Speaker Ryan invites a social doctrine conversation

George Weigel

CNN is not the customary locale-of-choice for a catechesis on Catholic social doctrine. But that’s what Paul Ryan, Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, offered viewers of a CNN national town hall meeting on the evening of August 21. Challenged with a semi-“Gotcha!” question by Sinsinawa Dominican Sister Erica Jordan, who not-so-subtly suggested that Ryan’s approach to health care reform, tax reform, and welfare reform was in conflict with the Church’s social teaching, the very Catholic Speaker replied that he completely agreed with Sister Erica that God is “always on the side of the poor and dispossessed;” the real question at issue was, how do public officials, who are not God, create public policies that empower the poor and dispossessed to be not-poor and not-dispossessed?

Congressman Ryan then laid out an approach to alleviating poverty and empowering the poor that seemed to me entirely congruent with the core Catholic social ethical principles of subsidiarity and solidarity. Solidarity with the poor is a moral imperative, Ryan agreed, but solidarity should not be measured by inputs – how many federal dollars go into anti-poverty programs? – but by outcomes: Are poor people who can live independent and fruitful lives being helped by our welfare dollars to develop the skills and habits that will enable them to be self-reliant, constructive citizens? The moral obligation of solidarity is not met by programs that perpetuate welfare dependency.

Speaker Ryan has been a longstanding advocate of decentralizing and (as he puts it) “customizing” social welfare programs. That means abandoning one-size-fits-all attempts to address poverty and looking to the states, where a lot of the creativity in American government resides these days, for approaches that actually empower the poor, because they treat poor people as men and women with potential to be unleashed, not simply as clients to be maintained. Proposals to decentralize social welfare programs and give the states the funds necessary to conduct all sorts of customized efforts to empower the poor – crafted so that each “fits” the vast array of distinct circumstances we find in impoverished America – strike me as a sensible application of the social doctrine’s principle of subsidiarity. That principle, first articulated by Pope Pius XI in 1931, teaches us to leave decision-making at the lowest possible level in society, closest to those most directly affected by the policy in question. Paul Ryan thinks Washington doesn’t have to decide everything; Pius XI would have agreed.

The fact that poverty remains a serious problem in the United States after the federal government has spent $22 trillion dollars on social welfare programs over the past fifty years should have taught us all something about the complex problems of empowering the poor. No one with any sense or experience imagines that he or she has the silver-bullet answer to poverty in all its social, cultural, economic, and political dimensions; I know my friend Speaker Ryan doesn’t think he does. But unlike those who insist on measuring an official’s or a party’s commitment to the poor by inputs rather than outcomes (an approach that tends to instrumentalize the poor and render social welfare policy a cash transaction rather than a human encounter), Paul Ryan and reform conservatives like him are willing to face the fact that there is no direct correlation between magnitude-of-dollar-inputs and success-of-human-outcomes when it comes to anti-poverty programs. Inner-city Catholic schools (the Church in America’s most effective social welfare program) demonstrate that time and again: they spend less than the government schools and their students learn much more – and not just in quantifiable, standardized-testing terms.

America needs many serious conversations in this age of the demagogic tweet and the rabid, talk-radio sound-bite. One of them is about the scandal of poverty amidst vast wealth and the empowerment of the poor. That conversation is not advanced when, as happened after the CNN broadcast, smug partisans attack a serious Catholic public official by suggesting that he’s deficient in both his moral commitment to the poor and his understanding of Catholic social doctrine. Paul Ryan is no more the reincarnation of Simon Legree than Sister Erica Jordan and her fellow-Sinsinawa Dominicans are the reincarnation of Ingrid Bergman/Sister Mary Benedict in The Bells of St. Mary’s. Keeping that in mind would help foster the thoughtful debate the Speaker, and the country, would welcome.

COMING UP: Superheroes? Stardust? Or vessels of the Incarnation?

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When I was first introduced to the fascinations of the DNA double-helix in a biology class at Baltimore’s St. Paul Latin High School, fifty years ago, the “unraveling” of this key to unlocking the mysteries of human genetics had taken place just a dozen years before. Yet in the five decades since my classmates and I built plastic models of the double-helix, humanity’s knowledge of its genetic code has grown exponentially. And it seems likely that, as a species, we’re only at the threshold of our capacity to use this knowledge for good or ill.

Take, for example, “CRISPR”: the acronym for a DNA-editing technique more formally known as Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats. Thanks to CRISPR and the rapid pace of experimentation with its possibilities, scientists may be able to cure HIV or hemophilia or muscular dystrophy or some cancers by editing the genes of those suffering from those maladies: and those “edits” would be merely therapeutic, as they wouldn’t be passed along to future generations. But in time, Crispr’s capabilities to “edit” DNA sequences might be used to alter sperm, egg, or embryonic DNA for purposes of what is known in the trade as “human enhancement.”

Which really means human reinvention.

The temptation to use knowledge to break through the seemingly built-in limitations of the human condition, creating superheroes and making the world anew, has been part of the human story for a long time. The ancient Greeks pondered it through the myth of Prometheus. In the eighth chapter of the Acts of the Apostles, Simon Magus tried to buy the gifts of the Spirit that fell upon converts through the laying on of hands by Peter and John. In politics-besotted modernity, utopian and totalitarian ideologies tried to reinvent the human by radically altering social conditions, raising up what one such lethal experiment unblushingly called “New Soviet Man.” The catastrophic results of such projects, from the French Revolution through the Nazis’ eugenic elimination of “life unworthy of life” to Mao Zedong’s “Great Leap Forward,” have put an end, we may hope, to politically driven “human enhancement.” But the possibilities of genetically driven “human enhancement” now have scientists talking about the “immortality project” – by which they don’t mean the Resurrection of the Dead.

Curiously, though, this 21st-century Prometheanism, which celebrates the infinite possibilities of genetically modified humanity, runs parallel to the claims by the New Atheists and others that we’re just congealed stardust, the accidental result of cosmic biochemical processes that just happened. So here’s the strange position in which we find ourselves. One gang of materialists says that we can be supermen; another says that we’re just meat, if interesting meat. Christians are frequently dismissed by the first gang of materialists as nay-sayers with a soured, cramped view of the humanity and its possibilities; the proponents of the congealed-star-dust model of the human condition dismiss us as hopeless, even infantile, romantics.

The truth of the matter is that Christianity has a far higher view of the human than either of the dominant materialist gangs in today’s high culture. That view was brilliantly outlined by St. Augustine more than a millennium and a half ago:

“We must keep before our eyes the very source of grace, taking its origins in Christ, our head, and flowing through all his members according to the capacity of each. The grace which makes any man a Christian from the first moment of his coming to believe is the same grace which made this man the Christ from his coming to be as man. The Spirit through whom men are reborn is the same Spirit through which Christ was born. The Spirit by whom we receive forgiveness of sins is the same Spirit who brought it about that Christ knew no sin.”

When the “immortality project” was cranking up in earnest, Cardinal Francis George of Chicago said to me, “You know, we’re going to spend the rest of our lives explaining to people that suffering and death are good for you.” It’s not an easy sell, however true it may be. But it’s a truth easier to hear, and bear, if we imagine ourselves, not as genetically enhanced superheroes or congealed stardust, but as the stuff from which God became incarnate among us.