Principles in Catholic Social Doctrine require the exercise of prudential judgment in their application. Agree or disagree with Congressman Ryan's exercise of his prudential judgment - and his proposed legislative solutions to the fiscal crisis- he has done what a Catholic in public service should do with the Social Doctrine of the Church.Let the debate begin.
WASHINGTON, DC (Catholic Online) - In June of 2011 then Archbishop (now Cardinal) Timothy Dolan, the President of the US Bishops Conference, and a Conservative Catholic Congressman named Paul Ryan exchanged letters which will most certainly have an impact in the upcoming 2012 Presidential race.
Paul Ryan is articulate, intelligent and controversial. He is also considered one of the most probable among the possible Vice Presidential nominees on the Republican ticket. He recently submitted the "Path to Prosperity Budget" which was approved by the House and became fodder for the Obama reelection campaign.
The political wordsmiths are again trying to lay claim to that field of moral theology referred to as "Catholic Social Doctrine" as the 2012 campaign for the US Presidency begins in earnest. Prior to 2004 the phrase "Social Teaching" of the Catholic Church referred to the teachings rooted in the Sacred Scriptures, expounded upon in the Christian tradition, developed in the documents of the Second Vatican Council, explained within a contemporary series of encyclical letters, apostolic letters and exhortations, and summarized in the Catechism of the Catholic Church.
Sadly, many people had not read these sources. So, what claimed to be the Social Teaching of the Catholic Church was too often the "spin" of self styled "experts" with political agendas. Very often those agendas would be characterized as "left" or "liberal" within common political parlance.
Then on April 2, 2004, the Memorial of Saint Francis of Paola, Cardinal Renato Raffaele Martino, President of the "Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace" released the "Compendium of the Social Doctrine of Church."
The social doctrine confronts what Pope Benedict properly called the "Dictatorship of Relativism" even before he assumed the Papal office. It insists there are unchangeable truths which are revealed by the Natural Law, can be known through the exercise of reason and should inform the social order in every just society.
At the foundation of those truths is the dignity of every human person at every age and stage. To be Pro-Life is NOT simply to be "single issue" in your political positions, it is about a world view. It is the dignity of the human person which requires a respect for every human life whether that life be in the first home of the womb, a wheelchair, a jail cell, a hospital room, a hospice, a senior center or a soup kitchen.
Another one of these truths is that marriage is between one man and one woman, intended for life, and ordered toward the bearing and raising of children in the family. Marriage is not some social construct which can be redefined by courts or legislatures. It is the foundation for family and family is the first society, first church, first school, first economy, first government and first mediating institution. The first community which humanizes and civilizes all of us is the family.
Another, is that all human persons created in the Image of God are created for relationship and called to human community. We can never fully experience human flourishing outside of social relationships. These relationships are perfective of our human person because we are by nature - and grace - made for these relationships. Catholic Social Thought does not begin with the individual but with the family. The social doctrine affirms our obligation in solidarity to one another. We are our brother/sister's keeper.
The social doctrine rejects a notion of "freedom" which begins and ends with the isolated, atomistic, person as the measure of its application. Authentic human freedom must be exercised within a moral constitution. We will only grow in freedom when we choose what is good and what is true. Otherwise "freedom" becomes a counterfeit and enslaves us, as individuals and as nations.
The social doctrine offers principles to help us order our economies. It does not propose any particular economic theory. It insists that every economic order be at the service of the human person, human freedom, human flourishing and the family. We are to give a love of preference to the poor, recognizing our solidarity with them. However, this call to solidarity is to be applied through the application of the principle of subsidiarity, rejecting all forms of dehumanizing collectivism, either of the left or the right.
The market economy has been affirmed in recent social teaching - when properly understood and morally structured. However, the Catholic Church stood against the materialism of the atheistic Marxist system and now properly cautions Nations which have adopted a form of liberal capitalism of the dangers of "economism" or materialism which promotes the use of persons as products and fails to recognize the value of being over acquiring.
The truths and principles contained within Catholic social doctrine are not merely "religious" positions, in the sense that only religious people need assent to them. They are revealed by the Natural Law and can be known through the exercise of reason. The truths are true for all people and for all time. The Church calls us to offer them as leaven to be worked into the loaf of human culture. We are called to build a truly just and human society.
On April 29, 2011, Congressman Paul Ryan, a devout Catholic - and someone who could be called a political and economic conservative - wrote a respectful letter to Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York in which he discussed his now controversial proposals for dealing with the United State's looming budgetary crisis.
