Today, Representative Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.) is slated to arrive on campus to speak at the 2012 Whittington Lecture, Georgetown Public Policy Institute’s annual event designed to promote education and awareness about policy issues. Since the announcement of his speech, Ryan has sparked controversy among the University’s Jesuit community over his use of Catholic social teaching in support of his budget policies. In anticipation of his presence on campus, Fr. Thomas Reese wrote a letter to Ryan on behalf of Georgetown’s Jesuit scholars, challenging his use of Catholic social teaching to defend his budget and its destructive impact on the poor.
The letter, which as of Wednesday was signed by over 90 Georgetown faculty members across numerous disciplines, welcomes Ryan and his visit as an opportunity for discourse regarding the role of Catholic social teaching in public policy. “Even though Paul Ryan [and his budget have] been criticized by US bishops,” said Reese, “we’re not saying he can’t be here, but what we are saying is he cannot use Catholic social teaching as a cover, or as an excuse, for a budget that cuts programs for the poor. We’re telling students, buyer beware…think critically as you’re listening to all he has to say.”
The letter goes after what they view as the un-Christian aspects of Ryan’s policies. “Your budget appears to reflect the values of your favorite philosopher, Ayn Rand, rather than the Gospel of Jesus Christ,” it reads. Fr. Reese described Ryan’s embrace of Rand as “really remarkable.” “I mean, this woman was very anti-religion and anti-compassion or serving the poor,” he said. “Her philosophy is based on selfishness, and almost pure libertarianism.”
Fr. Reese also criticizes Ryan’s interpretation of Catholic social teaching. “This is where he uses the term ‘subsidiarity,’ Catholic social teaching very much wants things done at the lowest level possible—but the word possible is important there,” he said. “And when something can’t be dealt with at the lowest level possible, then institutions at a higher level have a responsibility to step in and do something.”
Senior Research Fellow Fr. Raymond Kemp, who has a long history of activism on campus, including support for the Georgetown Solidarity hunger strikes in 2005, echoed that Rep. Ryan is welcome on campus, but his ideas should be questioned.
“I just want to make it clear—don’t come to a Catholic institution having used the Catholic social teaching on your budget without expecting a few Catholic [professors] and other professors who teach Catholic teaching to say, ‘Excuse me representative, but… you’re not going to get an A in this class,’” he said.
GPPI Director Lauren Mullins said that kind of dialogue was precisely the reasoning behind selecting Rep. Ryan as the Whittington Lecturer.“There’s [controversy] right now over competing approaches to how to deal with the growing gap between spending and tax revenue that’s coming up in the next couple of decades,” she said. “While some people disagree with his position, there’s no denying that Ryan is at the center of the efforts to resolve these issues. He’s one of the leading voices on the hill on the future of the budget, so we thought that he would be a great speaker to have.”
Fr. Kemp, echoing his fellow signatories to the letter, says GPPI is right to welcome him to campus. “I think that the GPPI is interested in promoting discussion, dialogue, and debate, I think that the invitation is very well placed…to have him come here and open up his thought processes to the public policy crowd.”
But while they do not challenge Ryan being on campus, the scholars who signed the letter have different hopes for the lecture, urging students to challenge Ryan. “Part of what we as Jesuits try to instill at Georgetown is the whole idea of service,” Reese said. “We’re supposed to be people for others and because of this great opportunity we have been given, we have a corresponding responsibility to help people who haven’t had all the advantages that we’ve had. You just don’t hear that in the Ryan budget.”
Reese’s motivation behind sending the letter was to challenge Ryan and what he views as Catholic teaching to support his budget. Lucky for Ryan, the scholars included a copy of the Vatican’s Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church to “help deepen [his] understanding of Catholic social teaching.”