Applying Our Enduring Truths to Our Defining Challenge

The Catholic Church offers a rich overview of its thought, summarized in the Compendium of Social Doctrine, to guide Catholics in bringing truth to society’s problems. In his introduction, Cardinal Renato Martino, then president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, wrote, “This area belongs in a particular way” to those lay faithful who are active “in the social sector.”

As a congressman and Catholic layman, I am persuaded that Catholic social truths are in accord with the “self-evident truths” our Founders bequeathed to us in the founding ideas of America: independence, limited government and the dignity and freedom of every human person. As chairman of the House Budget Committee, I am tasked with applying these enduring principles to the urgent social problems of our time: an economy that is not providing enough opportunities for our citizens, a safety net that is failing our most vulnerable populations, and a crushing burden of debt that is threatening our children and grandchildren with a diminished future.

These problems are related: The debt is weighing on job creation today, closing off the most promising avenues for the poor to rise. As a result, more and more of society’s most vulnerable remain mired in public-assistance programs whose outdated structures often act as a trap that hinders upward mobility. And this economic stagnation and growing dependence fuels the growing national debt — a vicious cycle that calls for bold reforms equal to the challenge.  

We cannot continue to ignore this problem. The Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI, has rightly termed this attitude “living in untruth … at the expense of future generations.” In approaching this problem as a lay Catholic in public life, I have found it useful to apply the twin principles of solidarity (recognition of the common ties that unite all human beings in equal dignity) and subsidiarity (respect for the relationships between individuals and intermediate social groups such as families, businesses, schools, local communities and state governments).

When applied in equal measure, these principles complete and balance each other. But when one is applied exclusively, the result can be harmful. For example, in a misapplication of solidarity, politicians in both parties expanded big government for decades. These policies have had dismal results. One out of every six people in the United States is now living below the poverty level — the largest number of poor people on record.

We need a better approach to restore the balance, and the House-passed budget offers one by reintroducing subsidiarity, which the Holy Father has called “the most effective antidote against any form of all-encompassing welfare state.” Our budget builds on the successful welfare reforms of the 1990s, using federal subsidium to empower state and local governments, communities and individuals — those closest to the problems of society. Our budget promotes opportunity and upward mobility by strengthening job-training programs to help those who have fallen on hard times.

Our budget ends welfare for those who don’t need it, but strengthens welfare programs for those who do. Government safety-net programs have been stretched to the breaking point in recent years, failing the very citizens who need help the most. When solidarity and subsidiarity are in balance, civil society is revitalized, not displaced. We rightly pride ourselves on looking out for one another — and government has an important role to play in that. But relying on distant government bureaucracies to lead this effort just hasn’t worked.

Instead of letting critical health and retirement programs go bankrupt, our budget saves and strengthens them so they can fulfill their missions in the 21st century. President Barack Obama’s health-care law puts a board of 15 unelected bureaucrats in charge of cutting Medicare. This is wrong. I do not believe we should turn the fate of our parents and grandparents over to an unaccountable board and let it make decisions that could deny them access to their care.

Our budget keeps the protections that have made Medicare a guaranteed promise for the elderly. It makes no changes for those in or near retirement. Our proposed reforms restore subsidiarity by putting seniors themselves in charge of their personal health-care decisions. In solidarity with the elderly, our budget empowers them to choose the coverage that works best for them, with a guarantee of high-quality care at an affordable price. And it allows seniors to choose a traditional Medicare option if they prefer.

Our budget averts the looming debt-fueled economic crisis, which would hurt the poor the first and the worst. It lifts the debt and frees the nation from the constraints of ever-expanding government. And it promotes economic growth and opportunity, with bold reforms to make the tax code fair and equitable and a credible, principled plan to prevent a debt crisis from ever happening.

Our budget has been criticized for giving tax cuts to the wealthy at the expense of the poor. It does no such thing. Instead of taking more and more from the paychecks of working Americans, the House budget proposes a comprehensive reform of the tax code to make it fair, simple and competitive. We would lower rates for everyone across the board. But revenue would still rise every year under our budget because our economy grows and because our budget proposes to eliminate special-interest loopholes that go primarily to the influential and well-off. Washington should not micromanage people’s decisions through the tax code. Basic economics and basic morality both tell us that people have a right to keep and decide how to spend their hard-earned dollars.

I have been making a serious effort to explain how the truths of Catholic social thought impact our budget, claiming neither a monopoly on the social teachings nor that persons of good faith must agree with my practical answers. I have invited those with different views to dialogue about the facts. Pope Benedict’s example of charitable debate with politicians, philosophers, scholars and clergy outside of the faith should inspire our own Catholic dialogue on how the social magisterium furthers the common good and well-being of all Americans.

Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., represents Wisconsin’s First Congressional District and serves as chairman of the House Budget Committee.