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.

  • http://www.withouthavingseen.com Ryan Haber

    Good article, Max, it’s interesting. I’ve gotten something of the same vibe, but I think really it is that we (Catholics) feel increasing confidence and they (Democrats) are increasingly nervous that they are going to lose the election, and the radical edge of the Enlightenment that they (Democrats) represent will be pushed off for a few more years in favor of the more moderate mainstream of the Enlightenment that they (Republicans) favor and that we (Catholics) can live with.

    But just a few more years.

    Enlightenment Liberalism, the grandfather of both Republicans and Democrats, is ultimately unsustainable because it both requires and corrodes a Christian worldview and morality. We will move into an era of dictators again – the West was ruled by dictators before Christianity, and will be ruled by them after Christianity. Without a conscience, we must have cops, and lots of them. Instead of the authentic liberty proclaimed by Leo XIII, we will have a choice in iPod colors and abortions. In fact, we are well advanced along that path already.

    That’s what amazes me about Catholics who want a king, of the various stripes you mentioned. They don’t understand that we are not going to have a St. Louis IX, King of France, for our enlightened and loving monarchy, providing justice for the downtrodden and alms for the poor. We won’t even be so lucky as to have a Napoleon Bonaparte with an attempt at rational law and order. We will have a Caesar or a Stalin, or perhaps a Putin if we are lucky, or someone else who either knows nothing of Christianity or who rejects it entirely. We as a culture cannot go on rejecting Christ and expect a Christian king. And the Christian monarchs – who count tons of real saints among them – weren’t the first step after Cicero. There was a long and bloody period of factions, rivalry, and ruthless powerlust between them. Christian monarchy – that is to say, limited monarchy and ultimately limited government – grew out of centuries of Christianization, not out of centuries of dechristianization.

    There’s no going back. That means, we have to hold onto what is good. It doesn’t make sense to say, “Our republic is broken! God give us a king!” because all that will happen is our children will get a tyrant. Much better to try to shore up the ship and see if we can fix her up and keep her afloat another generation.

    Leo XIII, incidentally, is not decrying limited government, the basis upon which freedom, as you mean it, is predicated. He is decrying the idea of liberty as license, of good and evil as legally interchangeable, the law as morally neutral. In fact, the only way for us to have any sort of freedom is to have limited government. We must not let the limited state’s refusal to coerce our actions mean that we needn’t control ourselves, or that our actions aren’t subject to consequences and even legal punishment.

  • http://metabooleans.blogspot.com/ Nick

    I don’t understand. Are you saying it’s a bad thing that he’s “not so down on gay rights as he could be”? I don’t see how voting in favor of nondiscrimination laws affects his position on traditional marriage. Is there more to those laws than meets the eye or something?

  • Patrick

    “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?”

    Where I “go” is to only vote on the local ballot measures. I mostly skip the partisan offices. That doesn’t make me a monarchist or fascist; but I might rather be ruled by a caudillo than a bunch of bankers and “squalid oligarchs” as Russell Kirk put it.

  • Tim in Cleveland

    It’s pretty sad for Mitt Ryan that Paul Ryan is the lighting bolt that sparks his candidacy. I mean, Ryan is a bit of a dork. But he is better than Biden (but who isn’t?).

    The whole Ayn Rand thing is somewhat disturbing, but honestly, all I know of Rand are of some reviews (I still have to re-read some good books, so I’m spending time on a book called “The Fountainhead”). But if the worst you can say of a politician is that he has poor taste in literature (and music: Rage Against the Machine is pretty lame for anyone beyond high school), he can’t be so bad for the country.

  • http://ohnimus.wordpress.com Christian Ohnimus
  • Elizabeth Anne Gill


    You know, I’ve never agreed with you 100%. Except here, and especially that last lil bit.

    I say again, a-freakin-men.

  • Mark D

    Without realizing it, you have shown why the American Church has become weak. Once the Church takes it upon itself to feed the hungry and clothe the naked apart from federal agencies, its power will return. But you, I, and others keep crying out for the government to do our jobs because it is so much easier than doing them ourselves. What we have done is make the Church just one more social agency, and social agencies, as we are finding out, are rather easy to push around. Forget Rand, Ryan, and Romney. Forget the anti-Catholic Democratic Party. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t vote, but afterwards we must return to our posts and do our jobs!