Unfair to Ryan? Questions for Robert George

When I heard that Robert George, McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence at Princeton University, offered a critique of On All of Our Shoulders: A Catholic Call to Protect the Endangered Common Good, my pulse raced a bit.  The debate had been joined!  As a contributor to and signer of the document I thought of all the necessary shortening of complex matters required for a text many said was too long.  Aquinas’ treatise on prudence comprises 6 questions in the Summa, yet the document only had two paragraphs, perhaps it is vulnerable there, etc.

Reading Prof. George’s post brought only disappointment.  There is no such challenge.  George scrupulously ignores the substance of the text and selectively quotes it in order to reduce it to his preferred partisan terms.  This seems more the writing of Robert George, the member of the National Advisory Committee of Catholics for Romney, than Robert George, the Catholic scholar.

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George’s post does its intended work:  It ignores substance of Ryan’s public record of his Randian beliefs and political strategy.  It ignores the substance of the principles of Catholic social doctrine that we believe are in danger of being forgotten or distorted at this moment when libertarian and Randian beliefs are becoming widely legitimated.

In George’s words, “On All of Our Shoulders: A Catholic Call to Protect the Endangered Common Good” is “in short, the discursive version of the infamous Democratic Party television advertisement showing a Ryan-like figure dumping an elderly lady out of her wheelchair over a cliff.”

Really? A 3,300 word declaration, with 27 footnotes, 17 of them to magisterial documents?  Really?

Prof. George, there are so many distortions, selective quotations, and un-owned assertions in your post that demand response.  Let’s begin with your title, that this is an “unfair” attack on Paul Ryan.

I’m glad you raise this, because as you know Ryan’s “Catholic supporters” are addressed by the document. 

We do not question Paul Ryan’s faith.  We are concerned however, that defenders of Ryan have gone beyond highlighting the aspects of Catholic moral teaching with which his political positions are laudably consistent, to argue that his Ayn Rand “inspired” individualist and anti-government vision and the policies they inform are themselves legitimately Catholic.  They are not.

We do not write to oppose Ryan’s candidacy or to argue there are not legitimate reasons for Catholics to vote for him.  Our concern is that Ryan and his Catholic supporters, must be informed—as prochoice candidates and Catholics who vote for them are perennially and appropriately reminded—that some of his positions are fundamentally at odds with the teachings of the Catholic Church.

We fear the Church’s legitimate disagreement with the inadequate exemptions in the Obama administration’s contraceptive insurance mandate will lead some bishops to avoid giving due scrutiny to Ryan’s disagreements with or misunderstandings of the Church’s social teaching.

Prof. George, you are officially on record as one of Ryan’s “Catholic supporters.”  Let’s review the very public record of his statement of being inspired and guided by Rand’s philosophy.

Ryan’s 2005 speech to the Atlas Society is the most remarkable political manifesto by an elected politician in generations.  It is hard to even come up with a suitable historical comparison. What other American politician has offered so clear a statement of social philosophy; shown precisely how he uses it to judge bedrock programs such as Social Security and Medicare, and outlined a very clear strategy to change these programs, to change the way Americans think?

So, Prof. George, let’s begin there.  The full audio is available.  As a Catholic defender of Ryan, you owe it to your fellow Catholics to listen to all 20 minutes yourself.  Tell us line by line whether he believes in Rand or not.  Tell us whether the policies he continues to propose are consistent with Randian principles he has so long espoused or not.

Specifics:

  • Does Ryan believe in Ayn Rand’s individualism or not?  
  • Does Ryan say he returns to John Galt’s “64 page” [he does seem to have detailed knowledge doesn't he?] speech in Atlas Shrugged to “check my premises so that I know that what I’m believing and doing and advancing are square with the key principles of individualism” or not? 
  • How many times in this speech does he profess “individualism?”
  • Does Ryan state that he uses “one conflict: individualism versus collectivism” as a measure for almost every policy decision or not? 
  • Does Ryan describe Social Security and Medicare as “collectivist” and “socialist based” programs or not? 
  • Does Ryan lay out a strategy to “personalize” [he chuckles, there is applause…he didn’t say “privatize” wink, wink] these programs in order to change the way American’s think or not? 
  • Does Ryan say “Yeah” and “That’s right” when the story is told of the “moral revolution” worked by Pinochet’s privatizer of social security José Piñera, or not?  Yes, that Pinochet.

I know it’s harsh to recall these statements, but it is not "unfair."  Ryan does seem to have said these things.  Respect requires we take them seriously.

This was 2005.  In 2009, Congressman Ryan posted a video to his own Facebook page, where he earnestly stared into the camera and said he agrees with those who believe “we are right now living in an Ayn Rand novel, metaphorically speaking” and once again espoused her views on the “morality of individualism.”

Did Congressman Ryan say these things or not?  Whatever one thinks of the policies proposed, it is clear that Congressman Ryan proposes them because they are consistent with the thought of Ayn Rand.  Do you agree with this philosophy?  (You did use “collectivist” in your own response.)  Tell us as a Catholic scholar, whether these are consistent with the principles of Catholic social doctrine or not.

The declaration observes:

Ryan’s rejection of Rand’s atheism is laudable, as are his public avowal of the thought of Thomas Aquinas and Catholic social doctrine.  We do not question the sincerity of his convictions, but must note that a shift from the social philosophy of Ayn Rand to the social doctrine of the Catholic Church is a radical change indeed.  Such a conversion would take much time and reflection.

Prof. George, as Ryan's public supporter, and a “conservative” Catholic scholar of great repute, it seems your responsibility to clarify the divergence between Rand’s views and those of the Catholic tradition: for Paul Ryan as he continues his conversion to the Church’s social doctrine; for your fellow Catholics in danger of being confused about these truths concerning the human person and society in this regard; and for our nation that so needs the wisdom of the Church’s teaching on these particular matters.

This is about much more than this election.  Ryan’s budget and the beliefs it embodies will be with us for some time.  Regardless of whom Catholics decide to publically endorse or vote for in this election, these doctrines and policies demand our attention.

I await your response.

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