VIVA THE PRINCIPLE OF SUBSIDIARITY
- August 17, 2012, 5:50 p.m. ET
- THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
Ryan’s Catholic Roots Reach Deep
Use of Church Teachings to Justify Limited Government Puts Him at Odds With Some in Clergy
By PETER NICHOLAS and MARK PETERS
JANESVILLE, Wis.—Rep. Paul Ryan was an altar boy who attended Catholic school through the eighth grade, though his parents didn’t insist that their four children integrate faith into their lives. Their Catholic life was as much about community and taking care of each other as it was about dogma.
“It was not forced upon us. It was exposed, and some of us embraced it more than others,” said brother Tobin Ryan, who is five years older than Paul.
By the time his youngest brother first ran for Congress in 1998, Tobin Ryan would crash at his brother’s apartment on nights that campaign work kept them up late. It was the first time the two of them were back in their hometown together since their father died when Paul was 16, and they found conversations turning to religion.
“I could see he had very much developed and matured in his faith,” Tobin Ryan said in an interview. “We were able to communicate and share quite openly our own beliefs—versions of faith.”
Now the Republican vice-presidential candidate, Mr. Ryan is a practicing Catholic who attends church regularly, takes part in a weekly prayer group on Capitol Hill and flies home on Thursday nights so he can take his children to their Catholic school the next morning. And when he debates Vice President Joe Biden this fall, each party will be represented by a practicing Catholic.
But Catholicism also grounds his thinking about politics and the basic relationship between the individual and the state. He has invoked a principle called “subsidiarity” in justifying his view that people are more apt to flourish under government that is limited in its size and reach. And he spoke out amid the church leadership’s fight with the Obama administration over its mandate that employers, including Catholic institutions, be required to provide contraception coverage in their insurance plans.
Mr. Ryan’s use of Catholic teachings has drawn criticism by others in the church who believe he is selectively interpreting religious doctrine to make a case for market capitalism.
The debate is a lively one in Catholic circles in part because Pope Benedict XVI, in a series of statements, has questioned whether capitalism, if unchecked, will adequately advance economic justice and equality.
The principle of subsidiarity, espoused by Pope Pius XI in 1931, holds that central governments should defer to communities that are capable of performing certain functions on their own. If a town is capable of cleaning up after a storm, for example, there is no reason a higher government body should step in and do the job instead.
In an interview with the Christian Broadcasting Network in April, Mr. Ryan advocated “the principle of subsidiarity, which is really federalism—meaning government closest to the people governs best—having a civil society of the principal of solidarity where we, through our civic organizations, through our churches, through our charities, through all of our different groups where we interact with people as a community, that’s how we advance the common good.”
At the same time, the Vatican has warned that unchecked markets can undermine other parts of society. In a 2009 encyclical, “Caritas in Veritate” (“Charity in Truth”), Pope Benedict called for protecting the rights of workers and reducing income inequality. He wrote that “Economic activity cannot solve all social problems through the simple application of commercial logic. …Therefore, it must be borne in mind that grave imbalances are produced when economic action, conceived merely as an engine for wealth creation, is detached from political action, conceived as a means for pursuing justice through redistribution.”
An insight into how Mr. Ryan reconciles the cross-currents comes in a column this week by his bishop, Robert Morlino, in the Madison, Wis., diocese newsletter, as a response to criticisms that the bishop believes “unfairly call into question his [Ryan's] Catholic character,” a spokesman said. Rev. Morlino said people should “deplore” certain types of “intrinsic evil,” including abortion, euthanasia, government-coerced secularism and socialism. However, in cases where “evil” is not involved, he said, people may reasonably disagree about the best way to bring about a desired result. He gave as an example reducing the U.S. unemployment rate.
“Making decisions as to the best political strategies, the best policy means, to achieve a goal is the mission of lay people, not bishops or priests,” Bishop Morlino wrote.
Still, liberal Catholics have balked at Mr. Ryan’s policy prescriptions, saying they run afoul of his professed belief in Catholic doctrine.
