The Speaker and the social doctrine

TRIGGER WARNING: This column will speak well of Paul Ryan, the new Speaker of the House of Representatives, and compare him favorably to two liberal icons.

Congressman Paul Ryan on the campaign trail in 2012. Three years later he is elected Speaker of the House of Representatives.

Congressman Paul Ryan on the campaign trail in 2012. Three years later he is elected Speaker of the House of Representatives.

Over forty years of teaching and writing about Catholic social doctrine, I’ve gotten to know three men who had the opportunity to embody the Church’s social teaching for a national audience. Two of them couldn’t pull it off, for different reasons.

The first was R. Sargent Shriver, founding director of the Peace Corps, later head of Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty, still later ambassador to France and 1972 Democratic vice-presidential candidate. Sarge was a wonderful man who struck me as an instinctive Catholic social doctrine guy. He was far better-educated as a Catholic than his Kennedy in-laws. But he “got” the Church’s social doctrine, not as an intellectual exercise, but through his innate decency and his general approach to politics as a matter of “oughts” as well as a matter of power.

LBJ, it seems, thought seriously about putting Sarge on the 1964 Democratic ticket, until the in-laws made it clear that, if there was going to be any member of Clan Kennedy on the ticket in 1964, it would be Bobby, not Sarge. Yet that, in retrospect, was Sarge’s moment. He was ill-matched with George McGovern eight years later. As sitting vice-president and presidential nominee in 1968, though, he might have done what Hubert Humphrey couldn’t manage – pull off a Democratic victory. And a pro-life Democratic president in the early 1970s might have prevented (or at least forestalled) the party’s catastrophic embrace of the abortion license. Thus was a great opportunity lost.

Then there was Daniel Patrick Moynihan. Pat had the intellectual chops to grasp the conceptual architecture of the social doctrine from Leo XIII through John Paul II. And his own Hell’s-Kitchen-to Harvard background gave him street cred in talking about the “common good” and “subsidiarity.” Pat was also much taken with John Paul II and that great pope’s leadership of the Catholic human rights revolution against communist tyranny: a cause Pat himself valiantly promoted as ambassador to the United Nations. So the stars seemed aligned for a champion of the social doctrine to emerge on the national scene.

But in the primaries en route to his U.S. Senate election, Pat had barely beaten Bella Abzug (a distaff Bernie Sanders in floppy hats); he was scared of the New York Times; and he was a Democrat running in New York State after the party had nailed its banner to the mast of Roe v. Wade. So as the Times became the journalistic voice of Planned Parenthood and the life issues moved to the center of the Church’s social concern in America, Pat bailed.

He seemed to regret it toward the end, speaking favorably of a federal ban on partial-birth abortion. But with Pat, as with Sarge (if for quite different reasons), an opportunity was lost.

Now comes the third figure, the new Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, Paul Ryan. Like Sargent Shriver, Paul wants to lift up the poor –  better, he wants to help unleash the creativity of poor people so they can lift themselves up and be  agents of their own destiny. Like Pat Moynihan, Ryan understands the premises of Catholic social doctrine and their interaction across politics, economics, and culture; but unlike Pat, he isn’t afraid to be a pro-life politician, because he knows that what’s at stake in the life issues – in addition to the lives of the unborn, the elderly, and the severely handicapped – is the character of the country.

Paul Ryan combines Sarge’s natural decency and commitment to family with Pat’s policy-wonkery. Paul thought he had the greatest job in government: chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee. He traded his dream job for the Speaker’s gavel, not out of ambition, but from a sense of duty.

Now one of the key figures on the national stage, Paul Ryan brings to the Speaker’s rostrum a statesman’s commitment to the principles of Catholic social doctrine and a keen sense of the politically possible. Good news, say I.

The Speaker and the social doctrine

TRIGGER WARNING: This column will speak well of Paul Ryan, the new Speaker of the House of Representatives, and compare him favorably to two liberal icons.

Over forty years of teaching and writing about Catholic social doctrine, I’ve gotten to know three men who had the opportunity to embody the Church’s social teaching for a national audience. Two of them couldn’t pull it off, for different reasons.

The first was R. Sargent Shriver, founding director of the Peace Corps, later head of Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty, still later ambassador to France and 1972 Democratic vice-presidential candidate. Sarge was a wonderful man who struck me as an instinctive Catholic social doctrine guy. He was far better-educated as a Catholic than his Kennedy in-laws. But he “got” the Church’s social doctrine, not as an intellectual exercise, but through his innate decency and his general approach to politics as a matter of “oughts” as well as a matter of power.

LBJ, it seems, thought seriously about putting Sarge on the 1964 Democratic ticket, until the in-laws made it clear that, if there was going to be any member of Clan Kennedy on the ticket in 1964, it would be Bobby, not Sarge. Yet that, in retrospect, was Sarge’s moment. He was ill-matched with George McGovern eight years later. As sitting vice-president and presidential nominee in 1968, though, he might have done what Hubert Humphrey couldn’t manage – pull off a Democratic victory. And a pro-life Democratic president in the early 1970s might have prevented (or at least forestalled) the party’s catastrophic embrace of the abortion license. Thus was a great opportunity lost.

Then there was Daniel Patrick Moynihan. Pat had the intellectual chops to grasp the conceptual architecture of the social doctrine from Leo XIII through John Paul II. And his own Hell’s-Kitchen-to Harvard background gave him street cred in talking about the “common good” and “subsidiarity.” Pat was also much taken with John Paul II and that great pope’s leadership of the Catholic human rights revolution against communist tyranny: a cause Pat himself valiantly promoted as ambassador to the United Nations. So the stars seemed aligned for a champion of the social doctrine to emerge on the national scene.

