An Anniversary That Means a Great Deal to Me (if not anyone else)

On this date in 1980 I had an eventful day: I entered the seminary of the Stigmatine Fathers and Brothers. I moved from my home in Woodbridge, Va. to Watertown, MA; actually the Stigmatine House of Studies at 229 Watertown St. in Watertown. I transferred from George Mason University to Boston College and changed my major from Government to Philosophy. It was quite a change.

I write this because as I look over the grand sweep of my life (so far) this is a pretty big day. Previous to this I had visions of graduating from George Mason, going to University of Virginia Law School and spending my career as an attorney. By my sophomore year at George Mason I began to understand that this wasn’t going to fulfill me. The idea of switching to becoming a Catholic priest seemed unbelievable, but somehow attractive. I entered the Stigmatine seminary that day convinced that God would take care of me and prevent anything bad from happening.

He did (take care of me) and didn’t (prevent anything bad from happening). But from that day I’ve never seriously thought about becoming a lawyer, and I’ve never thought about a career away from being a public person of faith. Since that day I’ve been a seminarian (with both the Stigmatines and the Paulist Fathers), a priest with the Paulists, a Director of Religious Education (running a CCD or Sunday School program), a Youth Minister (working with teens), a resident manager in a home for teen mothers, and (finally) a hospice chaplain.

When I look back on the person I was 32 years ago I barely recognize myself. On the other hand I recognize I would not be the middle aged man I am today if my younger self hadn’t taken that step on that day, in that place.

I’m also grateful for all the brave men and women who have crossed my path. Not all of them would predict I’d be where I am now, but all of them had a part in who I am now. My thanks.

The Justice Chronicles Volume 7: Paul Ryan and Ayn Rand

Yesterday we learned that Governor Mitt Romney has chosen Congressman Paul Ryan as his running mate. There is lots to talk about, and I’ll be doing more talking in the next few months. Right now I want to focus on Paul Ryan’s views on the role of government.

When he was in college Paul read Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand (1905-1982) and was immediately taken by it. Much of his political philosophy comes from her views: what she calls “Objectivism.” She holds that:

  1. Reality exists as an objective absolute–facts are facts, independent of man’s feelings, wishes, hopes, or fears
  2. Reason (the faculty which identifies and integrates the material provided by man’s sense) is man’s only means of perceiving reality, his only source of knowledge, his only guide to action, and his basic means of survival.
  3. Man–every man–is an end in himself, not the means to the ends of others. He must exist for his own sake, neither sacrificing himself to others nor sacrificing others to himself. The pursuit of his own rational self-interest and of his own happiness is the highest moral purpose of his life.
  4. The ideal political-economic system is laissez-faire capitalism. It is a system where men deal with one another, not as victims and executioners, nor as masters and slaves, but as traders, by free, voluntary exchange to mutual benefit. It is a system where no man may obtain any values from others by resorting to physical force, and no man may initiate the use of physical force against others. The government acts only as a policeman that protects man’s rights; it uses physical force only in retaliation and only against those who initiate its use, such as criminals or foreign invaders. In a system of full capitalism, there should be (but historically, had not yet been) a complete separations of state and economics, in the same way and for the same reasons as the separation of state and church.

Religion composes the only true difference in their beliefs: Paul is Catholic and Ayn was a strong atheist. In an interview in 1964 she was asked: “Has no religion, in your estimation, ever offered anything of constructive value to human life?” This is her answer:

Qua religion, no—in the sense of blind belief, belief unsupported by, or contrary to, the facts of reality and the conclusions of reason. Faith, as such, is extremely detrimental to human life: it is the negation of reason. But you must remember that religion is an early form of philosophy, that the first attempts to explain the universe, to give a coherent frame of reference to man’s life and a code of moral values, were made by religion, before men graduated or developed enough to have philosophy.

Paul wishes us to believe that you can be a follower of Ayn Rand and a Christian, but can we? How do we square an entire philosophy based exclusively on self interest when Jesus gave his life to save all humanity? How does the pursuit of one’s own self interest find any common ground with a faith that demands that we be our brother’s keeper?

This is not just academic discussion. Paul has proposed a federal budget that is very much in agreement with Objectivist views. He calls it The Path to Prosperity and you can download a copy here. It is clearly a path to prosperity if you are already rich. It makes horrific cuts to programs like Medicare, Medicaid, and a host of other programs that provide basic services to the poor while providing generous tax cuts to the richest among us.

If this budget plan aligns with Objectivist values, what does Christianity say? In 1986 the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops wrote a document called Economic Justice for All: A Pastoral Letter on Catholic Social Teaching and the U.S. Economy. This is their opening paragraph:

We are believers called to follow Our Lord Jesus Christ and proclaim his Gospel in the midst of a complex and powerful economy. This reality poses both opportunities and responsibilities for Catholics in the United States. Our faith calls us to measure this economy, not only by what it produces, but also by how it touches human life and whether it protects or undermines the dignity of the human person. Economic decisions have human consequences and moral content; they help or hurt people, strengthen or weaken family life, advance or diminish the quality of justice in our land.

In paragraph 8 they state: “As a community of believers, we know that our faith is tested by the quality of justice among us, that we can best measure our life together by how the poor and the vulnerable are treated.”

The election is 84 days from now and we have a clear choice to make. More later.