Contra William McGurn on Ryan

by Michael Sean Winters

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William McGurn, writing on the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal, is the latest conservative Catholic to rush to the defense of Congressman Paul Ryan. In making his defense, he calls especial attention to the column I wrote the day Ryan was announced as Mitt Romney’s running mate in which I labeled Ryan a “Champion of Dissent.” Consequently, it is both a pleasure and an obligation to respond.

McGurn’s begins his essay by stating, “Say this for the liberal impulse in American Catholicism: In its day it leavened the faith.” Actually, it is the faith that acts as leaven, not the other way round, but McGurn’s method of framing the issue is telling. He cites the role of liberalism in promoting the role of the laity against clericalism and the role liberals played in advancing the idea of religious liberty at the Second Vatican Council. The promotion of the role of the laity, I would submit, had very little to do with any liberal impulse. If anything, it had to do with specifically theological developments, such as a renewed focus on baptism, that focus itself a fruit of Pope Pius XII’s rehabilitation of the Easter Vigil liturgy. If McGurn wishes to think Pius XII a liberal, he is the first to do so.

As for advancing the idea of religious liberty at Vatican II, that advancement remains deeply problematic, although you would not know it from McGurn. Liberalism, classic liberalism, that is to say, liberalism in the sense in which all American politics is liberal, is based on a formal conception of negative rights. At the Council, the Rev. John Courtney Murray, S.J. sought to baptize this conception but in the discussions among the drafters, the French theologians raised objections, correctly noting that there were some difficulties in such an approach. In his wonderful book, “The Unintended Reformation,” Brad Gregory discusses those difficulties, noting that the replacement of a substantive ethic of the good with a formal ethics of rights has, in part, led to the dictatorship of relativism in the modern West’s intellectual world. And, when asked about the conflict between a positive conception of freedom (“freedom for”) and a negative, American, liberal conception of freedom (“freedom from”) Murray himself admitted that this was an issue the Council Fathers tried to “skate around.” Alas, the ice has broken so it is now impossible to skate around that issue.

McGurn warns against a false “moral equivalence” in assessing the different ways the two parties, and the two Catholic vice presidential candidates, dissent from Church teaching. He repeats the canard that on economic and budgetary matters, there is room for prudential judgment while on those acts deemed “intrinsically evil,” there is not room for prudential political judgment. To be clear, and to repeat: The moral obligation to help the poor is absolute. The moral obligation to protect human life is absolute. How we achieve such help and such protection, in the world of practical political and legal realities, requires prudential judgment in both instances. If Mr. Ryan were saying, “My way of helping the poor is better than yours,” that would be one thing, but he has offered no way of helping the poor just as Mr. Biden has offered no way of protecting the right to life of the unborn.

I would agree that there is no “moral equivalence” between the issues of fighting poverty and fighting threats to human life, because those threats are different. Our nation’s casual willingness to consider a class of persons, the unborn, unworthy of legal protection is a foundational threat. But, the libertarian economic instincts that animate Mr. Ryan’s worldview are more pervasive.

McGurn also asserts that the bishops have no specific competence in economic and budgetary matters. That is not exactly true: The bishops quite obviously believe themselves to be competent to assess the moral significance of civil legislation and of cultural norms. Nor is this a matter, as McGurn suggests, of “some bishops” disagreeing with Mr. Ryan. Here is Pope Pius XI:

Just as the unity of human society cannot be founded on an opposition of classes, so also the right ordering of economic life cannot be left to a free competition of forces. For from this source, as from a poisoned spring, have originated and spread all the errors of individualist economic teaching. Destroying through forgetfulness or ignorance the social and moral character of economic life, it held that economic life must be considered and treated as altogether free from and independent of public authority, because in the market, i.e., in the free struggle of competitors, it would have a principle of self direction which governs it much more perfectly than would the intervention of any created intellect. But free competition, while justified and certainly useful provided it is kept within certain limits, clearly cannot direct economic life - a truth which the outcome of the application in practice of the tenets of this evil individualistic spirit has more than sufficiently demonstrated. (Quadragesimo Anno, #88)

