U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., is the chairman of the House Budget Committee. Ryan’s new book, The Way Forward: Renewing the American Idea, is part memoir and part policy blueprint. In the book, the congressman talks about his struggles with his Catholic faith and how the closing of a General Motors plant in Janesville, Wis., helped him appreciate the value of government safety nets. He says he was wrong to describe Americans who did not pay taxes as “takers," thus implying a value judgment about people who relied on government programs. During the 2012 election year, the GOP presidential nominee, Mitt Romney, and Ryan, his running mate, drew criticism for making such comments in the aftermath of an economic crisis.
During a Sept. 29 interview with Register senior editor Joan Frawley Desmond, the congressman reflects on how he has responded to Pope Francis’ call for Catholics to engage the poor and others on the “fringes” of society. Ryan’s recent proposals, which mark a new GOP effort to address economic inequality, include boosting earned income tax credits, which will allow Americans in low-paying jobs to take home more pay.
People may disagree with his ideas, Ryan said, but Pope Francis has not asked for “conformity, but participation” in an urgent debate regarding solutions that will help the poor.
In The Way Forward: Renewing the American Idea, you explain that you drifted away from the Catholic faith after your father’s death, when you were just a teenager, which “made God seem distant.” Can you explain what happened and why “gratitude” brought you back to the Church?
I was raised Catholic and went to Catholic schools. But when a tragedy like that strikes you unexpectedly, it makes you question everything.
I was angry that my father died. It was through friendship and reading that I came back to my faith, stronger than ever.
I felt gratitude because, even when tragedies strike, and God tests you, you can recover — as I did. It wasn’t an epiphany. It was a gradual reclaiming of my faith, as I realized what God and faith meant to me.
I had begun doing a lot of reading about my faith, especially Aquinas and C.S. Lewis. I love Mere Christianity and keep The Screwtape Letters on my iPad. It’s a fantastic reminder of faith in the context of daily life.
As a young person, I read quite a bit of everything. I especially liked Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, and then read Aquinas and saw how he applied faith and reason.
Aquinas helped me appreciate the intellectual vibrancy of the Catholic Church. He made so much sense.
Ayn Rand had a strong influence on your economic policy, but you state in your book that, as a Catholic, you rejected her philosophy of objectivism. Is it possible to accept just part of a school of philosophy?
I really enjoyed Ayn Rand’s novels when I was young, and they triggered an interest in economics and in capitalism and free markets. I studied Milton Friedman and the Chicago school of economics. That led me into public service.
But I wasn’t drawn to her philosophy of objectivism. As a person using reason and faith, I disagree with objectivism because it reduces human interactions to mere contracts and is incongruent with human reality and human bonding.
Everyone in public life has an urban legend, and I have mine — Ayn Rand.
Your book celebrates the vital role of civil institutions, including churches, in the American idea of ordered liberty. But the GOP is increasingly influenced by the individualistic values of libertarianism. What’s the solution?
Some view politics [as a contest] between two poles — individualism and collectivism. The reality is that most of us lead our lives in a middle space, where the principles of solidarity and subsidiarity can operate in harmony.
As conservatives, we want to protect this space, but also breathe life into civil society, where we care for one other and where we can make a difference.
Respect for the important role of civil society is one element of conservative thought that needs to be revived.
I tell libertarians: One of the best defenses against [government overreach] is to live our lives helping one other, according to the principles of solidarity and subsidiarity.
I have invited libertarians to join the cause of protecting religious freedom because only then can we have a government that respects its limits.
Libertarians should be welcomed into the fight for conscience [protections].
In the 20th century, Catholic social principles like subsidiarity and solidarity were often cited in public debates dealing with economic policy. Today, you are one of the few national politicians to cite these principles, but you are also criticized for misapplying them. What is going on?
As a lay Catholic exercising my prudential judgment, I believe that free markets — not crony capitalism — encourage more personal collaboration than any other economic system. Free enterprise is not coercive, and it does also more to help the poor and lift up people.
We all need to bring our own expertise to these issues.
Pope Francis is inviting us to have a conversation so we can decide how best to advance solutions that will further human progress and freedom.
The debate is not settled. I have offered my way of applying Catholic social principles. There are those who won’t see it my way, and that is perfectly fine. The Pope isn’t asking for conformity, but participation.
You want to consolidate a dozen anti-poverty programs into a single “Opportunity Grant,” which would take federal money and let the states direct the funds as they see fit. The states, you said, “fight poverty on the front lines.” Is this proposal inspired by the principle of subsidiarity?
This is my attempt to apply the principle of subsidiarity to better serve the poor and respect individuals and their unique problems.
Much of your work has focused on deficit reduction. But in 2012, many were angered by the GOP presidential campaign’s suggestion that those who receive federal assistance are “takers” rather than “givers.” What have you learned from that experience? Is this about semantics or something deeper?
In my case, we miscommunicated, and we need to learn from that.
I got that wrong. We need to talk about how we can help people get to where they want to go in life when they are facing obstacles. Our goal should be to help make it possible to get them on their feet and to respect their struggles and challenges.
Have you had a chance to meet with some of the U.S. bishops who spoke out against your economic policies in the past?
I have met with Bishop [Stephen] Blaire and others. Again, some economic issues are a matter of prudential judgment. And I, for one, would argue that high deficits are bad for the poor.
Regarding stewardship: What can individual Catholics do to help bridge the growing divide in our society between the bottom 30% and the top 20%?
Get involved. Take it upon yourself to help people. If you don’t have money, give time or other resources.
One casualty of the war on poverty is the mindset it engendered: This is not my problem; it is government’s problem. We need to reject that notion. The war on poverty is everybody’s problem.
We need to promote an inclusive society where everyone takes responsibility. We need to reintegrate the poor and not marginalize them. I am excited that Pope Francis is talking about this.