Paul Ryan’s Libertarianism and Catholic Social Thought
The good king, according to Thomas Aquinas, had to be motivated by charity. Love must animate the way he regarded and treated his subjects, especially the least of his kingdom. Thomas well knew that the great prophets of the Hebrew Bible summoned rulers, over and over again, to show solicitude for the widow and the orphan. Those who had no natural defender, those whose welfare depended upon the kindnesses of others, they were the ones kings were charged most directly to support and assist. For Thomas, this was simply another aspect of the common good that leaders must strive to conserve and promote. For the leader knew that no individual exists in isolation, that civilization is an enterprise lived in common, and that we are in the end all brothers and sisters.
Catholic social thought, as it has evolved ever since Pope Leo XIII issued that great call to action, Rerum novarum, in 1891, both draws from and remains committed to the Thomistic ideal. From Leo’s courageous first footsteps to the grand encyclicals of John Paul II and Benedict XVI, the popes have elaborated a rich theology of the state.
The state, the popes recognized, is above all social. It exists for the good of all. It is not a vehicle by which a few are enriched while others are beggared. The popes well understood, furthermore, that private property is never wholly private. John Paul II coined the expression “the universal destination of human goods” — capturing in this term the realization that all that we have is owed to God, that it must not be used exploitatively, and that we must finally give an accounting of its use before God’s majestic throne.
The popes have also insisted that the state has an affirmative role to play in protecting and improving peoples’ lives. John Paul II and Benedict XVI have spoken eloquently about the dangers of marginalization. Forcing the poor to the edges of society, systematically stripping them of their dignity, depriving them of the means to support themselves, are social sins that carry social consequences — from petty crimes to devastating acts of mass terror. The state is uniquely positioned to cure the malady of marginalization through the public services it renders. It teaches, it marshals resources, it regulates the economy. It ensures, in short, what Thomas called fair distribution of social goods. Similarly, the state is called upon to see to the needs of the disabled, the elderly, the frail and the enfeebled — all of those, in short, whom a modern Thomas Aquinas might class among the “widows and the orphans.” [more]