As Paul Ryan battles it out with patronizing Catholic “scholars,” it seems like a good time to have a basic discussion about what charity is all about in the first place. As Ryan’s recent speech at Georgetown demonstrated, he is not going to take his criticism quietly on the issue of religion and national debt. "I suppose that there are some Catholics who for a long time thought they had a monopoly of sorts ... on the social teaching of our church," Ryan declared. "Of course there can be differences among faithful Catholics on this. The work I do as a Catholic holding office conforms to the social doctrine as best I can make of it."
This was, of course, in the midst of protests and after a group of Georgetown University faculty members sent a scathing letter to Ryan asserting that he is misrepresenting true Catholic doctrine in his proposals to cut the budget. One of the organizers of the letter had this to say, as reported in the Huffington Post: “Our problem with Representative Ryan is that he claims his budget is based on Catholic social teaching. This is nonsense. As scholars, we want to join the Catholic bishops in pointing out that his budget has a devastating impact on programs for the poor.”
Ryan, rightly, has made it clear that his intent is to save the country from debilitating debt which our children’s children will never hope to pay off if the course is not corrected now. However, at this point, any reduction of welfare for any of the current expansive programs that span our country from shore to shore is seen as mean-spirited and unmerciful.
However, one particular question often is left out of this debate. These self-appointed spokespeople for all-things-Catholic posit an underlying assumption that if government assistance is reduced, the direct outcome will be a harmful impact on the poor. Ryan makes the argument, of course, that the economy will compensate because those individuals will be able to attain gainful employment. (Also, despite what seems to be the prevailing interpretation of his budget, he is not removing all government assistance for the poor, and actually has taken care to make these programs work more efficiently.)
The real question, though, is: why are so many convinced that forced charity is the answer? Why do religious individuals believe government assistance is superior to private giving? How did we get to a place where reducing government aid translates to not caring for our poor? Is it not the responsibility of families, churches, neighbors, and faith-based organizations to attend to our poor? Does charity began at home or does it begin in Washington?
Our society is confused indeed if the primary mode for caring for others is via enforcement instead of choice. It is much easier to give someone else’s money than your own. It is also much easier to believe that your charity is “fair” if you know that everyone else is required to give as well. But, what type of country does that turn us into? When did it become the epitome of generosity to tax to raise alms for the poor?
Indeed, the poor, wayfaring man is everyone’s responsibility. But, the blessings of charity certainly cannot be attained if that charity if forced. The growth of a person is not realized if the sacrifice that should have spurned that growth was taken by someone else instead of given freely by the individual. This is parallel to exercise. Does one benefit from jumping jacks if someone else comes and lifts a person up and down? No, the effort must be made by the individual.
The widespread impact of millions of individuals in a society being forced to support our increasingly-massive welfare system instead of being given a choice to do the right thing will certainly lead to reverberations that weaken us as a people. Those who oppose Ryan and his bold fiscal blueprint on religious grounds need to be able to answer to this assertion.