Has Ryan Saved the Republic?

Paul Ryan’s hometown bishop has defended him. The bishop of Lansing, Michigan and the archbishop of Kansas City broke ranks to wonder aloud whether the USCCB’s condemnation of his proposed budget looked excessively partisan. With the exception of Mark Shea, practically every Catholic pundit to the right of America and National Catholic Reporter has agreed, more or less, that Ryan seems okay, is a good old boy, one of us, his love affair with the thinking of Ayn Rand just a youthful indiscretion.

I say, thank God. We’re back to politics as usual, and politics as usual I know how to deal with.

For a while, it looked like the American Church had slipped the moorings of the entire American political system. The bishops called for civil disobedience and warned of martyrdoms. Archbishop Chaput in particular wore his alienation like a laurel wreath, preaching on the world’s ephemerality, patriotism’s limits as a virtue, the imperfections of democracy. Basically, the hour of revolution had come, and we were all supposed to be Cristeros or Cameronians — Viva Cristo Rey! Nae King save Christ!

Now, the general mood seems to be: Put down your crosses and return to your homes, everyone. We’ve got a solid budget hawk on the ticket.

Okay, maybe I am being a little unfair. Not everyone has gone so far as National Catholic Register’s Pat Archbold, who praises Ryan’s budget plan, even to the point of fraternally correcting the bishops who condemned it. Yes, the deficit does need some slimming down. Yes, those stingy exemptions written into the contraceptive mandate of the Affordable Care Act threaten the free exercise of religion. Worse, given the assurances Obama’s made in the past, they constitute an act of betrayal. There’s no trivializing any of that. No one who feels relief at the appearance of a dynamic personality on the opposite ticket has any cause to blush.

I just wish, for the love of Mike, that someone had let me in on the joke, taken me aside and whispered, “Listen, all this inflated rhetoric and saber-rattling boils down to a very simple point: Romney’s a flip-flopper and a stiff with the common touch of a Capet, and we’re sure he’s going to lose.” Whatever kind soul took the trouble would have earned my undying gratitude, and, I firmly believe, a kingdom in heaven.

Look, I’m relatively new to Catholicism, but even I have some sense of the debate that’s been raging quietly since the end of the 19th century: Is America good for the Church? I also have some grasp of the argument that goes: No, it’s not. Basically, all that freedom led to license, which has secularized the culture, which has marginalized the Church. Even John Courtney Murray would agree, were he still alive, or so the reasoning goes.

But I have never quite understood what was supposed to happen when the conensus became official. Even Professor Patrick Deneen, who warns of American-style liberalism’s unsustainability, comes up short on concrete alternatives. And that scares me. To these 21st-century ears, Libertas, the encyclical in which Pope Leo XIII defines freedom for the ages, is a grim piece of work. Natural liberty, the kind that counts, says Leo, means being free to follow the natural law. It means having the right to do right, speak right and think right. He has no patience at all for the other kind, where people are free to do, speak and think wrong. That happens to be the kind of liberty I’m used to, the kind I cherish.

How long, I’ve often wondered, before Catholics decide that both major parties have made themselves irrelevant by surrendering so much ground to Mammon? And where would they go from there? My Patheos colleague Thomas MacDonald calls himself a distributist. To that, I say: Ee-aye-ee-aye-oh, and holla at me for me for the barn-raising. The Catholic-flavored political philosophies that worry me are the ickier, more authoritarian ones– integralism, corporatism, Rexism, and all the other systems that aren’t quite fascism, but come so close that whole doctoral dissertations have been written to split the difference between them.

In my worst nightmare, one of them comes back into fashion. Exactly how the modern-day phalange acquires power I haven’t quite worked out. Maybe Michael Voris, taking a page from Brigham Young, leads his followers to a sparsely populated western state — with my luck, mine — and reigns as caudillo, by the Grace of God. Or maybe, rather than strike out on their own, Latin-style conservatives come to form a distinct wing within the GOP, complaining about the false ecumenism in national prayer breakfasts. Or maybe they’ll just gain enough credibility in intellectual circles that the strain of blogging around their sensibilities will send me to an early grave.

What, you want to laugh? Well, go ahead, hepcats and kittens — yuk it up. But fair’s fair. If Obama can be Hitler or Stalin, I get to start at the spectre of Generalissimo Buchanan.

Love Ryan or hate him, he’s a very mainstream American Republican, which is to say a Tea Party Republican — pro-life, but not nearly so down on gay rights as he could be. Even if he’s telling the truth when he says he’s planned his budget cuts with the Catholic principles of subsidiarity and solidarity in mind, he’s pitched them to non-Catholics as expressions of rugged, Randian invididualism — the kind the Church tends to frown on. The fact that he and it are being so widely hailed, embraced or at least cut slack, tells me something. It tells me that even the crankiest Catholic righty remains as attached to this licentious country, its wicked ways, and its two-party system as I am.

I repeat: thank God. There’s a statement that bears repetition, if any statement ever did.

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