In “Testem Benevolentiae,” an apostolic letter sent to Baltimore’s Cardinal James Gibbons in 1899, Pope Leo XIII worried over some liberal tendencies of the Catholic Church in the United States that he called “the errors of Americanism.” One wonders these days if a modern, conservative variant of Americanism is infecting the church. Representative Paul Ryan’s recent take on Catholic social teaching seems to endorse the tradition but then deploys it as cover for a budget-balancing act that threatens to harm the nation’s most vulnerable. A number of Catholics, Mr. Ryan among them, find much to admire about the objectivism peddled by the late Ayn Rand, whose “rational egoism” liberates the individual from obligations to others.
Worst of all has been a noticeable coarsening of attitudes among some Catholics toward those who have come to rely on government aid to sustain themselves in these difficult times. This emerging resentment forgets that the nation’s modest social services are directed primarily at supporting children, the elderly, the disabled and those hurt by the recent recession.
It is not surprising that the most powerful currents of a cultural mainstream should influence the course of its tributaries. In 1997 then Archbishop Francis George remarked that U.S. citizens “are culturally Calvinist, even those who profess the Catholic faith.” Over time many U.S. Catholics have internalized some unacceptable American conceits, like the primacy of the individual and the free market and the inherent inefficiency of government. They have come to view with suspicion mediating structures, like unions and advocacy groups, that challenge America’s understanding of itself or its role in the world.
Some Catholics make an idol out of ideology or a fierce faith out of nationalism, elevating personal responsibility while diminishing communal obligations. Their “Americanism” pretends that personal charity can adequately replace the need for social justice and distorts the meaning of subsidiarity into nearly unrecognizable form. Unlike his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI has not directly addressed this modern mutation of Americanism, but he has called for better education among laypeople about church social doctrine and reminded them that it is their responsibility to bring the church’s social justice concerns into civic discourse.
Counter to mainstream American culture, the church teaches that a society should be judged by how well it addresses the needs of its poor and vulnerable members. It demands a preferential option for the poor, not the Pentagon, when moral documents like the federal budget are prepared, a point frequently noted by the U.S. bishops. The church does not accept the peculiar American premise that the poor are generally better off left to their own devices, lest their dignity be degraded by paternalism—a high-sounding slogan that can be used to abdicate collective responsibility.
When Representative Ryan began a well-publicized correspondence with Archbishop Timothy M. Dolan of New York, the two men lightly sparred over the modern role of Catholic social teaching. Mr. Ryan equated the Catholic concept of subsidiarity with the American tradition of federalism and used it to add a gloss of Catholic authenticity to his budget plan; Archbishop Dolan gently reminded him that solidarity remains another significant component of the Catholic tradition. It is one that persists regardless of the vicissitudes of the annual federal deficit or newfound political urgency to address the national debt.
Here is where Catholics can make their contribution to the current dialogue. Congressman Ryan’s concerns about a smothering national debt and an intrusive government are legitimate, but they cannot be allowed to produce near-term outcomes that in practice mean the abandonment of the vulnerable through deep cuts in food aid, health care and support for the unemployed.
As the nation attempts to balance the immediate needs of the least among us against the long-term demands of debt reduction, Catholics can bring their unique perspective to the table. Perhaps instead of surrendering to the new Americanism, they might “Americanize” the Catholic concept of the common good, helping to define how a just society with limited resources best sets spending priorities and seeks equitable sources of revenue. Certainly then the legitimate needs of the most vulnerable would not be sacrificed to protect the structural privileges of those who have enjoyed the greatest economic rewards in recent years. Certainly war-making would not be privileged over the basic needs of a sustainable civil society.
Catholics in America should value their faith’s contribution to the larger culture, not surrender its uniqueness as an impediment to a deeper and more personally fruitful assimilation. Unlike Ms. Rand, American Catholics cannot make a virtue of selfishness. Our path proceeds not from the gospel of prosperity, but the Gospel of Matthew.