Today in Washington, D.C., Catholic nuns end their much-publicized nine-state bus tour to draw public attention to the “immoral” budget introduced in the House of Representatives this spring by Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI). After weeks of conservative Catholic bishops making headlines for their objections to contraception, the sisters’ tour has turned the spotlight back on a matter more shocking to most Catholics—rising poverty, widening inequality, and a draconian House budget that would cut critically needed programs and services for the poor.
“Congressman Ryan [is making] an outrageous claim … that the Catholic faith, that is all about serving the poor, validates his budget—which does nothing but decimate services to the poor and provide further tax cuts for the wealthy,” said executive director of the Catholic social justice group NETWORK and organizer of the tour Sister Simone Campbell. “By lifting up the work of Catholic sisters, we will demonstrate the very programs and services that will be decimated by the House budget.”
Though both approaches to the economy claim ties to Catholicism, only one is consistent with the long tradition of Catholic social justice in America. And because this debate will frame our dialogue and help shape our policy for months to come, weighing these faith-motivated claims matters to all Americans.
Progressive values have long shaped and been shaped by Catholic social teaching, and many of the rights and protections we enjoy today have roots in faith traditions. While religious doctrine should never function as a direct blueprint for legislation, certain core values in the Catholic tradition—including care for the poor and neglected, protection of the weak, restraint from greed, and promotion of community and the common good—have served as historic counterweights to injustice in society. At their best, these teachings are a moral yardstick by which to measure our policies and laws.
The end of the nuns’ bus tour is a good moment to revisit some of the moral traditions that underpin progressive notions of dignified work and an economy that works for everyone. Fittingly, we can examine these moral traditions through the lens of another important economic document written by another Catholic named John Augustine Ryan. This Ryan more closely resembles the nuns’ approach than Rep. Ryan and yields substantially different implications for national policy.
Opposing yardsticks for a moral economy
It was a document read ‘round the country—one that presented audacious economic principles as a blueprint for restructuring American society, produced by a political figure in the midst of rapid social change, economic inequality, and an antagonistic political climate.
The year was 1906, and John Ryan, a prominent theologian and social justice advocate, had just published A Living Wage. The document contained daring economic principles that could restructure American society, and with strong words for the government’s role in an economic system, John Ryan justified his argument by affirming that economics must be shaped by and rooted in morality.
Ryan’s advocacy for fair and equal pay helped spark the living wage movement, and his “Program for Social Reconstruction” (1919) is widely credited as a blueprint for President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. In fact, the document supported collective bargaining rights, the right to organize, and the prevention of child labor—all aspects of the Labor Relations Act in 1935; comprehensive insurance—realized in the Social Security Act of 1935; and a minimum wage—that fueled the movement toward the Fair Labor Standards act of 1938.
Flash forward to 2012, when Rep. Paul Ryan, also Catholic, introduced a federal budget proposal that would slash crucial social and economic programs for the poor and needy.
Rep. Paul Ryan insists that his Catholic faith helped shape his budget. In his view, debt is the ultimate moral concern for the government. It is the “overarching threat to our whole society today” which comes “at the expense of future generations.”
Yet after setting up this moral frame, Rep. Ryan stops short of outlining a way to actually reduce the debt. Instead his plan, which passed the House of Representatives, cuts $3.3 trillion from programs that are essential for the survival of low-income Americans like food stamps, Medicaid, and Pell Grants, and raises taxes on the middle class while simultaneously giving an average tax cut of $265,000 to those already making over $1 million a year.
When John Ryan wrote A Living Wage over a century ago, economic conditions were similar to now. Wealth was concentrated in the hands of a few and economic inequality was rampant. Millions of Americans struggled to make ends meet while the top one percent took home more than 40 percent of total national income. Our society debated the value of social programs and carried the unfulfilled promise of full protections and assistance for vulnerable groups in our society.
