Mitt Romney’s choice of Paul Ryan as his running mate has thrust Catholic Social Thought into the American presidential campaign. A practicing Catholic, Ryan argues that Tea Party economics are compatible with the Church’s social teaching. This pleases many on the Catholic Right, but greatly displeases many on the Catholic Left; when Ryan gave a speech at Georgetown last April, 90 faculty members and priests signed a letter in protest. The disagreement was evident in the media this week. In the Wall Street Journal, William McGurn defended Ryan’s free-market views as consistent with Catholicism. In the New York Times, by contrast, Maureen Dowd cited Catholic bishops who have termed Ryan’s proposed federal budget “immoral.”
As an outsider, I’m not in the best position to comment on an internal Catholic debate. The best analysis I’ve seen so far, though, is this very powerful essay by Fr. Robert Barron, which Marc noted yesterday. Barron writes that Catholic Social Thought equally embraces two conflicting principles, solidarity and subsidiarity. Solidarity emphasizes the collective. It teaches that people have responsibility for one another, that society’s rich have a moral obligation to share their wealth with society’s poor. (“We are all members of one another,” St. Paul wrote). Subsidiarity, by contrast, emphasizes the local and individual. It allows private property and suspects concentrated, centralized power. Somehow, Barron writes, Catholic Social Thought must affirm both these principles, without compromise.
Barron’s essay seems to pose an an impossible intellectual task. The reason the essay seems so compelling to me, though, is that it embraces what I understand to be the essentially paradoxical nature of Christianity. As Ross Douthat recently has written, Christianity always asks the believer to accept seemingly incompatible assertions: Christ is at once God and Man; the world is at once good and evil; the Christian must at once care for the world and focus on eternity. For non-Christians, these are nonsensical pairings; but for Christians, they help define the mystery of faith. If there is to be a Catholic — or, more broadly, Christian –social theory, it must somehow endorse community and individuality, in Barron’s words, “with equal vigor.” It must embrace the paradox that Christians are called to be in the world but not of it — an undoable something that somehow must be done.