For many on the left, Paul Ryan is a menace, the very embodiment of cold, indifferent Republicanism, and for many on the right, he is a knight in shining armor, a God-fearing advocate of a principled conservatism. Mitt Romney’s choice of Ryan as running mate has already triggered the worst kind of exaggerated hoo-hah on both sides of the political debate. What is most interesting, from my perspective, is that Ryan, a devout Catholic, has claimed the social doctrine of the Church as the principal inspiration for his policies. Whether you stand with “First Things” and affirm that such a claim is coherent or with “Commonweal” and affirm that it is absurd, Ryan’s assertion prompts a healthy thinking-through of Catholic social teaching in the present economic and political context.
Ryan himself has correctly identified two principles as foundational for Catholic social thought, namely subsidiarity and solidarity. The first, implied throughout the whole of Catholic social theory but given clearest expression in Pope Pius XI’s encyclical Quadragesimo Anno, is that in the adjudication of matters political and economic, a preferential option should be given to the more local level of authority. For example, when seeking to solve a traffic flow issue in a suburb, appeal should be made to the municipal authority and not to the governor, even less to the Congress or the President. Only when a satisfactory solution is not achieved by the local government should one move to the next highest level of authority, etc. This principle by no means calls into question the legitimacy of an overarching federal power (something you sense in the more extreme advocates of the Tea Party), but it does indeed involve a prejudice in favor of the local. The principle of subsidiarity is implied in much of the “small is beautiful” movement as well as in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, which exhibits a steady mistrust of imperial power and a steady sympathy for the local, the neighborhood, the small business.
Now in Catholic social theory, subsidiarity is balanced by solidarity, which is to say, a keen sense of the common good, of the natural and supernatural connections that bind us to one another, of our responsibility for each other. I vividly remember former New York Gov. Mario Cuomo’s speech before the Democratic National Convention in San Francisco in 1984, in the course of which he effectively lampooned the idea that individual self-interest set utterly free would automatically redound to the general welfare. Catholic social thought does indeed stand athwart such “invisible hand” theorizing. It also recognizes that, always in accord with subsidiarity, sometimes the federal and state governments are the legitimate vehicles by which social solidarity is achieved. Does anyone today, outside of the most extreme circles, really advocate the repeal of Social Security, unemployment compensation, medical benefits for the elderly, food stamp programs, etc.?
Solidarity without subsidiarity can easily devolve into a kind of totalitarianism whereby “justice” is achieved either through outright manipulation and intimidation or through more subtle forms of social engineering. But subsidiarity without solidarity can result in a society marked by rampant individualism, a Gordon Gekko “greed is good” mentality, and an Ayn Rand/Nietzschean “objectivism” that positively celebrates the powerful person’s dominance of the weak. Catholic social theory involves the subtle balancing of these two great principles so as to avoid these two characteristic pitfalls. It does, for example, consistently advocate the free market, entrepreneurial enterprise, profit-making; and it holds out against all forms of Marxism and extreme socialism. But it also insists that the market be circumscribed by clear moral imperatives and that the wealthy realize their sacred obligation to aid the less advantaged. This last point is worth developing. Thomas Aquinas teaches that ownership of private property is to be allowed but that the usus (the use) of that privately held wealth must be directed toward the common good. This is because all of the earth and its goods belong, finally, to God and must therefore be used according to God’s purpose. Pope Leo XIII made this principle uncomfortably concrete when he specified, in regard to wealth, that once the demands of necessity and propriety have been met, the rest of what one owns (is that a correct adjustment? Owes to owns?) belongs to the poor. And in saying that, he was echoing an observation of John Chrysostom: “If you have two shirts in your closet, one belongs to you; the other belongs to the man who has no shirt.”
In his wonderful Orthodoxy, written over a hundred years ago but still remarkably relevant today, G.K. Chesterton said that Catholicism is marked through and through by the great both/and principle. Jesus is both divine and human. He is not one or the other; nor is he some bland mixture of the two; rather, he is emphatically one and emphatically the other. In a similar way, the Church is radically devoted to this world and radically devoted to the world to come. In the celibacy of its priests, it is totally against having children, and in the fruitful marriage of its lay people, it is totally for having children.
In its social teaching, this same sort of “bi-polar extremism” is on display. Solidarity? The Church is all for it. Subsidiarity? The Church couldn’t be more enthusiastic about it. Not one or the other, nor some bland compromise between the two, but both, advocated with equal vigor. I think it would be wise for everyone to keep this peculiarly Catholic balance in mind as the debate over Paul Ryan’s policies unfolds.