But the response of these two Ryans to inequality could not be more different. Rep. Paul Ryan’s proposals are so diametrically opposed to the just and supportive America envisioned by John Ryan that, were the latter alive today, he would be shocked at the religious and moral justifications being used to undermine the very causes to which he devoted his academic, spiritual, and political life.
Just as you don’t have to be Catholic to be shocked by Paul Ryan’s budget proposal today, you didn’t have to be religious in 1919 to recognize the progressive significance of John Ryan’s fights for some of our most beloved, now widely accepted policies.
John Ryan’s A Living Wage is useful in highlighting three critical concerns that guided him and his Catholic brothers and sisters in their decades-long fight against inequality. Curiously, all three concerns are absent from Rep. Ryan’s budget proposal—another example of just how far his budget falls from its own religious justifications.
Promoting the general welfare
It’s common sense that some laws are good for society. Without laws against theft, bribery, and extortion, for example, our freedom and well-being would be threatened. John Ryan took care to spell this out as a primary function of the State: at a bare minimum, a State is obligated to provide what is necessary to guarantee “real and effective liberty” for its members.
But for John Ryan, individuals are not truly free unless they also have the opportunity to achieve a basic standard of living. He writes, “Food, clothing, shelter, insurance, and mental and spiritual culture—all in reasonable degree—are the essential conditions of a decent livelihood.”
Ryan forcefully applied the idea of “regulation-as-necessary-for-liberty” in his arguments for social safety-net programs. Reads the Ryan-led, “Program for Social Reconstruction: All the Catholic authorities on the subject explicitly declare that this [living wage] is only the minimum of justice. The State should [also] make comprehensive provision for insurance against illness, invalidity, unemployment, and old age.”
The notion that true freedom includes more than basic physical survival—therefore requiring a degree of regulation so that one can thrive—is not just John Ryan’s idea. It is central to America’s founding documents. The opening line of the Constitution justifies the federal government’s existence in order to “promote the general welfare.”
In fact the Constitution served as the Founders’ acknowledgement that federal regulations and taxation are not only necessary for the common good but vital to the survival of a united country. They came to this conclusion after the abysmal failure of decentralized states to collect federal taxes, write, and fund programs to empower Americans.
But Rep. Paul Ryan’s proposed budget shrinks this idea of state-protected freedom. Instead he claims to rely upon the Catholic principal of subsidiarity: That wherever possible, the most local institution—the church, the neighborhood—should provide for the community, rather than the government. Ryan has gone so far as to argue that drastically reducing the size of the federal government would encourage community organizations to “take care of people who are down and out.”
This claim provoked a host of criticism from Catholic clergy and scholars who argued that he was misinterpreting the principal of subsidiarity as “either-or” rather than “both-and” when it came to working for the common good.
But Rep. Ryan’s plan is also impractical. States often lack the funding, administration, and oversight needed to enact major safety-net programs like Medicaid and SNAP. And houses of worship alone cannot reasonably be relied on to provide for all the poor, sick, and homeless individuals in their communities—even if we weren’t in an age of decreased giving and declining church attendance. According to one calculation, if SNAP were cut by his proposed $169 billion, every single church in America would have to come up with an additional $50,000 simply to feed those in need.
There’s a reason these initiatives are on the federal level, and John Ryan articulated this reason over 100 years ago: The U.S. government has assumed responsibility to promote the general welfare of its people, and this necessitates occasionally acting as the line of defense against hunger and abject poverty.
Every individual has inherent dignity
For John Ryan, the greatest marker for a just economy was not lack of debt—as Paul Ryan asserts—but promotion of human dignity. In advocating for fair labor laws he built upon the centuries-old Catholic belief that each person is created in the image of God and possesses inherent worth.
Ryan rejected an industrialized view of the individual as “a mere instrument” who is valued only for what he or she produces or possesses. Instead he insisted that all people should be treated “as an end” in themselves—meaning that they should be valued for who they are, not merely for what they do.
In a modern industrialized society, Ryan saw mandating a minimum living wage as one way to recognize a person’s dignity—providing support to those who cannot make a living through hard work is another way. Any society that denies these essential elements, to Ryan, is an affront to a person’s dignity and to God in whose image they are made.
