How should one’s faith shape his or her engagement in the policy arena?
Political Correspondent David Brody recently asked that question of House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R–WI) concerning the Republican budget plan. In a taped interview for the Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN), Ryan, a Roman Catholic, identified care for the poor as a fundamental tenet in the social teachings of his Church.
For Ryan, that teaching means: “Don’t keep people poor, don’t make people dependent on government so that they stay stuck at their station in life. Help people get out of poverty.”
Ryan believes his federal budget plan helps accomplish that goal. In a letter last year to then-Archbishop (now Cardinal) Timothy Dolan of New York, Ryan stated that his proposed budget better targets assistance to those in need, repairs the social safety net, and fulfills the mission of health and retirement security for all Americans. Furthermore, if the U.S. government continues to drive up the deficit through reckless spending, Ryan wrote that “the weakest will be hit three times over: by rising costs, by drastic cuts to programs they rely on, and by the collapse of individual support for charities that help the hungry, the homeless, the sick, refugees and others in need.”
In the CBN interview that aired last week, Ryan highlighted an additional principle of Catholic social teaching that informs his engagement in public policy: the principle of subsidiarity.
Subsidiarity holds that decisions are best made at the most local level available. As Ryan noted, when applied to political authority, this means federalism. Subsidiarity also holds that larger, more powerful institutions should refrain from undermining the freedom and integrity of smaller, less powerful ones. This is the aspect of the principle that Ryan picked up on most pointedly:
[Subsidiarity means] not having big government crowd out civic society, but…having enough space in our communities so that we can interact with each other, and take care of people who are down and out in our communities.
This principle arises out of a larger vision of social flourishing, one in which the common good is advanced “through our civic organizations, through our churches, through our charities, through all of our different groups where we interact with people as a community.”
Ryan has been attacked by those who hold a different view of government’s relationship to social well-being. His critics, including President Obama, seem to prefer that Washington, D.C., play a more direct and comprehensive role in pursuing the common good, even at the expense of civil society organizations that are often better equipped to serve people in need.
Some have tried to make the budget debate a conflict between those who do or do not care about the poor. But at its heart, this debate is about two contrasting visions of government’s proper role—in relation to prosperity, the common good, and to other institutions in society.
Ryan has reminded Americans in general—and people of faith in particular—of a principle that deserves more attention in budget discussions. The morality of a budget cannot be evaluated solely in terms of government welfare spending; it must also consider effects to the long-term well-being of the poor, the financial viability of the nation, and the freedom of other social institutions.
These criteria inform The Heritage Foundation’s own proposal for addressing the debt crises, called Saving the American Dream.
A federal budget that continues to promote the same unsatisfactory programs and accumulate unsustainable debt—while crowding out smaller institutions of society—is neither moral nor helpful to the poor.
Subsidiary and federalism are important principles that can help drive America’s budget debate in a better direction.