Paul Ryan, Literary Idols and Catholic Wonk Words

(August 19, 2012)
Unlike other of my contemporaries whose reading tastes rose to philoso-fiction, I missed Ayn Rand but for one of her more obscure works, We The Living. My college-age reading idol was H.L. Mencken to whom I was introduced by Fr. James A.P. Byrne, S.J. at Georgetown Prep.

Mencken was made for the cynical young man who aspired to be a smart-aleck. He wrote in his 1922 essay On Being An American, "Here the general average of intelligence, of knowledge, of competence, of integrity, of self-respect, of honor is so low that any man who knows his trade, does not fear ghosts, has read fifty good books, and practices the common decencies stands out as brilliantly as a wart on a bald head..."

From Minority Report [Mencken's notebooks), No. 172: "The only way way that democracy can be made bearable is by developing and cherishing a class of men sufficiently honest and disinterested to challenge the prevailing quacks."

Other Mencken quotes that come to mind: "The new logic: It would be nice if it were true. Therefore, it's true." "Sin is a dangerous toy in the hands of the virtuous."

Mencken had many insights about human nature and American society that are worth considering. He was a writer's writer. I still enjoy reading him and commend to all his autobiographical works such as the "Days" series. He had a fascinating life.

However, as I got older and matured in my Catholic faith, The Sage of Baltimore's aura began to diminish. What is now visible in the nearly extinguished light is a pundit who carried many of the worst traits of the modern chattering class.

Mencken was something of a phony, seasoning his opera with foreign phrases even though he was not even fluent in the German of his Baltimore tribe. By his own admission he was not interested in truth. Collections of his columns were called "Prejudices." He bragged that his view of the world had remained unchanged since childhood. An avowed believer in the inerrancy of science -- That was his "truth" -- he dismissed all religion as nonsense. Yet it's likely that he never bothered to read any spiritual works other than fundamentalist tracts.

So as I've moved on from Henry Louis Mencken to Evelyn Waugh, Francois Mauriac, Flannery O'Connor, Theodore Dalrymple (another insightful atheist), I can certainly understand that it's possible for one's thinking and literary hero-worship to evolve over time. I can see how someone such as Paul Ryan, the long-time devotee of rugged individualist (and pro-abortionist) Ayn Rand, could declare, as Ryan did to National Review, “Don’t give me Ayn Rand. Give me Thomas Aquinas.”

The problem with Ryan is that his conversion occurred awfully quickly. More significantly, I think, it occurred in the age of the Catholic political adviser.

The New Catholic Vote

The Catholic political adviser is someone who counsels politicians on how to get Catholic votes. Decades ago, nearly all Catholic voters were Democrats. Getting their vote was either an impossibility for the elephant or a cinch for the donkey. There was no need for advisers.

However, in the 1960s, as the Democratic Party was chainsawed from its Judeo-Christian roots and became the party of abortion, of entitlement, of higher taxes, the votes of more discerning Catholic votes came up for grabs. Then, during the latter years of John Paul II's papacy, it was noticed that Catholic identity was being rebuilt, that more Catholics were taking a greater interest in the traditions of their faith.

Significant among these were educated young folks who were reading and discussing, via the new Internet, Aquinas and other Catholic thinkers to whom the Post-Vatican II Cultural Revolutionists in The Catholic Establishment were indifferent and hostile.

New web sites, publications and other media rushed out to meet the pro-life and prayerful, the young and thoughtful. Without realizing it, the latter had become a market for the commercially-minded, a constituency for politicians, an opportunity for opportunists. By the time George W. Bush was running for office, the Catholic political adviser had been born.

And what a wonder-child the first and best known was! He was a college professor who had been married three times and who had seduced a drunken student in his office. He still hangs around with the Catholic Celibritariat.

Armed with the lingo and yearnings of the New Catholic Vote; the Catholic adviser's job is to broker that vote by advising his employer on what to do to get its notice, what codewords to say. One such is "subsidiarity," a really wonky Catholic word .

The advent of the Catholic vote broker was not lost on the Democrats. However given the discernment (and senescence) of the typical Catholic Democrat, all they have to do to bolster support among their loyal faithful is to be pictured on page A1 with an archbishop.

In 2008, someone phoned in to advise then House Speaker Nancy Pelosi that she should cite St. Augustine to rectify her pro-abortion stance with her claim that she is, in her words, "an ardent, practicing Catholic." Nancy didn't regurgitate very well.

Thus, the question is: Does Paul Ryan and any other politician who talks about Catholic social doctrine, really mean it?

Ryan wrote a letter to Cardinal Timothy Dolan citing Pope John Paul II's Centessimus Annus, in which the blessed pontiff criticized the social assistance state for leading "to a loss of human energies and an inordinate increase of public agencies, which are dominated more by bureaucratic ways of thinking than by concern for serving their clients, and which are accompanied by an enormous increase in spending.”

