What do you call someone who thinks that the sources of human solidarity are mostly to be found in personal encounters, the kind that take place in the context of civil society? What do you call someone who thinks that a flourishing civil society depends, not only on a certain degree of freedom but also on a moral culture that directs that freedom toward the common good?
In short, what do you call someone who says the kind of thing Congressman Paul Ryan said recently in a radio interview with Bill Bennett?
We have got this tailspin of culture, in our inner cities in particular, of men not working and just generations of men not even thinking about working or learning the value and the culture of work, and so there is a real culture problem here that has to be dealt with. Everybody’s got to get involved. So this is what we talk about when we talk about civil society. If you’re driving from the suburb to the sports arena downtown by these blighted neighborhoods, you can’t just say “I’m paying my taxes, government’s going to fix that.” You need to get involved. You need to get involved yourself, whether through a good mentor program or some religious charity, whatever it is to make a difference, and that’s how we help resuscitate our culture.
You might call that “someone who gets it.” Or, if you’re one the enlightened custodians of public opinion with a vested interest in keeping Republicans off the Democrats’ anti-poverty turf, you might call him a “racist.”
That’s right; to the enlightened liberal elite, Ryan’s use of “culture” and “inner city” are examples of bigoted “dog-whistles” or racist code words. (Rich Lowery explains it well, here.) As political charges of coded racism go, this one gets pretty high marks for fatuousness.
But what if we take Ryan’s critics seriously? What if we assume the congressman’s comments were racially motivated? Well, then what we’re left with a very strange kind of racism, indeed.
What kind of “racist” sees a struggling black community (unemployment among African Americans is more than twice that of whites) as an occasion to insist that our obligations to solidarity do not—must not—exclude anyone, regardless of what “zip code” they live in? What kind of “racist” believes in a moral imperative to alleviate poverty in the African American community and that doing so requires more than government programs? What kind of “racist” believes that meeting the demands of solidarity doesn’t end with paying taxes and that we all have a personal responsibility to “get involved” to “make a difference” in resuscitating African American communities?
If Paul Ryan is racist, then he’s doing it all wrong.
Suffice it to say, the clamor surrounding Congressman Ryan’s remarks has produced far more heat than light. And that’s a shame, because he made some very worthwhile—and very Catholic—points. In the interest of injecting some small amount of sanity into this controversy, let me list a few way in which Paul Ryan’s comments demonstrate a profoundly Catholic understanding of society and social obligations.
Ryan’s words call to mind those of Pope Leo XIII, who—way back in 1891—wrote this about civil society:
“A brother that is helped by his brother is like a strong city.” It is this natural impulse which binds men together in civil society; and it is likewise this which leads them to join together in associations which are, it is true, lesser and not independent societies, but, nevertheless, real societies.
These lesser societies and the larger society differ in many respects, because their immediate purpose and aim are different. Civil society exists for the common good, and hence is concerned with the interests of all in general, albeit with individual interests also in their due place and degree.
Ryan’s words are also reminiscent of Pope John Paul II, who wrote this, in 1991:
According to Rerum Novarum and the whole social doctrine of the Church, the social nature of man is not completely fulfilled in the State, but is realized in various intermediary groups, beginning with the family and including economic, social, political and cultural groups which stem from human nature itself and have their own autonomy, always with a view to the common good.
And later in the same encyclical, we find this:
This is the culture which is hoped for, one which fosters trust in the human potential of the poor, and consequently in their ability to improve their condition through work or to make a positive contribution to economic prosperity. But to accomplish this, the poor — be they individuals or nations — need to be provided with realistic opportunities.
Ryan’s words echo those of Pope Emeritus Benedict who, in his encyclical, Caritas in Veritate, made the following points about the limits of both the state and the market:
Solidarity is first and foremost a sense of responsibility on the part of everyone with regard to everyone, and it cannot therefore be merely delegated to the State.
The exclusively binary model of market-plus-State is corrosive of society, while economic forms based on solidarity, which find their natural home in civil society without being restricted to it, build up society. The market of gratuitousness does not exist, and attitudes of gratuitousness cannot be established by law. Yet both the market and politics need individuals who are open to reciprocal gift.
It goes without saying that Paul Ryan is not Leo XIII, John Paul II, or Benedict XVI. But in a political climate where debate seems to oscillate between a big-government understanding of society that sees the state as the locus of solidarity, on the one hand, and a libertarian view that treats “society” as an aggregate of so many autonomous individuals which are no more than the sum of their parts on the other, it’s nice to have a politician who speaks with conviction about that “place” where most of what we do together actually happens: the subsidiary institutions of civil society. And as I’ve said before, without subsidiarity, solidarity doesn’t have a chance.
So let’s hope the unhappy (and unnecessary) controversy surrounding Paul Ryan’s remarks doesn’t keep him—or others in the GOP, for that matter—from looking for new and effective ways to address the problem of poverty. Too often, that turf has been ceded to Democrats, to the detriment of those most in need. Would that both parties better understood the words of one more bishop of Rome, Pope Francis:
Growth in justice requires more than economic growth, while presupposing such growth: it requires decisions, programmes, mechanisms and processes specifically geared to a better distribution of income, the creation of sources of employment and an integral promotion of the poor which goes beyond a simple welfare mentality.
Amen to that!