Rand, Ryan, George and Theological Anthropology
I remain dismayed by Robert George’s sustained inability to engage On All of Our Shoulderswith anything but a partisan lens. Perhaps he is so committed to the Republican Party as political vehicle to advance his deeply held moral priories, he can only see any challenge to its current Catholic VP candidate in partisan terms. This is unfortunate, not least of all for George, because Ryan’s social philosophy exposes and will likely deepen the rift in the Republican party that will, in the long term, contribute to the further marginalization of the very moral concerns George champions.
Ryan’s inspiration by and explicit avowal of the thought of Ayn Rand is an issue that goes beyond the prudential realm of politics to the doctrinal realm of theological anthropology.
Rand preached a view of the human person that is fundamentally at odds with the Catholic faith, thus its popular embrace must be a concern for the Church. Many Catholics (evidenced by responses to blog posts on this topic) have no idea that this conflicts with the teachings of the Church.
Political campaigns have enormous power to legitimate their candidates. If this dimension of Ryan’s political philosophy goes unchallenged, it will be legitimated as Catholic in the eyes of the many of faithful. It will soon be treated as “old news” that has presumably been shown to be without concern to the Church.
Rand’s celebration of individualism and social indifference and her denunciation of charity and sacrifice provide a rare explicit profession of an ideology that lies hidden within modern political and economic thought as well as consumer culture. It is an anthropology fundamentally incompatible with Catholic doctrine.
Liberal conceptions of freedom famously present themselves as anthropologically and ontologically neutral. David Schindler’s critique of the New York Times editorial defending the Obama administration’s contraceptive coverage mandate (and thus a critique of the mandate itself among other things) takes pains to unearth the “metaphysically thick” assumptions about the human person that are foundational to liberalism “albeit in a peculiarly hidden and so far paradoxical sense.” Schindler’s trenchant critique is but the latest in a host of intellectual critiques offered by thinkers as diverse as Edmund Burke and Max Horkheimer attempting to render explicit the implicit anthropological assumptions of liberalism. This is difficult, but necessary intellectual work.
With Ayn Rand, none of the exhausting work of examining of first principles, genealogy or immanent critique are necessary. Does liberalism, as Schindler argues, presume what Servais Pinckaers terms a “freedom of indifference” that as a “matter of principle, forces a choice” between “my freedom or the freedom of others;" does it make the freedom of others appear “as limitation and as threat, since freedom is self-affirmation”?
Rand saves us the trouble of digging to find out. John Galt’s final words are an exuberant celebration of exactly this freedom of indifference:
I swear-by my life and my love of it-that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine.
Does liberalism, again in Schindler’s words, “displace the person’s natural community with God and others, and with truth and goodness, by an extrinsic and so far voluntaristic community—what is commonly termed a contractual community—made up of formal-independent, logically self-centered individuals”?
Rand is again exuberantly explicit in Galt:
Do you ask what moral obligation I owe to my fellow men? None-except the obligation I owe to myself, to material objects and to all of existence: rationality. I deal with men as my nature and their demands: by means of reason. I seek or desire nothing from them except such relations as they care to enter of their own voluntary choice. It is only with their mind that I can deal and only for my own self-interest, when they see that my interest coincides with theirs. When they don’t, I enter no relationship….
Galt’s speech is the text to which Ryan has told us, he returns repeatedly:
I always go back to… to the 64-page John Galt speech, you know, on the radio at the end, and go back to a lot of other things that she did, to try and make sure that I can check my premises so that I know that what I’m believing and doing and advancing are square with the key principles of individualism…
Ryan’s recent attempts to distance himself from Rand should be viewed with skepticism. He characterizes his previous explicit avowals as an “urban legend.” He has not offered any reexamination the policies and strategies he once described as guided by Rand’s philosophy. These remain unchanged.
The challenge of Rand cuts to the central doctrines of the Church – the doctrine of the Trinity and its consequences for our understanding of the human person. Thus, they cannot be dispatched with an invocation of prudence. Any Catholic engagement in politics must struggle to engage the principles of Catholic social doctrine that are built upon the Church’s central doctrines and seek to apply them to society.
It is for this reason, that On All Our Shoulders lists theological anthropology as the fundamental principle at stake in this moment of Rand’s broad legitimation:
The Catholic view of the human person is social not individual. Congressman Ryan has stated that he learned from Rand to view all policy questions as a “fight of individualism versus collectivism.” The Catholic Church does not espouse “individualism,” but rather sees it as an error as destructive as collectivism. (CCC, #2425) Blessed John Paul II described “individualism” as a dimension of the “Culture of Death” arising from an “eclipse of the sense of God.” (Evangelium vitae, #22-23) The human person is “by its innermost nature, a social being.” (Gaudium et spes, #12) We are radically dependent upon and responsible for one another. Again, in the words of John Paul II, “We are all really responsible for all.” This truth of the human person is tied to the central doctrines of the Church. It reflects the very “intimate life of God, one God in three Persons.” (Sollicitudo rei socialis, #38, 40.)
