The Catholic Voices Blog
Paul Ryan on poverty & civil society
Catholics of all political stripes should welcome the fact that Paul Ryan proudly affirms that his Catholic faith affects his positions on public issues -- and not just social issues, but economic issues as well. Agree or disagree with the particulars, Ryan is moving past the tired paradigm that pits conservative and liberal Catholics against each other. He's making an effort to bring the Catholic faith to bear across a range of public issues, and that enrichs public life.
Yesterday Ryan gave an significant speech on the importance of civil society in the fight against poverty. Many have noted that while the middle class has figured prominently in the presidential campaign, the poor have often been left out. As Melinda Hennebarger asks, "When was the last time you heard any presidential candidate speak seriously, in any kind of sustained way, about the one in five American kids growing up in circumstances that ought to make us all ashamed? ... No one thinks talking about poverty is a smart political move; thus the bipartisan silence."
Ryan broke that silence yesterday in Cleveland:
Too many children, especially African-American and Hispanic children, are sent into mediocre schools and expected to perform with excellence. African-American and Hispanic children make up only 38 percent of the nation’s overall students, but they are 69 percent of the students in schools identified as lowest performing.
Think about that for a second: at the height of a contentious, tight national race, a candidate spoke about the least among us -- and not with a sound bite or photo op, but with sustained attention in a thoughtful speech that drew on much from Catholic tradition. Ryan recognized that "in this war on poverty, poverty is winning" -- and then laid out steps towards changing that.
What is that approach? While admitting that Republicans don't always do a good job speaking to these issues, Ryan rejected as a straw man the idea that the GOP ticket believes "everybody should just fend for themselves." Instead he laid out a vision rooted in Catholic ideas about the importance of community, civil society, and the need to strike a balance between government and private action,
allowing government to act for the common good, while leaving private groups free to do the work that only they can do. There’s a vast middle ground between the government and the individual. Our families and our neighborhoods, the groups we join and our places of worship – this is where we live our lives. They shape our character, give our lives direction, and help make us a self-governing people.
Ryan spoke explicitly of the "witness" of those who work directly with the poor, and of "the spirit of the Lord" at work through them. And he spoke of government’s duties to civil society institutions -- "to secure their rights, respect their purposes, and preserve their freedom" -- and how abuses of government power like the HHS mandate threaten those institutions:
Take what happened this past January, when the Department of Health and Human Services issued new rules requiring Catholic hospitals, charities and universities to violate their deepest principles. Never mind your own conscience, they were basically told – from now on you’re going to do things the government’s way. This mandate isn’t just a threat to religious charities. It’s a threat to all those who turn to them in times of need. In the name of strengthening our safety net, this mandate and others will weaken it. The good news? When Mitt Romney is president, this mandate will be gone, and these groups will be able to continue the good work they do.
While government excesses can "crowd out" civil society, Ryan affirmed that government is "entrusted" with keeping the safety net strong, and laid out some ideas for strengthening it -- among them giving states more power to tailor anti-poverty programs to their own situations, and reforming public schools. Other ideas worth addressing include concrete steps toward rebuilding civil society in communities where it's been almost fully decimated; where next to nothing remains standing between individuals and the state.
Yesterday Ryan explicitly recognized that "we are one nation, rising or falling together." He touched on Catholic themes with a Catholic vocabulary. Once again, Catholicism is driving the debate -- and driving it in a healthy direction.