The Ryan Budget and Catholic Social Teaching

The American Catholic has an excellent round of commentary on the Ryan budget and the ensuing debate carried out on the question, “is the Ryan budget in accordance with Catholic social teaching, or not?”.  While this might seem an arcane debate for only Catholics to engage, the fact is that the debate is ultimately about what sort of America we will have.

There are two words everyone has to familiarize themselves with:

1.  Subsidiarity.

2.  Solidarity.

In a nutshell, “subsidiarity” is the Catholic teaching that all decisions should be made as far as possible at the lowest level.  This covers all sorts of decisions – political, economic and religious.  While the higher authorities play a vital role, their role is rather one of support and instruction rather than mixing in the day to day activities of life.  It is for you and me, dear reader, to take care of the poor in our midst – just as it is our duty to work and earn our own living; it is for the federal government to assist us in this – mostly by ensuring law and order, the execution of justice and our common defense against outside enemies; but, also, at times by directly aiding us when our own good, solid efforts are insufficient to secure what is necessary for the liberty, safety and dignity of ourselves and our fellows.

And that leads us in to “solidarity” – none of us is an island; we are not a law unto our selves.  We are part of a group and while we have absolute rights vis a vis the group, we also have absolute responsibilities to the group.  We do, indeed, have a right to our property and the fruits of our labor – but we also have a duty to ensure that our neighbor does not lack the necessities.

Liberals tend to concentrate on the “solidarity” aspect and use it as a justification for the welfare State.  Libertarians tend to concentrate on “subsidiarity” and use it as a justification for government so small as to be incapable of doing the genuine tasks of government (especially in terms of ensuring justice and the defense of the nation).  Paul Ryan’s plan is a judicious mix of subsidiarity and solidarity – as it should be, because while the laws of God are absolute, the actions of human beings within the parameters of those laws are subject to many varying pressures and needs and thus prudential judgement is needed in each particular instance in figuring out what is best.  Neither libertarianism nor statism is the answer – in some cases the State must take a strong stand, in others the State must butt out…in most cases it has to be a little of both.

Ryan is being furiously attacked, especially by liberal Catholics who see in the Ryan budget the moral justification for dismantling the welfare State.  They are attacking Ryan’s plan because they say it will harm the poor – but the fact is the plan wouldn’t do anything of the sort; it would, though, harm the vested interests of the welfare State who do little for the poor, but seem to make quite a lot of money ostensibly caring about the poor.  But do have a care – if Ryan’s budget is ever passed (say in January, 2013 and then signed in to law by President Romney) then the attacks will start to come from the other side – libertarians who will be upset that the State refuses to become morally neutral and still seeks to have a role in American affairs.

While Ryan’s plan has a great deal of Catholicism in it (no surprise given Ryan’s Catholicism), it really brings up and clarifies the real debate – super welfare State, libertarian anarchy, or a well reasoned approach which understands that things don’t resolve themselves in perfect, little boxes?  The whole of the American experiment – our whole Constitutional order (currently hibernating) –  is based upon the Founders’ realization that (a) no one has all the answers and (b) a wise system will leave great latitude for individual and local action while still retaining a government strong enough to act forcefully when necessary.

We’ll see how it comes out – but Ryan has earned the gratitude of all Americans who wish to see the Founders’ vision restored to America.