A priest whom I admire greatly chastised me for my post about the why’s and wherefore’s of the letters exchanged between Archbishop Timothy Dolan, President of the USCCB, and Congressman Paul Ryan. My interlocutor was concerned that I had focused on the “politics” of the situation and had not sufficiently dealt with the ideas that animated the exchange.
I plead guilty. It had frankly not occurred to me that engaging the “ideas” behind Ryan’s public moral philosophy was worth the effort. Ryan has explicitly and repeatedly said that he was inspired to get into politics by the writings of Ayn Rand. He tells his staff to read Rand’s works if they want to understand his way of thinking. I can see how Rand’s defense of selfishness has a certain appeal to a college freshman, free for the first time from parental control, and all too eager to think that the radical pursuit of his own desires is the only moral, indeed heroic, way to live one’s life. But, usually, by sophomore year, you have made friends and encountered the drama of human life, with its ups and its downs, its sorrows and its joys, the way something you consider a personal strength can, in the twinkling of an eye, expose itself as your greatest vulnerability, the fact that altruism is a noble thing and artistic expression can be subtle and beautiful at the same time, in short, you discover that Rand’s protean world of self-assertion does not accurately or adequately describe one’s lived experience.
Or as one wag once said: “There are two novels that can change a bookish fourteen-year old's life: The Lord of the Rings and Atlas Shrugged. One is a childish fantasy that often engenders a lifelong obsession with its unbelievable heroes, leading to an emotionally stunted, socially crippled adulthood, unable to deal with the real world. The other, of course, involves orcs.”
It has been a long time since I read Rand, and I confess I never read much of her writings because, even to my young mind in high school, they were repulsive to my Catholic sensibilities. I do not want to engage in proof texts, the way certain Catholic neo-cons do with Centesimus Annus (which, in their mind, might be called, “The End of Ecclesiastical History”). But, for example, she writes in Anthem:
And now I see the face of god, and I raise this god over the earth, this god whom men have sought since men came into being, this god who will grant them joy and peace and pride.
This god, this one word:
Of course, Rand herself was never concerned to reconcile her beliefs with Christian orthodoxy. For her, religion was a “curse” and even when she admitted its usefulness historically, she did so snidely, telling an interviewer in Playboy, “Faith, as such, is extremely detrimental to human life: it is the negation of reason. But you must remember that religion is an early form of philosophy, that the first attempts to explain the universe, to give a coherent frame of reference to man's life and a code of moral values, were made by religion, before men graduated or developed enough to have philosophy. And, as philosophies, some religions have very valuable moral points. They may have a good influence or proper principles to inculcate, but in a very contradictory context and, on a very - how should I say it? - dangerous or malevolent base: on the ground of faith.”
Now, Congressman Ryan says this is the woman who inspired him into a career in public service. And, in his letter to Archbishop Dolan, he claims that he has tried to take account of key concepts drawn from Catholic social thought, citing “John Paul the Great.” Perhaps Ryan should consult “John Paul the Great’s” encyclical Fides et ratio. Or Veritatis Splendor. Do those encyclicals concur with Rand that faith is the “negation of reason?”
Mind you, I have no doubt that Archbishop Dolan had no prior knowledge of Ryan’s intellectual fetish for Rand. In the days since the letters were released, many have suggested that Dolan has some explaining to do, but I think most of the explaining needs to come from Congressman Ryan. If there is a way to reconcile Rand’s philosophy with Catholic social teaching, I have not seen it. Will Ryan, or whoever penned that letter for him, try to do for Rand what Aquinas did for Aristotle? That I would like to read.
Ryan’s budget certainly reflects Rand’s weltanschauung more than it reflects the vision Pope Benedict XVI put forth in Caritas in Veritate. That is why I think it was a mistake for Archbishop Dolan to write a letter that, however unintentionally, gave political cover to policies that are antithetical to Catholic social teaching. And, whatever frustrations Ryan – or anyone else – has with the modern, social welfare state, I think it can be said that the social welfare state is to social justice what democracy is to government: The worst form of administration except every other form.
Ryan can assert that his budget is built upon Catholic concerns about human dignity, but there is no dignity in Rand’s crimped vision of humanity. There really is no need to wrestle with these so-called ideas.