Paul Ryan Misapplies Catholic Teaching
Most of the attention given to the release of a written exchange between Archbishop Dolan and Paul Ryan yesterday has focused on what the Archbishop did and didn’t say in his message. But just as interesting is Ryan’s initial letter to Dolan in which he tries to defend his budget in explicitly Catholic terms. While it’s nice to see Ryan endorsing these important Catholic social principles, his arguments make clear that he’s deeply confused about both Catholic teaching and what his own budget actually does.
Ryan’s letter opens with his standard misinformed talking points about the details of the economy and the budget. Policy experts have already addressed these claims at length, so I’ll leave it to them to answer how Ryan’s budget relies on funny numbers, increases–not decreases–the debt, voucherizes Medicare, devastates programs for low income Americans to pay for tax cuts for the rich, and is far from the only budget proposal on the table.
I want to focus more specifically on some of Ryan’s religious references.
1. On protecting the most vulnerable:
“Ultimately the weakest will be hit three times over: by rising costs, by drastic cuts to programs they rely on, and by the collapse of individual support for charities that help the hungry, the homeless, the sick, refugees and others in need.”
Ryan warns of these ills as a potential future if his budget is not enacted, but the reality is that they’ve already arrived! Costs are rising while wages fall, the recession decimated charitable giving, and Ryan himself is the one suggesting drastic cuts to social safety net programs. If Ryan is concerned about the most vulnerable among us, he should be proposing solutions that address the crisis we have right now.
2. On his budget’s Medicare proposal:
“The proposal is consistent with the preferential option for the poor, providing more support for low income groups and the sick…These reforms protect and preserve Medicare – with no disruptions – for current seniors and those nearing retirement, and offer a strengthened, personalized Medicare program that future generations can count on.”
Ryan’s Medicare proposal has gotten the most attention for good reason. It’s the area from which he gets most of his budget’s “savings” by undermining our societal commitment to providing adequate health care for our senior citizens. Rather than addressing the spiraling costs of health care, Ryan’s budget simply shifts the costs onto seniors. It’s not a solution to the actual problem; it’s an accounting trick that balances the books by forcing seniors to pay dramatically more for their health care or go without. This was one of the concerns raised by Bishops Hubbard and Claire in their letter to Ryan last month, and he has done nothing to address it.
Even worse is what Ryan’s budget does with these “savings.” The money generated by placing a burden on seniors enables the GOP to continue extending tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans: $3.8 trillion over the next decade alone.
For Ryan to try to allege that this combination lives up to the preferential option for the poor is an insult to Catholic teaching.
3. On subsidiarity as it applies to Medicaid:
“Our Budget …[provides] a block grant of Medicaid funds to the states, allowing them greater flexibility to administer and supplement federal support levels to suit the unique needs of each. “Subsidiary” and “federalism” both counsel that the states, as “subordinate organizations” closer to the people, can do better in applying funds to the neediest.”
Subsidiarity is the Catholic concept that societal issues should be addressed by the least centralized body competent and able to do so. In his letter, Ryan uses one of the Catholic Right’s favorite arguments about subsidiarity: claiming that subsidiarity is a blanket endorsement of all “states’ rights” claims. But what Ryan leaves out is the second half of that equation which Archbishop Dolan helpfully filled in: “The principles of subsidiarity and solidarity are interrelated to one another.” A budget that delegates full responsibility for Medicaid to the states, but gives no concern with the impact that will have on the vulnerable participants in the program is short-sighted.
Indeed, Ryan’s plan makes deep cuts in funding for the program: $771 billion in the next decade alone and 49% of all funding for the program by 2030. Ryan claims these cuts will force states to find savings, but in the absence of any actual cost control suggestions, it’s clear that states will cut benefits and kick people out of the program to achieve this cost-saving. By relaxing the federal protections preventing governors from shrinking the rolls to save money, Ryan all but guarantees this result.
Subsidiarity applies to situations when the lower-tiered entity is sufficient to address the issue at hand. But what Ryan fails to take into account is that the lower-tiered entity (state governments, in this instance), are inadequate to ensure the Catholic principle of “solidarity” and care for the poor, so there is still a need for robust federal government involvement.
4. The ‘Social Assistance State’
Lastly, Paul Ryan refers to the problem of the ‘Social Assistance State’ referred to by Pope John Paul II in his encyclical Centesimus Annus. Of course, the Pope was writing at the end of the Cold War and reacting to the failures of Marxist regimes. It’s more than a stretch to suggest that the United States today is equivalent to Soviet Communism. Privileging this quote at the expense of numerous others expressing the fuller balance of the Church’s stance on this issue is political cherry-picking.
It’s ultimately a good sign that Ryan wants to engage in a conversation about his budget proposal’s compatibility with Catholic Social Teaching. And it’s certainly true that prudential judgment allows Catholics to disagree in good faith about the political application of various principles like giving preference to the poor. Under closer scrutiny, however, Ryan’s budget appears to differ not only in the means but in the fundamental ends as well.