His conservative budget blueprint known as the “Path to Prosperity” drew a rebuke earlier this year from the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, who criticized proposed cuts to programs for the poor and vulnerable. Those concerns reach back to Janesville, where Rev. Stephen Umhoefer, whose parish Mr. Ryan attended until his mid-30s, disagrees with Mr. Ryan’s interpretation of subsidiarity, saying in an interview that if a community’s needs can’t be met at the local level, then higher levels of government should step in. “I think it would be nice if he would continue to promote his economic and political ideas using political and economic principles,” Father Umhoefer said in an interview.
In any case, the Romney campaign thinks Mr. Ryan’s Catholic identity is a political asset, particularly in battleground states such as Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania, with heavy Catholic populations.
And they think he can tap into the anger and anxiety that has arisen among religious groups—Catholic and non-Catholic alike—over the Obama administration’s contraception mandate. The nation’s bishops are opposing the policy on the grounds that they believe government has no right to force religious institutions such as universities and hospitals to insure contraception services, including sterilization, with which they disagree. Earlier this year, Mr. Ryan said of the mandate: “They’re treating our constitutional First Amendment rights as revokable privileges from our government, not as inalienable rights from our creator.”
Mr. Ryan’s Catholic roots run deep in his hometown here, an industrial city of 63,000 people. He grew up in one of the city’s large, Irish Catholic families and attended school at St. Mary, a few blocks from his family’s home. His local parish of St. John Vianney plays a prominent role in his life there now. His three children attend the parish school, and he and his brother Tobin are regulars at Sunday mass with their families.
Rev. Randy Timmerman, the parish priest, says, “I think Paul has always just found himself closely connected to the life and the heart of what it means to be a Catholic—and trying to bring that into the place of government.”
A version of this article appeared August 18, 2012, on page A4 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: Ryan’s Catholic Roots Reach Deep.
- Updated August 17, 2012, 11:20 p.m. ET
- THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
Paul Ryan’s Catholicism and the Poor
Acts coerced by government, no matter how beneficial or well-intentioned, cannot be moral.
Someone is twisting the Catholic Church’s teachings on caring for the poor, but it isn’t Paul Ryan. His controversial budgetary ideas demonstrate that he has a better grasp of Catholic social thought than do many of the American Catholic bishops.
The culmination of centuries of theological and philosophical thought, the church’s teachings cannot simply be satisfied by a government edict to “feed the poor.” Commanding “Let there be light!” works fine for God, but for mortal beings, edicts don’t carry the same punch.
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has long supported government interference in the economy as a means to help the poor. But we suspect the bishops haven’t fully thought this through: If God really did favor a top-down approach to poverty reduction, why wouldn’t He establish a government with the power to wipe away poverty on demand instead of leaving things to chance and the possibility that someone like Mr. Ryan would come along and mess up His plans?
Perhaps we dehumanize the poor when we treat them as nothing more than problems to be solved, and we dehumanize the rich when we treat them as wallets to be picked.
Wealth and poverty are catalysts for bringing the rich and the poor together in community, and community is the hallmark of the church’s mission on Earth. Government is not community. Government is one of community’s tools, a coercive one we use when it is necessary to force people to behave in ways they would not otherwise behave voluntarily.
But that word—voluntarily—is key, and it’s where Mr. Ryan’s religious detractors go awry: Charity can only be charity when it is voluntary. Coerced acts, no matter how beneficial or well-intentioned, cannot be moral. If we force people to give to the poor, we have stripped away the moral component, reducing charity to mere income redistribution. And if one really is as good as the other, the Soviets demonstrated long ago that it can be done far more efficiently without the trappings of church and religion.
All people have the moral obligation to care for those who are less fortunate. But replacing morality with legality is the first step in replacing church, religion and conscience with government, politics and majority vote. Coercing people to feed the poor simply substitutes moral poverty for material poverty.
The bishops dance with the devil when they invite government to use its coercive power on their behalf, and there’s no clearer example than the Affordable Care Act. They happily joined their moral authority to the government’s legal authority by supporting mandatory health insurance. They should not have been surprised when the government used its reinforced power to require Catholic institutions to pay for insurance plans that cover abortions and birth control.
To paraphrase J.R.R. Tolkien (a devoted Catholic), the government does not share power. Paul Ryan knows this. The bishops would be wise to listen to him.
Mr. Davies is professor of economics at Duquesne University. Ms. Antolin is a Catholic theologian.
A version of this article appeared August 18, 2012, on page A11 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: Paul Ryan’s Catholicism and the Poor.