued that it is precisely this that the Ryan budget fails to do. See, for example, here and here. [UPDATE: Here and here, too.]
Ryan is right to invoke dignity, but the protection of dignity is inseparable from the common good. Indeed, ignoring the common good always undermines human dignity.
Whose dignity does Ryan have in mind? Which individuals is he looking out for? If we revised his comment so that it makes reference to “the inherit dignity of all people in our nation,” could we say it with a straight face?
To anyone familiar with priorities of the Republican party these days, and the Ryan budget as an expression of it, it’s clear that the Congressman’s comments were intended to support individual enterprise and individual freedoms in the market. These things are not bad in themselves. But Ryan’s plan raises them to such a high priority that the common good suffers. And other fundamental principles of a well-ordered and just society (as Catholic social teaching understands it), like solidarity and a preferential option for the poor, are nowhere in sight.