But in the primaries en route to his U.S. Senate election, Pat had barely beaten Bella Abzug (a distaff Bernie Sanders in floppy hats); he was scared of the New York Times; and he was a Democrat running in New York State after the party had nailed its banner to the mast of Roe v. Wade. So as the Times became the journalistic voice of Planned Parenthood and the life issues moved to the center of the Church’s social concern in America, Pat bailed.

He seemed to regret it toward the end, speaking favorably of a federal ban on partial-birth abortion. But with Pat, as with Sarge (if for quite different reasons), an opportunity was lost.

Now comes the third figure, the new Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, Paul Ryan. Like Sargent Shriver, Paul wants to lift up the poor –  better, he wants to help unleash the creativity of poor people so they can lift themselves up and be  agents of their own destiny. Like Pat Moynihan, Ryan understands the premises of Catholic social doctrine and their interaction across politics, economics, and culture; but unlike Pat, he isn’t afraid to be a pro-life politician, because he knows that what’s at stake in the life issues – in addition to the lives of the unborn, the elderly, and the severely handicapped – is the character of the country.

Paul Ryan combines Sarge’s natural decency and commitment to family with Pat’s policy-wonkery. Paul thought he had the greatest job in government: chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee. He traded his dream job for the Speaker’s gavel, not out of ambition, but from a sense of duty.

Now one of the key figures on the national stage, Paul Ryan brings to the Speaker’s rostrum a statesman’s commitment to the principles of Catholic social doctrine and a keen sense of the politically possible. Good news, say I.

COMING UP: On Fathers and Christian Masculinity

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The Year of St. Joseph points us to Jesus’ adoptive father, Joseph, as the essential model for fathers. Joseph not only manifests genuine masculinity, he also images God’s own fatherhood, as Pope Francis makes clear in his apostolic letter, Patris Corde: “In his relationship to Jesus, Joseph was the earthly shadow of the heavenly Father: he watched over him and protected him, never leaving him to go his own way.” Jesus, though the Son of God, obeyed Joseph, learned from him, and worked with him, acknowledging Joseph as a true expression of God’s own fatherhood.  

God does not just use fatherhood as an image of himself, because he himself is Father, even within his own triune life. Earthly fatherhood comes forth from him and should manifest his life and love. St. Paul speaks of honoring the “Father, from whom all fatherhood in heaven and on earth is named” (Eph 3:15). God wants everyone to be able to see his own fatherly love and called certain men to share in his own paternal gift of bringing forth life and caring for others. Every father is called to be liked Joseph, “an earthly shadow of the heavenly Father” for his own family. 

Our culture, however, often denigrates masculinity, sometimes viewing even its proper expressions as toxic. We too often see maleness in its fallenness — dominating and selfish — rather than showing self-sacrificial service. In fact, later in Ephesians, Paul speaks of the true vocation of the husband and father: “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (Eph 5:25). He also speaks of the role of fatherhood: “Do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord” (Eph 6:4). Paul shows us the goal of fatherhood — sacrificing himself for the flourishing of the family by putting the good of his wife and children before his own desires.   

No matter what the contrary voices of our culture say, we need strong men and fathers. God created man and woman in complementarity, and they need each other to thrive, helping the other in relation to their own strengths and weaknesses. Children need the strong presence of a father to discipline and teach, as Paul reminds us. Study after study has shown that fathers have the largest impact on the faith of their children. Christian Smith explains in his sociological study, Young Catholic America, that “the faith of Catholic fathers is powerfully determinative of the future faith of their children (125). The same can be said for general wellbeing and success. When fathers are absent or refuse to exercise their role, a moral and spiritual vacuum appears. A strong majority of felons, for instance, grew up without fathers in the home.  

St. Joseph helps us to understand the strength of Christian fatherhood. First, like any good husband, Joseph listened — not just to his wife but also to God. Woken up frequently by angels, he demonstrated obedience and trust, quickly leaving everything behind to follow God’s instructions and to protect his family. We also know Joseph for his work as a carpenter and builder, content to live simply and to work hard. Importantly, he also taught Jesus how to work, showing that fathers model and teach by drawing their children into their life and work. And we can also learn from Joseph’s humility, serving the Incarnate God and his Mother without even a single recorded word in the Gospels.  

This humility points us to the essence of Christian fatherhood. Although living with two perfect people, Joseph was still called to lead. He quietly and humbly did what was needed for his family and taught his own maker how to share in his work. Fathers do not lead in order to be in charge or to get their own way. They lead because God asks them to care for and protect their families. Fathers and mothers share in the great and beautiful partnership of family life, although fathers cannot simply sit back and let mom take the lead in the spiritual life, as they are often tempted to do. Like Joseph, fathers should act firmly and lovingly to put God and the family before self, obeying God and leading the family in the right direction. They are called to model faith, work, and sacrifice to their children. 

On Father’s Day we can affirm that masculinity and fatherhood are not just good — they are essential to understanding God and his plan for human flourishing. If our culture turns around, it will be because, in large part, Christian men stand up and fight. As Christians, we cannot give in to the culture’s attempt to denigrate masculinity and fatherhood or to pit men and women against each other. We can use this celebration to affirm the essential role that our fathers play, leading their families like St. Joseph.