In fact, a new study from the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities bears out John Ryan’s vision of a government based on dignity, fairness, and care. It found that over 90 percent of “entitlement” benefits go to people who are elderly, seriously disabled, or members of working households “not,” the study clarifies, “to able-bodied, working-age Americans who choose not to work.”
Rep. Paul Ryan’s cuts to programs that assist low-income Americans, by contrast, offer a warped sense of dignity. By giving $3 trillion in tax breaks to the richest American corporations and individuals—many of whom benefit from low taxes and hefty inheritances—his budget disconnects earnings from labor for those who are rich but not for those who are poor.
Instead, it aims to halve Medicaid—the most important government medical assistance for the poor; repeal Obamacare—which would cause 32 million Americans to become uninsured overnight; and cut $133 billion from the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program—which helps ensure that nearly 46 million impoverished American families, particularly children, don’t live in a constant state of hunger.
For the sick, the disabled, and the single working parent, these assistance programs are often what help individuals maintain their jobs and keep their children in school. And it is a fundamental way that the government recognizes the dignity of each member of society.
In justifying his budget, Ryan claims that “securing opportunity for the next generation” is critically important. Yet unfortunately his approach tramples the dignity of the poor and working class. It is hard to imagine Ryan vigorously defending tomorrow’s poor if he shows such little regard for the poor of today.
To present the future well-being of our society versus caring for the marginalized and impoverished in our society today as an “either/or” is another false choice. It is not only demoralizing and offensive, but would leave millions of Americans without the option of saving toward their own futures.
Individuals are stronger through community
The myth of the “rugged individual” is exactly that—a myth. In reality, healthy communities produce individuals who thrive. In A Living Wage, John Ryan writes, “The private proprietor too often forgets that his right of ownership is valid only as a means to his right of use, and that the latter is a right common to all mankind, which he is obliged to interpret and exercise within such limits that its realization shall be possible for his fellow man likewise.”
If this sounds familiar, it’s because these themes were strongly reinforced in a 2011 speech that went viral—a clip of current Massachusetts Democratic Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren. She put a modern spin on John Ryan’s views of community stating, “There is nobody in this country who got rich on his own—nobody. … but part of the underlying social contract is you take a hunk of that and pay forward for the next kid who comes along.”
The idea that individualism works best in the context of community is a central element of the American social contract. And ironically for Rep. Paul Ryan, this is perhaps nowhere clearer than in the “golden rule” philosophy of safety-net programs.
Community members are generally invested in safety-net programs not only because it is the moral thing to do, but also because they recognize that life is unpredictable. As recent tumultuous economic events prove, fortunes can turn quickly—today’s successful worker can be unemployed tomorrow and homeless soon after that. So just as paying taxes for bridges and fire fighters provide for our physical safety, paying taxes for social programs is important because we—our children, grandparents, or neighbors—could someday need them.
John Ryan’s teachings align Catholic and American values
Catholic theology and American values both demand approaches that help reduce pain and fear in a community, not increase it. Rep. Paul Ryan’s budget takes an anemic view of the government’s role and ability to protect its own. It also flies in the face of 100 years of Catholic theology and activism, championed by one of the authors of Catholic social justice and political economy.
“So long as men remain ethical beings,” John Ryan wrote in 1906, “they cannot ignore the moral aspects of any particular policy they recommend.”
And on the eve of the sisters’ bus tour, Sister Simone Campbell echoed John Ryan’s words saying, “This is a fight for the soul of our nation. Catholic social teaching says that the positive role of government is to counter the excesses of each culture. Our excess at this point is individualism, so the work of government is to counter that by emphasizing our responsibilities to each other.”
Sounds like John Ryan and the nuns agree on this one.
Catherine Woodiwiss is the Special Assistant for the Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative and Alexandra Scheeler is the Special Assistant for K-12 Education Policy at the Center for American Progress.
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