Such concerns recur in the writings of Benedict XVI. Cardinal Ratzinger spoke of Easter as deliverance “deliverance from the captivity of individualism, from the prison of self, from the incapacity to love and make a gift of oneself.” In Spe salvi, he again spoke of salvation as escape from the “prison of our ‘I’”
This real life, towards which we try to reach out again and again, is linked to a lived union with a “people”, and for each individual it can only be attained within this “we”. It presupposes that we escape from the prison of our “I”, because only in the openness of this universal subject does our gaze open out to the source of joy, to love itself—to God.
The “we” under discussion here is, of course, the Church. But Benedict noted:
While this community-oriented vision of the “blessed life” is certainly directed beyond the present world, as such it also has to do with the building up of this world—in very different ways, according to the historical context and the possibilities offered or excluded thereby. (14-15)
This is a topic he would develop in detail in Caritas in veritate.
Benedict offered an extended meditation on individualism and the Eucharist in his Angelus message for June 26, 2011.
In a culture that is ever more individualistic -- like that in which Western societies are immersed and which is spreading throughout the world -- the Eucharist constitutes a kind of "antidote," which operates in the minds and hearts of believers and continually sows in them the logic of communion, of service, of sharing, in a word, the logic of the Gospel. The first Christians, in Jerusalem, were an evident sign of this new way of life because they lived in fraternity and held all of their goods in common so that no one should be indigent (cf. Acts 2:42-47). Where did all of this come from? From the Eucharist, that is, the risen Christ, really present with his disciples and working with the power of the Holy Spirit. And in the succeeding generations, through the centuries, the Church, despite human limits and errors, continued to be a force for communion in the world. We think especially of the most difficult periods, the periods of trial: What did it mean, for example, for countries that were under the heal of totalitarian regimes to have the possibility to gather for Sunday Mass! As the ancient martyrs of Abitene proclaimed: "Sine Dominico non possumus" – without the "Dominicum," that is, the Sunday Eucharist, we cannot live. But the void produced by false freedom can be dangerous, and so communion with the Body of Christ is a medicine of the intellect and will to rediscover taste for the truth and the common good.
I respect those who cast their votes with the Republican party because of its position on abortion, among other moral issues. But there is always the danger of embracing other elements of a party’s ideology that are incompatible with the Catholic faith. This is something that Catholic Democrats are endlessly and (as the declaration states) “appropriately” reminded.
Ryan’s acknowledgement that his policies and political strategies are inspired by Rand is but one, particularly Catholic, moment in a broader tide eroding the breadth of religious moral concern.
The Tea Party has been a powerful cultural force legitimating anti-government and libertarian sentiment. Pollsters and pundits who argue that it is much the same demographic as the Religious Right miss an important ideological shift. The conservative Christian commitments of many on the Religious Right have long existed in uneasy tension with the bedrock neo-liberal commitments of the Republican Party. The Tea Party marked a moment when these Biblical and religious commitments were fully subordinated to the main concerns of the party.
That the truly conservative religious concerns of the Religious Right would lose out to this neo-liberal ideology is no surprise. Such ideas have penetrated deep into the Democratic Party as well. In The Age of Fracture, Daniel Rodgers documents the massive and multifaceted intellectual program to promote neo-liberal thought:
Across the multiple fronts of ideational battle, from the speeches of presidents to books of social and cultural theory, conceptions of human nature that in the post-World War II era had been thick with context, social circumstance, institutions, and history gave way to conceptions of human nature that stressed choice agency, performance, and desire. Strong metaphors of society were supplanted by weaker ones. Imagined collectivities shrank; notions of structure and power thinned out. Viewed by its acts of mind, the last quarter of the century was an era of disaggregation, a great age of fracture.
This individualistic anthropology manifests itself across the political spectrum. It is as active within pro-choice views of abortion as it is in those who want to minimize government intervention on behalf of the common good. Politically, this is a threat we face on two fronts--individual morality and collective concern for the common good.
It is perfectly legitimate to vote for a candidate such as Ryan based on the aspects of his policies and commitments that are laudably consistent with the teachings of the Church.
Those supporting his candidacy and arguing for his election must be careful however to not legitimate or excuse elements of his political philosophy that conflict with the teachings of the Church on the human person.