The Congressman's budget proposals were objected to by some, including some faithful Catholics. What made this letter important is the Congressman explained the rationale behind his proposals within the framework of a sincere effort to apply the principles found within Catholic Social Thought. He cited the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church throughout the letter referring to both the obligation of solidarity and its application in light of the principle of subsidiarity.
Archbishop Dolan wrote a response to the Congressman on May 18, 2011. He began with these words: "Thank you for your kind and enlightening letter of April 29, 2011. I deeply appreciate your letter's assurances of your continued attention to the guidance of Catholic social justice in the current delicate budget considerations in Congress. As you allude to in your letter, the budget is not just about numbers. It reflects the very values of our nation. As many religious leaders have commented, budgets are moral statements.
"As is so clear from your correspondence, the light of our faith - anchored in the Bible, the tradition of the Church, and the Natural Law - can help illumine and guide solid American constitutional wisdom. Thus I commend your letter's attention to the important values of fiscal responsibility; sensitivity to the foundational role of the family; the primacy of the dignity of the human person and the protection of all human life; a concrete solicitude for the poor and the vulnerable, especially those who are hungry and homeless, without work or in poverty; and putting into practice the principles of solidarity and subsidiarity, here at home and internationally within the context of a commitment to the common good shared by government and other mediating institutions alike."
I asked in an article I wrote back in June whether that exchange of letters signaled the liberation of Catholic Social Thought from some who seek to use it as a proof text for their own political agendas. Often, that has meant opposition from those who would be considered "on the left" in contemporary political parlance. Sadly, some among those who might be considered "on the right", have simply ignored it.
The principles contained with Catholic Social thought require the exercise of prudential judgment in their application. Agree or disagree with Congressman Ryan's exercise of his prudential judgment - and his proposed legislative solutions to the current fiscal crisis- he has done exactly what a Catholic in public service should do with the Social Doctrine of the Church.
Archbishop Dolan wrote to the Congressman, "The principles of subsidiarity and solidarity are interrelated to one another. The late Pope reminded us that, "... the principle of subsidiarity must be respected: a community of a higher order should not interfere in the internal life of a community of a lower order, depriving the latter of its functions, but rather should support it in case of need and help to coordinate its activity with the activities of the rest of society, always with a view to the common good. (Centesimus Annus, 48)."
"Thus you rightly pointed out Pope John Paul's comments on the limits of what he termed the "Social Assistance State." Your letter is correct in observing that the Church makes an essential contribution to society when she raises up moral principles to help guide and inform decisions about public policy in a compelling way.
"We bishops are very conscious that we are pastors, never politicians. As the Second Vatican Council reminds us, it is the lay faithful who have the specific charism of political leadership and decision (Lumen Gentium, 31; Apostolicam Actuositatem 13). The high call to public service which you have nobly answered entitles you and all our elected officials to our respect and constant prayer. Thanks to you and your colleagues for accepting that call.
"This exchange of correspondence will be, I trust, but the beginning of an ongoing dialogue, in service, I pray, of the country we love and the religious convictions that have always inspired sound citizenship and generous public service."
This exchange between the Congressman and the Archbishop shows the proper respect due from elected officials to the leaders of the Church. It also shows that the leadership of the US Bishops conference recognizes the importance of such a robust dialogue.
Now, Congressman Paul Ryan has taken this all a step further. He gave an interview to David Brody of CBN News in which he defended his budget proposal. He did so with very cogent and explicit references to the principles of Catholic Social Doctrine. He credited his own Catholic faith as having informed his efforts. Excerpts from this intelligent interview can be viewed here.
The full interview will be aired on CBN on Thursday. I believe it will open up a much needed dialogue on Catholic Social Doctrine. Here is an example of the responses Congressman Ryan gave to David Brody:
David Brody: Tell me a little bit about the morality and the debt. Where does your Catholic faith play into the way this budget is crafted?
Paul Ryan: "A person's faith is central to how they conduct themselves in public and in private. So to me, using my Catholic faith, we call it the social magisterium, which is how do you apply the doctrine of your teaching into your everyday life as a lay person? "
"To me, 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. By not having big government crowd out civic society, but by having enough space in our communities so that we can interact with each other, and take care of people who are down and out in our communities. "
"Those principles are very, very, important, and the preferential option for the poor, which is one of the primary tenants of Catholic Social teaching, means don't keep people poor, don't make people dependent on government so that they stay stuck at their station in life. Help people get out of poverty out onto life of independence."
The response by those who disagree with how Congressman Ryan is applying the principles of Catholic Social Doctrine has already begun - and it is fierce. However, the Congressman is doing exactly what catholics in public office should do. I say, let the debate begin. It is about time. It will only serve the true common good.
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