Catholics battle over moral implications of budget politics

Published: Wednesday, June 20 2012 4:00 p.m. MDT

Ryan's budget would shift Medicaid to a block grant, with increases restricted to population growth and inflation. This means roughly 3 percent annual increases, rather than the current 7 percent, according to the Bipartisan Policy Center.

While reasonable minds can differ on how programs should be constructed, Reese said "a budget is a moral document, represents the values of a nation very concretely. One of those values should be concern for the poor and the sick and the needy."

Bishops on the budget

Shortly before the Georgetown confrontation, the U.S. Conference of Bishops issued a statement widely interpreted as a rebuke of Ryan, who had just announced his latest budget proposal.

"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," the letter read.

The Bishops' letter then waded into specifics, arguing "just solutions, however, must require shared sacrifice by all, including raising adequate revenues, eliminating unnecessary military and other spending, and fairly addressing the long-term costs of health insurance and retirement programs."

The last phrase could be interpreted as an escape clause for Ryan's supporters, as their argument is that reining in entitlements, especially middle class entitlements, is the necessary prerequisite to securing the safety net.

"It seems like we have to do something like what Ryan has proposed, though maybe not exactly and maybe not as quickly," said Peter Lawler, a professor of political philosophy at Berry College in Georgia and a Catholic.

Arthur Brooks, President of the American Enterprise Institute and also a Catholic, explained why the bishops may be uncomfortable with the budget.

"The bishops have expressed a lot of discomfort with Paul's (Ryan) budget because of a biblical preference for the poor," Brooks said. "That is completely understandable, especially given the culture in which they have come to see the welfare state as the primary way we help the poor."

Radical individualism

In attacking Ryan, critics have more to work with than the budget itself. There is also the company he keeps. Ryan's critics point to his longstanding enthusiasm with the controversial novelist, atheist and libertarian Ayn Rand, as evidence that his worldview is not truly Christian.

"There is no better place to find the moral case for capitalism and individualism than through Ayn Rand's writings and works," Ryan said in 2005 at the Atlas Society while speaking at an event celebrating Rand's career.

Ryan told the same gathering that Rand's work "inspired me so much that it's required reading in my office for all my interns and my staff," according to transcripts at the Atlas Society website.

"That's not Catholic," Lawler said. "Ayn Rand is nuts. No Catholic can agree with that. No Catholic can agree that we are deep down selfish individuals. No Catholic can even agree with Glenn Beck that 'social justice is an oxymoron.'"

As Ryan's budget came under sharper attack from the Left, his affinity for Rand became a lightning rod for criticism, leading him to distance himself from her.

"I reject her philosophy," Ryan told Robert Costa at National Review in April. "It's an atheist philosophy. It reduces human interactions down to mere contracts and it is antithetical to my worldview. If somebody is going to try to paste a person's view on epistemology to me, then give me Thomas Aquinas."

In a May 4 town meeting, Ryan further distanced himself from Rand. "Just because you like someone's novels doesn't mean you agree with their entire worldview philosophy," Ryan told the audience, describing Rand's atheist worldview as "completely antithetical to mine."

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