Until recently, Congressman Paul Ryan repeatedly expressed his admiration and enthusiasm for the writings of Ayn Rand and he is reliably reported to have required that all of his Congressional staff to read Rand's Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged. Rand extolled unbridled selfishness and condemned altruism as a misguided instinct.
Now that he is the presumptive GOP Vice Presidential candidate, however, Ryan has discovered the need to counter the public perceptions that he is an uncaring disciple of the gospel of selfishness. For that reason, Ryan has begun to insist that his worldview is largely inspired by the writings of Thomas Aquinas:"If somebody is going to try to paste a person's view on epistemology to me, then give me Thomas Aquinas. Don't give me Ayn Rand."
But is Ryan being truthful? Is Ryan, in fact, a Catholic conservative?
The kind of anti-government rhetoric advanced by Congressman Ryan is at loggerheads with the Catholic social thought. That tradition, which traces its lineage from Aristotle, through Thomas Aquinas, to Catholic philosophers today, is fundamentally at odds with the kind of anti-social individualism that dominates current GOP political discourse. In stark contrast to Catholic social teaching, that discourse draws its values from the tradition of classical liberalism that emerged after the Protestant Reformation and was trumpeted by Thomas Hobbes, and, most importantly, John Locke and his intellectual disciples, David Hume and Adam Smith. Because Locke's political legacy inspired the Founding Fathers, was encoded into the constitutional machinery of the United States, and has become embedded into popular consciousness, the gospel of selfishness had already found a receptive and enthusiastic audience along before Ayn Rand's "Objectivism" was touted as something new and fashionable.
In contrast to Congressman Ryan's embrace of an ideology based upon radical individualism, Thomas Aquinas argued that, with respect to relations among one another, human beings are obliged to seek as the summum bonum - the common good - which is synonymous with justice. As the primary object of all human aspiration, true justice is something that can be achieved only through the law acting as an instrument of the social order. Aquinas quotes Isodore, "Laws are enacted for no private profit, but for the common benefit of citizens." Further, "A law properly speaking, regards first and foremost the order of the common good..."
Aquinas also insisted that justice is based upon a notion of proportionality,"Justice is a habit whereby a man renders to each one his due by a constant and perpetual will" and "Just as love of God includes love of one's neighbor,...so is the service of God rendering to each one his due." Finally, Aquinas invokes Cicero to the effect that "...'the object of justice is to keep men together in society and mutual intercourse.' Now this implies relationship of one man to another. Therefore justice is concerned only about our dealings with others."
To the present, in addition, the Catholic conservative political tradition, harkening back to the Greeks and Romans, continues to insist that individuals realize their full potential and humanity to the extent to which they participate as full members of a political society - as citizens.That notion of citizenship, based upon mutual obligations and reciprocal rights, remains central to that political philosophy.
Hence, while Catholic social thought is essentially communitarian, Ryan and his right-wing antisocial individualists confidently assert that society is an abstraction and that only the individual is real. The Spanish philosopher Miguel de Unamuno, who was steeped in the tradition of Catholic social thought and epistemology, countered that the self is an abstraction and he rejected the argument that one's ability to reason and the quality of that reasoning are unique attributes which belong to the solitary self as opposed to the social self. Because of the self's ephemeral nature, the knowledge, customs and habits contained within a given political culture are essential guideposts to properly orient the self to its social self and to other social selves and to bind each of us as persons to our ancestors and our descendants. Which, then, is the abstraction: the individual or the society?
If man is a reasoning being, Unamuno notes that this ability to reason, alone, is incontrovertible evidence that the individual is a social being: "But man does not live alone; he is not an isolated individual, but a member of society. There is a little truth in the saying that the individual, like the atom, is an abstraction. Yes, the atom apart from the universe is as much an abstraction as the universe apart from the atom. And if the individual maintains his existence by the instinct of self-preservation, society owes its being and maintenance to the individual's instinct of perpetuation. And from this instinct, or rather from society, springs reason." Further, "Reason, that which we call reason, reflex and reflective knowledge, the distinguishing mark of man, is a social product."
