Republican Rep. Paul Ryan says his federal budget proposal is based on his Catholic faith. He says it ought to be considered not just moral but fully consistent with the social justice teachings of the Catholic Church.
That much nerve requires an enormous stretch of judgment by the presenter and a complete suspension of reality by his audience. What chutzpah.
The classic comedian’s definition of the Yiddish word “chutzpah” is the guy who kills both his parents—and then throws himself on the mercy of the court because he’s an orphan.
Not surprisingly, they found Ryan’s plan lacking in even a scintilla of moral worth. And they said so.
The National Conference of Catholic Bishops blasted Ryan’s proposal when he first trundled it out. I mean, what did he expect, seeing as it’s a document that exquisitely wages class warfare? The proposal has no chance of passage, thank God, since it seeks to shift money from our poorest, neediest citizens into the pockets of our wealthiest financiers.
Ryan will never be confused with either Mother Teresa or Robin Hood. His approach might find a more accurate parallel with the Sheriff of Nottingham’s: Squeeze the peasants by gouging funding for food stamps, Medicare, student aid or, indeed, any assistance for those who need help.
Those savings would then be used to protect the Bush tax cuts for our country club set, sparing them the ignominy of paying taxes at a rate comparable to that paid by their butlers, chambermaids or caddies.
Since the Catholic bishops deal in matters of morality—their sole rationale—of course they weighed in on this budgetary offering. Not surprisingly, they found Ryan’s plan lacking in even a scintilla of moral worth. And they said so. Really, they said so with great vigor. The local media chose not to emphasize their statements, burying the story and not judging the bishops’ opinion worthy of even brief editorial comment. Finding their ringing condemnation of this flimsy proposal took some serious digging.
Now when they die penniless, they will die free.
Later, though, when Ryan responded to the harsh critique, a column about the controversy did make the front page of our morning fish wrap. Winthrop Quigley, the most thoughtful of the Journal’s columnists, explored the labyrinth of Ryan’s explanation and concluded that it makes sense: “Therefore, create a tax or fiscal policy to help the nonwealthy entrepreneur access capital, and you've created new jobs, some of which presumably end up helping the poor.”
Quigley was far more restrained in his discussion than I can be. How can eliminating funding for basic needs actually be understood to help the poor? Quigley simply restated Ryan’s position, that big government crowds out civic society, leaving little space for people to take care of each other. It’s an indirect, diplomatic way, I think, for Quigley to reveal that Ryan’s basic premise cannot hold water. The plan is, in fact, purest chutzpah.
Probing beneath the surface of what Ryan is saying is incredible. His conceit comes across as a variant on the mind-numbing statements I remember from the Vietnam War era: “We had to destroy that village in order to save it.” Unfortunately, his budget was embraced by the GOP presidential field and congressional leadership.
We’ve also heard this rationale from the Albuquerque Police Department as justification for officers who shot and killed someone threatening to shoot himself. Or from President Reagan as rationale for defunding California’s mental health facilities: The mentally ill should be treated in their home communities, not institutions.
The unspoken corollary is that the poor should be grateful that we are freeing them from the shackles of big government. Now when they die penniless, they will die free.
It boggles the mind to try to come to grips with Ryan’s premise that the wealthiest Americans, if they don’t have to pay higher income taxes, will voluntarily choose to spend their money on charities that serve the poor. We’ve seen that theory tested in the past. Charles Dickens described the natural outcome in his novels about poorhouses, street beggars and pinched-faced orphans.
Ryan and most of the Tea Party crowd speak of big government as if it were a disembodied, evil thing with an existence quite apart from our own. Government should be starved to death, his budget suggests. The ogre must be put down, the emperor dethroned, freedom restored.
The bishops—along with with the majority of mainstream American political thinkers for the past two centuries—view democratically elected government differently. Government is us, not something apart. We choose our leaders. We deselect our unresponsive leaders. We are democracy. If it isn’t working, we have to correct it. We really don’t need to ask the fine lords and ladies of the 1 percent to take over.