Column: Not my kind of Catholic intellectual

Published on August 14, 2012.

I would like to explore the idea that an American congressman currently in the news represents the emergence of a new kind of Catholic intellectual, but let me begin with a short note about my kind of Christian politician.

When I saw the Inquirer’s front-page photo of President Aquino visiting flooded areas last week, joined by Risa Hontiveros, Joel Villanueva and other close political allies, I cringed. I thought it was a mistake. The opportunity to join the President as he made his rounds has an undeniable appeal; it was a chance to make common cause yet again with a consoler-in-chief who was also a friend. It was also an opportunity to be of practical service, to physically distribute relief goods or to listen patiently to survivor stories.

But Hontiveros, who is a friend of mine, and Villanueva et al., are also on the President’s shortlist of senatorial candidates. Their appearance on Mr. Aquino’s truck could not but be seen as premature campaigning, and of the worst, opportunistic kind. They should swear off similar sorties in the future.

* * *

Paul Ryan, the Wisconsin congressman that American presidential candidate Mitt Romney named over the weekend as his running mate, is often referred to as the intellectual force behind the present-day Republican Party—with emphasis on the intellect. The Washington Post, for instance, ran a story the day after the announcement with the following headline: “Paul Ryan: Midwesterner, Catholic, intellectual.”

By all accounts, he has a Clintonesque reputation for policy wonkiness; he was the architect behind the controversial Republican budget plan; and he has a real gift for thinking on his feet. (The concluding part of Jonathan Chait’s straight-talking profile in New York magazine makes for spine-tingling reading—and I don’t mean that in a flattering-to-Ryan way.)

While I am mindful that even an extraordinarily astute, detail-oriented politician like Franklin Delano Roosevelt can fall short in the eyes of a true intellectual heavyweight (I think it was Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes who described FDR as “a second-class intellect but a first-class temperament”), I will not dispute the often repeated characterization of Ryan as an intellectual.

As for his Catholic background, he has increasingly referenced it in recent years (at the same time downplaying the influence of the unrepentant capitalist and atheist Ayn Rand, whose novels he had previously embraced). When he presented his controversial budget plan, he described the document as the fruit of his Catholic faith.

* * *

But in fact, Ryan’s noxious budget plan was so antipoor even the American Catholic bishops’ conference, allied with the Republicans on prolife issues, criticized it as immoral.

One of the letters the bishops wrote to the US Congress contesting the Ryan plan’s “unacceptable cuts to hunger and nutrition programs” specified three moral criteria to guide budget cuts, including a preferential option for “the least of these,” then concluded: “Just solutions, however, must require shared sacrifice by all, including raising adequate revenues, eliminating unnecessary military and other spending, and fairly addressing the long-term costs of health insurance and retirement programs [all of which the Ryan plan opposed]. The House-passed budget resolution fails to meet these moral criteria. We join other Christian leaders in insisting ‘a circle of protection’ be drawn around essential programs that serve poor and vulnerable people.”

And how did Ryan, a “faithful Catholic” (Romney, Aug. 11, 2012), respond?

We get part of the answer from the tenor of his lecture last April at Georgetown University, a Jesuit-run institution whose professors also criticized the Ryan budget plan. The quotes that follow were reported by the tireless Dana Milbank: “I suppose that there are some Catholics who for a long time thought they had a monopoly . . . . on the social teaching of our church . . . . The work I do as a Catholic holding office conforms to the social doctrine as best I can make of it.”

* * *

Perhaps not very many Filipino readers would regard the gay conservative writer Andrew Sullivan as a Catholic intellectual. One of the world’s most influential bloggers, Sullivan was asked last November by the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy to give the 22nd annual Theodore H. White Lecture at the Harvard Kennedy School.

He used the occasion to take square aim at Ryan’s party. “I do not recognize the current Republican Party as in any way a conservative force in this society.” He then gave an impassioned defense of conservatism as he defined it (the bracketed passages that follow supplement my own notes):

“Conservatism is fundamentally deeply about the limits of human beings. It’s about the tragedy of the human condition. It is about the paradox of progress. It is about questioning the liberal assumption that we have a solution to the problems of mankind. It understands that society is not a formula. It cannot be reduced to mathematical equations, as in economics. That social science is an oxymoron, that culture matters, that we grow up and evolve and absorb so much from our parents and our countries [and our cultures that as adults we really are across the world different people and constantly changing]. That this is a dynamic landscape full of new plants and ancient old trees. [That our job as conservatives is to tend to it, to prune it, to manage it, to garden this beautiful inheritance.]”

My own notes mangled that last line, rendering “garden” as “guard it,” but otherwise, and as a liberal Catholic, I must say I found much to agree with.



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Filed under Newsstand: Column, Nieman Notes, Readings in Politics

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