Catholic Priest (expert on economics) on Congressman Ryan’s Budget and Church Doctrine

What is needed in this whole process, and I guess a politician doesn’t take all these things into consideration… 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.

What is needed in this whole process, and I guess a politician doesn’t take all these things into consideration… 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.

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.

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