Shouldering Our Weight

Last year I had the privilege of teaching a theology course on Christian faith, service, and solidarity.  It was filled with more than sixty college students (mostly seniors) who were deeply committed to these topics in their personal life and wanted a more rigorous, academic exploration into subjects like altruism, compassion, kinship, and advocacy.  It was a requirement that students had already been extensively involved in service and fulfilled the rest of their theology core curriculum.  Some students joked that the class was like a college version of an AP course on Faith and Justice.

Each week, students wrote a one-page, single-spaced personal response to the readings.  I asked them to analyze the strengths and limitations of each author’s perspective, consider it in light of their own experience with service, and reflect on how they might appropriate some of the key themes, questions, or convictions into their life going forward.  Each week, it was a great pleasure to read these papers, because of how thoughtfully they were written.

But I was astounded the week I read the reflection papers in response to a few excerpts from books by Ayn Rand (the students were assigned to read Howard Roark’s courtroom speech from The Fountainhead and John Galt’s “The War for Civilization” speech from Atlas Shrugged).  Having inserted the texts into the syllabus as something of a foil against other authors like Gregory Boyle and Albert Nolan, I was expecting students to reject and decry Rand’s exhortation to radical self-interest and absolute autonomy.

On the contrary, I found students suddenly championing individual liberties and personal initiative at the expense of interdependence and a shared commitment to the common good.

They had been seduced by Rand.  So it seems – at least before he became a Vice-Presidential Candidate – has Wisconsin Congressman Paul Ryan.

As I noted in a previous post, I take issue with Rep. Ryan’s Randian perspective that seems to believe that what the poor are most lacking is personal drive and discipline and that government assistance will only lead to greater dependency.  I have grave concerns about the effects of Rep. Ryan’s 2012 budget, which proposes that 62% of its savings come from cuts to programs for low-income families and individuals.  Some Republicans have argued that churches and other private charities can take up this work.  But as Meghan Clark has astutely pointed out, of all the services provided to the poor in this country, only 4% of it comes from private charities.  To think the private sector could suddenly replace this extensive infrastructure risks absurdity.  In fact, even more recently, Bread for the World has started a petition to members of Congress to reject the proposed cuts to SNAP (the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program that provides aid to 44 million Americans), which, if implemented, would mean that every church in the country would have to come up with about $50,000 dedicated to feeding hungry people – each year for the next 10 years in order to fill the gap.  (Incidentally, to sign this petition, click here.)

What mystifies me more than anything is how Paul Ryan squares his budget, oft-stated admiration for Rand, and understanding of the role of government with his Catholic faith – especially in light of Catholic social thought.  This was addressed at Congressman Ryan’s visit to Georgetown University in April, but now, on the eve of the Vice-Presidential Debates, it seems all the more urgent to clarify the duties of discipleship that follow from the teaching and healing ministry of Jesus Christ as well as the CST principles of solidarity, the preferential option for the poor, and the common good.

In light of this serious and pressing need, several theologians have collaborated on a document entitled, “On All Our Shoulders: A Catholic Call to Protect the Endangered Common Good.”  The document addresses several problems with Congressman Ryan’s policy proposals and his inaccurate presentation of Catholic social teaching.  It is not meant to question Rep. Ryan’s faith or to persuade readers against having prudential reasons to vote for him.  It is meant to clarify several points of confusion, including five principles of Catholic social teaching that have been improperly cited or ignored.

The timing of this document is not insignificant: it aims to be a part of the conversation as the country prepares for its first Vice Presidential Debate between two Catholic Candidates.

I am proud to have signed this document.  But let me be clear: the task at hand is not to determine which one is more or less Catholic or which one Catholics should endorse.  Rather, the challenge facing each and every Catholic is to embrace the wisdom of the Church’s social doctrine and to apply it precisely where we are, to whatever extent we can.  And we must hold our Catholic leaders and elected officials accountable to this vision of the human person and the call to community life.  Congressman Ryan and Vice President Biden are two such leaders.  But as Bishop Richard Pates of Des Moines recently wrote in America, Catholics account for 29% of Congress and serve as governors of 17 states.

In other words, when it comes to putting Catholic social thought into action to promote the common good for all our brothers and sisters, Catholics are in prime position to “shoulder our weight” for our responsibilities.  This isn’t just about Ryan or Biden, the USCCB or a group of theologians.  This is about each and every Catholic properly informing his or her conscience and then acting on it – and holding each other accountable on the rights and duties that, with the help of God’s grace, will ensure the fullness of life for all.

American “rugged individualism” and Rand’s radical self-interest appeal to our desire to be free and to be in control of our own destiny.  But these philosophies are seductive (as I found out with my class last Spring) in making us think that we can claim certain rights without any corresponding duties.  They are blind to the reality increasingly apparent in our globalized, interconnected world: our destiny is incontrovertibly tied up with that of our neighbors – locally, nationally, and internationally.

Mother Teresa once reflected, “If we do not have peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other.”  We should add that belonging to each other means we have certain obligations to one another.  And it’s incumbent upon each one of us, our churches and governments, corporations and organizations, to take responsibility for the common good.  That’s a weight on all our shoulders.