Wrestling With Mutually Contradictory Influences
National Public Radio’s Ari Shapiro recently reported on Paul Ryan’s swing through Pennsylvania on a day when the top of the Republican ticket was off raising funds.
In an effort to appeal to Pennsyl-vania’s large Catholic population at a rally outside Pittsburgh, Ryan brought up a remark Barack Obama made at a private fundraiser when he was running for president. Obama spoke of people who “cling to guns or religion,”
Ryan boasted, “Hey, I’m a Catholic deer hunter. I am happy to be clinging to my guns and my religion.” The hunter found his prey. An electrician who took time off from work to attend the rally gushed, “I like Ryan more than Romney. … I’m a Catholic. I’m more social conservative than I believe Romney is.”
Ryan considers himself a devout Catholic, and his social conservative credentials are impeccable. That social conservatism and his faith are antithetical to the teachings of Ayn Rand, whom Ryan credits with inspiring him to public service.
Ryan is an enigma in which the contradictory influences of Catholicism, which like all religions has the morality of altruism at its very core, mix with Rand, who proclaimed, “If any civilization is to survive, it is the morality of altruism that men have to reject.”
The uneven extent to which those influences manifest themselves in his work makes embracing Ryan problematic for people of faith.
According to the National Catholic Reporter, on April 17, letters from committee chairs at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops to members of Congress were released. The letters were prompted by the congressman’s assertion that his budget proposals were “consistent with Catholic social teaching.”
The bishops took exception. They affirmed the three “moral criteria to guide these difficult budget decisions.” They are, “1. Every budget decision should be assessed by whether it protects or threatens human life and dignity. 2. A central moral measure of any budget proposal is how it affects “the least of these” (Matthew 25). The needs of those who are hungry and homeless, without work or in poverty, should come first. And 3. Government and other institutions have a shared responsibility to promote the common good of all, especially ordinary workers and families who struggle to live in dignity in difficult economic times.”
Another letter signed by 90 faculty members preceding his address at Georgetown University (a Catholic institution) also addressed the consistency of Ryan’s budget with Catholic social teaching.
After thanking him for agreeing to speak at the university, the letter continued, “However, we would be remiss in our duty to you and our students if we did not challenge your continuing misuse of Catholic teaching to defend a budget plan that decimates food programs for struggling families, radically weakens protections for the elderly and sick, and gives more tax breaks to the wealthiest few.”
In a column he submitted to Our Sunday Visitor in July 2011, Ryan asserted that “budgetary discipline is a moral imperative.” He quoted Pope Benedict XVI’s observation, “We are living at the expense of future generations. … We live on the basis of appearances, and the huge debts are meanwhile treated as something that we are simply entitled to.” Ryan added, “It is immoral for governments to make promises they cannot fulfill.”
That’s true. But if deficits are moral issues, so are the way we address them.
The reason Mitt Romney pays so little in taxes is that, as with billionaire investor Warren Buffett, his income is derived from capital gains, which are taxed at 15 percent. Buffett thinks that’s unconscionable.
Mitt Romney selected a running mate who would like to eliminate the capital gains tax altogether and pay for it with budgets that, in the view of 90 Georgetown faculty members, “reflect the values of your (Ryan’s) favorite philosopher, Ayn Rand, rather than the Gospel of Jesus Christ.”
So what should we make of the contradictory influences wrestling for Ryan’s soul?
One of those influences dismissed contradictions. Rand said, “Whenever you think you are facing a contradiction, check your premises. You will find that one of them is wrong.”
The premise that Rand’s economic vision and the Gospels are not mutually exclusive is wrong.
I like comedian Stephen Colbert’s assessment. He said, “If this is going to be a Christian nation that doesn’t help the poor, either we have to pretend that Jesus was just as selfish as we are, or we’ve got to acknowledge that he commanded us to love the poor and serve the needy without condition and then admit that we just don’t want to do it.”
Kevin Smith lives in Aberdeen. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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