Answering the “Georgetown Letter” to Paul Ryan — 4/27/2012

April 27, 2012

Dear former professors and others who signed the “Georgetown Letter” to U.S. House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan,

Your note brings sadness.

I expect more from each and from all of you.  I think you were respectful, not condescending, to responsible points of view when I studied under you or your predecessors in the 1970s, and especially views sincerely espoused, even if they were at odds with your own.  It is certainly what we were taught.

Two recollections: Dr. Kissinger’s hiring and Farah Pahlavi’s speech at Gaston Hall.  Neither Fr. Henle nor Fr. Healy would abide – institutionally – the cursory, opportunistic, conclusory and, frankly, basely political denunciations these events provoked.  However, you strike the notes today that our presidents taught us then were countenanced neither by Christian hospitality nor by Jesuit praxis.

How like the 17th century local wise men in Tibet, China, the Philippines, or for that matter Wisconsin you sound, reacting to a Desideri, Ricci, Xavier or Marquette, upon the campus arrival of one who sees things differently than you.  I wonder if you think this signifies confidence in your position – or alarm.

Your letter’s thin welcome leaps to a conclusory assertion, with neither evidence nor references, that Rep. Ryan ‘misuses’ Catholic teaching by occasional application of its terms to describe his plan for our unsustainable federal spending and $15 trillion national debt.

But it does so in the terms of a press release, or 100 press releases, from interested parties and true believers, who say the same thing.  Are your descriptive powers those of a campaign press secretary?  Are you ashamed to crib their copy?  Frankly, it is embarrassing that your characterization is indistinguishable from those repeated constantly by a national political party that appears primarily focused on… attacking Rep. Ryan’s plan.

I know several of you, and I know the grades we would have earned – or forsaken – for originality or its absence.  I leave to your own honest personal assessment how you would grade yourselves – or your students – for such work.

In substance, about subsidiarity, you appeal to Rome.  I instead appeal to Athens, in substance, about unsustainability.

In Athens these days electricians are fighting merchants because they have not been paid in six months, but if they fail to report to work they will lose their claim to their jobs and the pensions they thought were secure.

In Athens’ Constitution Square, on Wednesday, April 2, a pharmacist, whose support checks were lost in the unwinding of Greece’s insolvency, shot himself to death rather than leave his family in debt, according to the Chicago Tribune’s John Kass.  Protestors gathered throughout the day.  Eventually, in front of the parliament building, the demonstrations turned violent.  Greeks hammered the marble steps and started throwing chunks at Greeks.  Troops arrived, tear gas was sprayed, as at Healy Lawn in the 1970s, and, in Kass’ words, “The situation appeared to calm down, at least for a few hours overnight, until the nation awakens and sees that its economic agony remains unresolved.”

If you think we are not hurtling to that moment, then please offer to exchange views with Congressman Ryan.  I suggest you check your arithmetic first.

If you think that moment awaits us, then please state, unlike the U.S. Senate, which has not adopted a budget resolution for 1100 days, or the president, whose budget received zero votes in the House of Representatives several weeks ago, your better plan to avoid it.

Or, if instead you choose to quibble about Mr. Ryan’s description of his plan, then you might consult Rhonheimer, for instance, who as you know recites and refreshes Thomas’ best lessons – and emphasizes that an “integral common good” is based on a “practical common good.”

And then you might describe to all of us, in detail, what in Athens looks to you like a “practical common good.”

Citizenship’s requisite rationality demands that we listen to those with whom we disagree.  Of course, it is easier to disqualify than to learn an opponent’s position better than they know it themselves, as Lord Acton admonished.  Your preemptive snit over interpretive nuances of subsidiarity, coupled with your insulting stunt of enclosing Rerem Novarum, teach your students to disqualify, rather than to listen.

Thus, the sadness your letter brought, on an otherwise glorious John Carroll Weekend here in beautiful Chicago, for as we were taught to listen above the din, the din now comes from within.

I hope – pray actually – to see better from each and all of you, as well as from Georgetown University, institutionally, itself.

Utraque unum,

Chris Robling

A.B., philosophy and economics

[Text of “Georgetown Letter”:] 

Dear Rep. Paul Ryan,

Welcome to Georgetown University. We appreciate your willingness to talk about how Catholic social teaching can help inform effective policy in dealing with the urgent challenges facing our country. As members of an academic community at a Catholic university, we see your visit on April 26 for the Whittington Lecture as an opportunity to discuss Catholic social teaching and its role in public policy.

However, we would be remiss in our duty to you and our students if we did not challenge your continuing misuse of Catholic teaching to defend a budget plan that decimates food programs for struggling families, radically weakens protections for the elderly and sick, and gives more tax breaks to the wealthiest few. As the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has wisely noted in several letters to Congress – “a just framework for future budgets cannot rely on disproportionate cuts in essential services to poor persons.” Catholic bishops recently wrote that “the House-passed budget resolution fails to meet these moral criteria.”

In short, your budget appears to reflect the values of your favorite philosopher, Ayn Rand, rather than the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Her call to selfishness and her antagonism toward religion are antithetical to the Gospel values of compassion and love.

Cuts to anti-hunger programs have devastating consequences. Last year, one in six Americans lived below the official poverty level and over 46 million Americans – almost half of them children – used food stamps for basic nutrition. We also know how cuts in Pell Grants will make it difficult for low-income students to pursue their educations at colleges across the nation, including Georgetown. At a time when charities are strained to the breaking point and local governments have a hard time paying for essential services, the federal government must not walk away from the most vulnerable.

While you often appeal to Catholic teaching on “subsidiarity” as a rationale for gutting government programs, you are profoundly misreading Church teaching. Subsidiarity is not a free pass to dismantle government programs and abandon the poor to their own devices. This often misused Catholic principle cuts both ways. It calls for solutions to be enacted as close to the level of local communities as possible. But it also demands that higher levels of government provide help — “subsidium”– when communities and local governments face problems beyond their means to address such as economic crises, high unemployment, endemic poverty and hunger. According to Pope Benedict XVI: “Subsidiarity must remain closely linked to the principle of solidarity and vice versa.”

Along with this letter, we have included a copy of the Vatican’s Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, commissioned by John Paul II, to help deepen your understanding of Catholic social teaching.


[Signed by some 90 Georgetown personnel, mostly professors]

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