Unlike Locke who argued - as Paul Ryan has agreed - that the individual is the only concrete realty, that society is a phantasm, and that government is an artificial construct created solely by contract, conservatives contend that political societies, as historical entities, are the only operative reality: Political societies exist over the course of history, whereas individuals, as mere mortals, suffer abbreviated life spans.
It was Edmund Burke, a Catholic sympathizer and an alleged favorite of
William Buckley, who observed that political society exists as an
historical project into which individuals enter and depart while sharing
a common destiny: "...society is indeed, a contract....It is to be
looked on with reverence; because it is not a partnership in
things...It is a partnership in all science, a partnership in all art, a
partnership in every virtue and in all perfection. As the ends of such a
partnership cannot be obtained in many generations, it becomes a
partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who
are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born..."
Catholic social thought emphasizes that the state exists to serve the needs of civil society; not as liberals would have it, the needs of individuals. As such, the state should not be viewed as a passive instrument designed solely to protect private property or to protect rights, as distinguished from obligations. Instead, consistent with the teaching of St. Thomas of Aquinas, Jacques Maritain reminds us that "...the primary reason for which men, united in political society, need
the State, is the order of justice. On the other hand, social justice is the crucial need of modern societies. As a result, the primary duty of the modern state is the enforcement of social justice."
Thomas Aquinas taught that, since God endowed each man in his own image and likeness, man has become the steward for the earth, and for all of its creatures and its bounty. For that reason Catholic social philosophy to the present remains deeply skeptical about arguments for an unregulated market economy dominated by the profit motive and the accumulation of wealth. As Aquinas observed,"It is lawful for a man to hold private property" but "Man should not consider his outward possessions as his own, but as common to all, so as to share them without hesitation when others are in need ..." Historically also, Catholic social doctrine has condemned, in theory if not in practice, aggrandizement and selfishness. Avaritia (greed) and luxuria (extravagance) are counted as two of the Seven Deadly Sins.
Aquinas' skepticism about the importance of accumulating material possessions has never been shared by Congressman Ryan. Rather, Ryan, as a radical individualist, would agree with John Locke that "The great and chief end of men uniting into commonwealth and putting themselves under government is the preservation of their property."
Part of the confusion over whether Ryan's politics reflect consistent Catholic social teaching is directly attributable to the confusion and timidity of the current U.S. Bishops. Obsessed with matters sexual and reproductive, blind to enormous scandal in their own midst, and chosen primarily because of their obsequious, unquestioning loyalty to an increasingly rigid and doctrinaire pontiff, many U.S. Bishops have chosen to mute their fidelity and responsibility to teach and affirm historic Catholic teaching. Instead, they have entered into a Faustian bargain not to offend the GOP politicians like Ryan who agree with them solely on issues of contraception and reproductive rights. Although Bishop Stephen Blaire, chairman of the bishops' Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development, decried Ryan's proposed budget cuts this past spring for having failed the moral test of fairness, Cardinal Dolan of New York, sadly, continues to express his admiration for the Congressman and to praise Ryan's commitment to Catholic values.
In contrast to Catholic social teaching, Paul Ryan has never expressed a commitment to the idea of social justice, nor is he able to comprehend the notion that the public interest is something different and distinct from a mere aggregation of self-interests. He would also undoubtedly disagree with Thomas Hill Green, the father of "modern liberalism" who, after he witnessed the pervasive human misery spawned by the Industrial Revolution, disavowed laissez-faire and concluded that government should be used as a positive instrument for the public good.
Faced with a similar specter of poverty and economic inequality today, Congressman Ryan remains utterly oblivious to the suffering all around him. How can this insensitivity and indifference, Cardinal Dolan and other apologists notwithstanding, be reconciled with the message of the gospels and the social thought of Thomas Aquinas?