All quite true, but do congresspeople actually write their own letters or speeches? Was this letter -- and a Ryan commencement speech touching on Aquinas -- really written by Ryan? Or were they penned by some sharp, young staff member who went to Notre Dame, or Christendom or even Ave Maria University?

The Prevailing Quacks in Conservatism

Beyond that is the question of whether or not Catholic social doctrine and its codewords are being used as con game props to further hoodwink Tea Party conservatives and social conservatives, such as pro-lifers, into going along with the dominant greedy conservatives' agenda?

Greedy conservatives are interested only in their own enrichment. They want only to maximize returns on investments and reduce costs. They care nothing about the general welfare, creating jobs, preserving the traditional family or upholding the dignity of human life.

Greedy conservatives are against the kind of "big, intrusive government" that prevents them from selling tainted food (lowers their costs). However, they are for the kind of big, intrusive government that gives them a financial edge, enables them to crush competition and makes people buy whatever their selling. Greedy conservatives think the only free market is a market free of competition. They want monopoly.

Did you ever think that really, really, really being pro free-market might actually, in a way, mean being anti-business?

Greedy conservatives have duped the fiscal conservatives and family conservatives into believing that's what's good for them is good for everyone else.

Most conservative rally-criers and opinion- makers, including the Catholic ones -- Patrick J. Buchanan is one exception I can think of -- are in the service of the greedy. All of them talk as if the existence of concentrated wealth is automatically a boon to civilization. None of them warn of increasing corporate control over where we live, what we eat, how we are entertained, how, and whether, we are protected. None of them express, as G.K. Chesterton did, that the problem isn't big government or big business, the problem is big.

The Compendium of Catholic Social Doctrine (1) digests many wonderful thoughts about such things as private initiative and business initiative. A sampling:

From No. 338. "...businesses create wealth for all of society, not just for their owners, but also for the other subjects [persons] involved in their activities...businesses also perform a social function, creating opportunities for meeting, cooperating and the enhancement of the abilities of the people involved."

"A business' objective must be met met in economic terms...but the authentic values that bring about the concrete development of the person must not be neglected."

From 339. "All those involved in a business venture must be mindful that the community in which they work represents a good for everyone and not a structure that permits the satisfaction of someone's merely personal interests."

As we move through 2012 and beyond, ask yourself: how many human beings, conservative or otherwise, wake up thinking thoughts like those?

(1) The Compendium of Catholic Social Doctrine, USCCB, Washington DC, 2005

Walk Softly When Carrying a Crosier

Speaking of archbishops appearing in the news alongside politicians, as I do far down on the left, I have to say that I think that Archbishop William E. Lori and Cardinal Timothy Dolan have been mighty careless in how they relate to elected officials.

I don't think that clergy should relate at all to politicians. I, myself, wouldn't invite the ghost of Al Smith to the Al Smith Dinner.

Seriously, I don't think that any current office-holder of any party, of any frequency on the political spectrum should be invited to speak at or be honored by a Catholic institution, nor should they be publicly complimented by Catholic clergy even if that praise is given with qualifications.

The reason? Simple. Next week it could come out that the honoree is the next John Edwards, that he is a crook or has been having an affair. The family-values types seem to be the ones who fall the hardest. "Sin is a dangerous toy in the hands of the virtuous."

Archbishop Lori allowed himself to be suckered into testifying at a meaningless hearing called so that Darrell Issa and Jerrold Nadler could do some grandstanding. Sandra Fluke testified. Rush Limbaugh called her a slut. The firestorm blew up. Voters got madder than ever at Congress. The House abandoned efforts to pass legislation that would have countered the contraception mandate.

In effect, Lori participated in the derailment of the protection of religious freedom that he was seeking.

Methinks that Cardinal Dolan runs his mouth too much, perhaps in the belief that hearing the thoughts of an affable and engaging cardinal will make people think.

The problem is: people, in the main, are not capable of receiving the often-subtle ideas that the cardinal broadcasts. He declared in a homily "I want to be a saint." The New York Daily News, although that publication is generally sympathetic to "Timmy," cast his aspiration as "Being a cardinal isn't good enough for me. I want more."

Lately Dolan was heard bragging on Sirius Catholic Radio that he and Paul Ryan "go way back" and calling Ryan "upright" and "a great public servant."

The cardinal quickly added, as these guys often do when they put their toes on the borderline of outright endorsement, that he was, “speaking personally and not from a partisan point of view."

Well, what if there is a side to the candidate that the cardinal doesn't know about? What if Obama's IRS uses praise like this to open up a second front -- that of tax exemption -- on the church?

Paul Ryan Catholic Social Doctrine
Copyright 2012 by Neal J. Conway. All rights reserved.

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