Interview: Catholic Priest on Ryan Budget and Church Doctrine

House Budget Committee Chair Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) said in a recent interview that the House Republican budget reflects Catholic doctrine. Some have criticized those remarks, so The Christian Post spoke to Roman Catholic priest Robert Sirico to get another perspective.

A group of about 60 politically liberal Christian leaders wrote a letter taking exception to Ryan's comments, calling it "morally indefensible." In an interview with The Christian Post, Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) also said the Ryan budget is in opposition to Catholic teaching. And on Tuesday, two Bishops from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops entered the fray with separate letters denouncing proposed spending reductions in programs for the poor.

Though the Rev. Sirico believes that Ryan did not quite explain Catholic teaching correctly, he finds more to like in the Ryan budget than these dissenters.

Sirico is president of Acton Institute, a conservative think tank aimed at helping religious leaders better understand how economic principles can be used to address social problems. His latest book, Defending the Free Market: The Moral Case for a Free Economy, is due May 22.

The following is an edited version of his Thursday interview with CP:

CP: What is "subsidiarity" and "preferential option for the poor"?

Sirico: Subsidiarity is that needs are best met at the local level and that we only go up to higher levels of social organization when there is a manifest failure at lower levels. And, even when an intervention is justified, it should never be seen as permanent. It should not substitute for society as a whole in terms of meeting human needs. The mediating institutions should take up those needs and the higher levels of social organization are only temporary.

"Preferential option for the poor" is a relatively new term. The core idea is solidarity. I know that Ryan speaks about "preferential option for the poor" as one of the Church's social teaching. I think he really means solidarity and one expression of solidarity is "preferential option for the poor." Solidarity is just the recognition of ourselves in other people, especially in their need. We recognize that human beings are connected to one another by nature and no one is an atomistic individual. The definition of the human person is that he or she is simultaneously individual and social. Autonomous and in relationship. And, these two principles, subsidiarity and solidarity, really reflect these dimensions of human nature, in a way.

CP: Ryan said that subsidiarity is essentially federalism and that the budget considered the poor and vulnerable by reducing or cutting programs that lead the poor to become dependent on government. Did Ryan seem to understand those Catholic doctrines correctly?

Sirico: Subsidiarity is not "essentially" federalism. There is a dimension of federalism that reflects some of the values of subsidiarity. But, federalism is a political structure. And, subsidiarity is more of a social and theological principle, so that federalism speaks about one way of governing people. You could have subsidiarity in a society that didn't live under an American form of government.

There is a kinship. I wouldn't say it is essentially the same, but there is a kinship between the two, that you should leave things to people who know best. The motivation of subsidiarity is that human needs are complex and sometimes very nuanced. When you pull back and make human needs abstract, you don't get to the core of what the need is, so that people closest to human need can make that determination better than bureaucrats or politicians that have other pressures and motivations far away from the person who is actually in need.

The other goal of subsidiarity is to help a society develop a resiliency so that it is operating on the basis of charity. Where we see human needs and we respond out of our nature, out of human kindness to other people. And, if you intervene too quickly, what ends up happening is you cause these other institutions, or other incentives, or other motivations on the part of citizens to atrophy. Because, they figure, well, I have limited resources and if the government is going to take care of that then I'll use my resources to do something else. Not to say that they'll consume them, but maybe they'll use them for someone else who doesn't have that need.

I think what Ryan was trying to get to, in pulling back food stamps and other things, is that we create this system of greater need for charity and greater incentive for people to get involved.

Of course, what is needed in this whole process, and I guess a politician doesn't take all these things into consideration, especially when drafting the particulars of legislation, is that we need a moral transformation, a cultural transformation.

If we are so accustomed to people having their needs met by the government, we don't have the institutions, or the habits of building these institutions the way we once did. We need to get into that again. I think stepping back, politically, from these questions, is going to invite a greater response from people who are charitable. And, I think also by limiting the state, you have a lot of resources that are wasted now by the bureaucracy. The bureaucracy takes a great deal of money to transfer money, because you have to pay the bureaucracy. I think society then has a chance to become more prosperous by utilizing its resources more efficiently.

CP: Much of the criticism of what Ryan said can be summed up this way: God is for the poor, the Ryan budget cuts programs for the poor, therefore, the Ryan budget must be unbiblical.

Sirico: Well, that is an astoundingly simplistic argument. Because, it is true God is for the poor, and God mandates and demands that his people be in solidarity with the poor, but I challenge those writers of that letter, the 60-odd theologians, to show me where it says the government has to be the recourse of first resort. It's nowhere. They just skip right over that. They don't ask any of these questions.

It's a question of how to do this, not whether or not this should be done. Ryan is not saying this should not be done. He is saying I have a better way to do it. Now that is a debate over prudence, not dogma, as such. He is engaging the prudential level of this debate, and they are not.

It's also intriguing, by the way, to see how many names on that list are dissenters from Catholic dogma. Questions of whether or not you should have food stamps, what the minimum wage should be if you have one, all those are prudential questions. They are not part of Catholic dogma. The Catholic Church, including the bishops conferences, doesn't even profess to have the competency to define that dogmatically. There is no economic system that the Catholic Church endorses. All of that is part of an open debate. But, [a number of] the people who have signed that letter dissent from the Catholic Church on abortion, women's ordination, same-sex marriage, a whole host of things.

CP: When Catholics faithfully seek to apply the tenets of their faith to public policy, should they all be coming to the same conclusion?

Sirico: No. I would like to think they would. I would hope they would all agree with me, because I believe what I believe is true. Right? And, they do too. But, what the Church says, repeatedly, to give you one example, John Paul XXIII said, and I'm paraphrasing, when it comes to applying these principles to the details of legislation, Catholics will have different points of view, and the important thing is that they should engage these things charitably.

CP: Ryan's remarks has brought more attention to the Catholic doctrines of subsidiarity and preferential option of the poor. Do you find that exciting?

Sirico: Yeah. It's an ongoing debate I find exciting for my book. Even though the book is written from an ecumenical perspective it gets right into the issue. I think this is going to be the abiding debate into the presidential campaign, because, despite the attempt to secularize society, the American people remain very religious. Obviously, some more sophisticated than others, both on the left and the right. But, it is a very good debate we need to be having. We need to do it charitably, but we need to do it frankly.

CP: Anything else you would like to add?

Sirico: The operating paradigm [of those who have been critical of the Ryan budget] is that there is a static amount of wealth in the world and that the essential moral undertaking is to find ways to redistribute that to ensure the well-being of the poor. That is their essential worldview. What I'm saying, what I think Ryan is trying to say, and I'm not a Republican by the way, is that wealth is dynamic. You can create more of it and if you do that, then it is not a question of dividing up the pie, but growing the pie. It is all the difference in the world between an economic view that is zero-sum and economic view of the world that is creative and dynamic.

CP: So, you would say that Ryan is coming from a Catholic perspective, also wants what is best for the poor, but sees a different way to get there?

Sirico: Exactly.

Free Religious Freedom Updates

Join thousands of others to get the FREEDOM POST newsletter for free, sent twice a week from The Christian Post.

Most Popular

Free Religious Freedom Updates

A religious liberty newsletter that is a must-read for people of faith.

More In Politics