McGurn also seeks to chastise Catholic liberals for calling attention to some of Mr. Ryan’s more embarrassing encomiums for Ayn Rand. “In another age, Catholic progressives would have laughed at the suggestion that people were corrupted by reading certain works; now they believe Paul Ryan's soul is in peril for his having read Ayn Rand,” he writes. I do not object to anyone reading Ayn Rand. I do not even object to someone liking Ayn Rand, provided that someone is a college freshman, raised in a strict conservative Christian home, living on their own for the first time, and feeling alienated by college life. By sophomore year, hopefully such a student will have discovered friendship, or an area of study, or a devotion to culture, or the life of the Spirit, that will lead to understand that Rand’s hostility to altruism, which is heart of her economic and political views, is profoundly hostile not only to a Catholic worldview but to any humane worldview. No, my objection is not to Mr. Ryan reading Rand, it is to the fact that he was citing her up until yesterday as his inspiration for his political career as well as his moral vision. Now, having thrown her under the bus in favor of St. Thomas Aquinas, or so he says, Mr. Ryan has so far failed to point to a single instance in which such an enormous change in intellectual and moral guideposts has produced a change in his policies.

McGurn also writes this curious sentence: “Before, they [Catholic liberals] would not have feared science; now they insist that a program such as food stamps ought to continue ad infinitum without consideration of its effects.” Mind you, I do not fear science although I greatly fear scientism, which is an issue for liberals and one McGurn should consider turning his keen eye towards. But, what precisely about the “effects” of the food stamp program has Mr. McGurn upset? I do not know where he does his grocery shopping, but at the local Giant in suburban DC where I do my grocery shopping, as far as I can tell, unscientifically of course, food stamps help mothers buy food for their children. Or, is that obvious moral effect somehow too much to bear if it offends Mr. Ryan superstitious belief in the all-beneficent Market? Send Toto to pull away the curtain. We lived through 2008. We know all about that particular superstition.

I concur entirely with McGurn when he writes, “And while they believe that the pope and bishops have nothing of value to offer about the sanctity of marriage or the duty of protecting unborn life, when it comes to federal spending, suddenly a miter means infallibility.” There is something a little rich about Catholic liberals wrapping themselves in the social magisterium of the Church, but there is also something a little rich about Catholic conservatives wrapping themselves in the mantle of a Church founded by Him who warned us that we would be judged on the basis of how we treat the least of these our brethren.

Mr. McGurn concludes his piece: “In the past, the liberal Catholic vision sought to inspire. Today, in the pages of the venerable lay Catholic magazine Commonweal, a blogger tries to diminish Paul Ryan by saying, ‘like the rest of us, he is a Cafeteria Catholic.’ Surely it says something about a movement when its most powerful argument against an opponent is this: You are just as lousy as we are.” Tu quoque arguments are weak and certainly Joe Biden would be foolish to charge Ryan with being a bad Catholic. Indeed, I don’t think anyone should suggest that anyone is a bad Catholic. But, the charge of “cafeteria Catholicism” is a different charge. It is the charge that those who present themselves as “holier than Thou” should be careful about the log in their own eye. And, as someone who strives, and strives mightily to submit his mind and his will to the teachings of the Church, to never be a “cafeteria Catholic,” I will say unequivocally that I am as appalled by Ryan’s dissent as by Biden’s and for the same reason: The libertarianism of the right on economic matters, like the libertarianism of the left on sexual ethics, offends the most central dogmatic claim of the Christian Church, the doctrine of the Most Holy Trinity, which reveals that at the heart of all Reality, the source of all Creation, is not an autonomous individual known as God, not an abstract, impersonal Unmoved Mover, but a God who has revealed Himself as relational. Here, then, is the problem for Ryan, Biden and McGurn: When Jesus called Himself “the Son,” he invalidated any inflated ideas of autonomy. Freedom is one thing, autonomy another. And it is as clear to me as day that both vice presidential candidates pick and choose how they want to reconcile their belief in a Trinitarian God with their politics. Pointing that out is not “moral equivalence,” it is not an exercise in “diminishment.” It is the truth, the big ugly truth at the heart of our supposedly Christian culture.

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