Catholic social teaching vs the cult of individualism

by Robert Christian

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As the budget battle approaches its climax, the political worldview of Congressman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., has increasingly come under the microscope, as politicians and pundits attempt to discern how much of the House budget chairman’s stance is based on his core principles and how much is driven by political calculation.

On the one hand, a failure to compromise on the budget would be catastrophic for the economy and politically devastating for anyone associated with that failure, a fact that surely does not escape the key players involved in the budget talks. On the other hand, Ryan’s budget proposals, which have already passed the House, seem to be grounded firmly in his strong ideological convictions. While a pragmatic search for the middle ground seems to be the logical solution to the budget impasse, one cannot be certain that Ryan will allow political expediency to trump ideological purity.

Paul Ryan is a Catholic, but his economic worldview is essentially non-Catholic. His devotion to Ayn Rand, whose moral beliefs are nothing but a simple, sophomoric inversion of Christianity (just as her economic beliefs are an inversion of Marxism), makes that clear. One aspect of this devotion, however, is particularly interesting to note because it is shared by far too many American Catholics—the embrace of individualism, a mentality that is inconsistent with Catholicism.

Ryan, the architect of the Republican budget, praises Rand for explaining “the morality of capitalism, the morality of individualism.” Ryan is not alone in his admiration of individualism. From liberals to centrists to conservatives, there is a cult of individualism that pervades American life.

This individualism, which is rooted in various atheist philosophies and Protestant theologies, is entirely incompatible with Catholic social thought.

Church teaching is infused with a personalist, communitarian worldview. Each person has intrinsic dignity and worth, since we are all made in the image of God. We realize our full potential as human persons within communities -- from the family to the office to the neighborhood to the global community.

This explains the importance of Mass and the centrality of the Eucharist in Catholic spirituality and worship: Our faith is communal at its core.

It is the quest for communion that defines the mission of the church and each of its members. These past two Sundays, the priests at my parish have made this same point. One said that “Catholicism is not about me, but we,” while the other said that as Christians, “we seek communion -- unity -- with all.”

Following the way of Christ is not simply about maintaining a personal relationship with Jesus and the pursuit of individual salvation. The commandment to love others, to treat one another as brother and sister, makes us value both the eternal salvation and temporal well-being of every person. We seek communion not only with God, but with others as well.

This focus on community clearly contrasts with a strong strand of contemporary American liberalism, which is rooted in individualism and embraces social libertarianism. This form of liberalism conflates license and liberty, ignoring the duties that correspond with the rights that exist in a free society.

It values utility and enlightened self-interest, which are often better than base selfishness, yet can lead to dehumanizing policies, such as the legalization of abortion and euthanasia. The worth of the person is disregarded as people are treated instrumentally rather than in a way that is consistent with their innate dignity. Members of communities, even spouses, are valued only if they maximize one’s individual happiness. Individual choice and autonomy reign supreme.

Individualism is also at the heart of American conservatism, particularly on economic matters. Unlike European Christian Democrats, who are sometimes the most influential political party on the conservative side of the aisle in their countries, the Republican Party embraces an economic libertarianism that is grounded in the classical liberalism that the church explicitly rejected in shaping its social doctrine.

Republicans today often attribute godlike powers to the free market, even in areas, such as health care, where such mystical beliefs are shown to be completely divorced from concrete reality. They mistakenly argue that policies based on the deification of the market fall within the bounds of legitimate prudential reasoning.

Republicans seek widespread deregulation on the heels of the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, a crisis caused in large part by underregulation. They attempt to make taxation more regressive and give tax cuts to the richest members of our society. For far too many, the motive is to ensure that individuals can enjoy the unchecked pursuit of personal wealth.

Many Republicans defend this by arguing that wealth should only be redistributed based on individual choice through the mechanism of philanthropy and private charity, a position that the church does not accept. Private charity is wonderful and essential; it is often an authentic expression of our love for those in need. Love demands more than private charity, however. Love must shape justice. It therefore demands just social structures that will promote the full intellectual, physical, emotional and spiritual development of every person.

This is the very purpose of the state.

Perhaps most disturbingly, these Catholic economic libertarians have recently tried to alter the definition of key Catholic concepts, such as subsidiarity, in order to defend the absence of an adequate social safety net for working Americans and those who are unable to work. These Catholic Republicans ignore the duty of the national government to ensure that its citizens’ fundamental rights are protected and their needs are fulfilled, an absolute moral demand when families and intermediary communities lack the capacity to provide such protections.

The contrast with conservative Christian Democrats is once again telling. Christian Democratic parties are uniformly committed to universal health care and state intervention to ensure that every citizen has quality, affordable health insurance or receives direct care.

This contrasts with Republican efforts to overturn the Affordable Care Act, cut Medicaid, and turn Medicare into a voucher program that will cover less and less over time, which together will leave tens of millions of Americans without health insurance, while destroying the safety net that currently exists for seniors.

The common link between these libertarian social and economic policies is the individualism that animates them. The source behind the rejection of distributive justice and the sanctity of human life is fundamentally the same. It is the great irony of American political life that the two bitterest opponents in American politics are driven by the same impulse.

[Robert Christian is a graduate fellow at the Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies at Catholic University of America.]

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