My friend claims not to enjoy racking up debt. He doesn't seem to think he has a choice. He pays the tuition of his college aged children, and he supports his family in a comfortable lifestyle. His children take private art and music lessons, and he pays the rent of his unemployed nephew. But as much as he desires to love his children, he isn't doing them any favors.
Eventually, for my friend, the debts will come due. When they do, his children will be in a difficult place. Never having sacrificed, they haven’t built or saved money, or prepared for financial independence. My friend’s imprudence will cripple no one more severely than his children.
My friend’s fatherhood reminds me of the protagonist of Mario Puzo’s The Godfather. “I have,” explains Don Corleone, “a sentimental weakness for my children, and I spoil them.” Governing by sentimental affection can impede the hard choices required by compassion—by real love.
Knowing what is coming; few would say that my friend is acting with compassion, or with a Christian sense of responsibility.
Christian responsibility- expressed sometimes as stewardship- is the practice of making prudent and difficult judgments. It is the recognition that we cannot give everything we wish to, we cannot spend what we do not have, and we cannot borrow what we can’t repay.
Christian stewardship cares for the poor by prudently planning-responsibly spending what is in the realm of the possible, while recognizing the limitations of our resources. St. Augustine reflected that prudent stewardship is “love choosing wisely between the things that help and those that hinder.
Responsibility is a virtue- and it’s also the moral obligation of sensible adults. Responsibility is also the moral obligation of governments. In his 2010 book Light of the World, Pope Benedict XVI chastised Western governments for “living at the expense of future generations.” With regard to debt, he said, “we are living in untruth.”
Earlier this week, candidate Mitt Romney selected Congressman Paul Ryan to be his running mate. Ryan is a Catholic and a fiscal conservative. Over the past few months he been has the subject of considerable criticism for his political views. His fiscal perspective has been roundly condemned as being somehow anti-Catholic- even by a few American bishops. At the core of this charge is the idea that Ryan is compassionless to the poor.
Ryan’s fiscal plans would dramatically cut some programs for the materially poor. This would seriously impact many Americans. But Ryan claims that his plans are rooted in the Christian sense of responsibility. In looking to the future, Ryan claims, his concern is for the long-term care of America’s poor- which requires sacrifice in the present.
I am not a policy expert. I do not know whether Paul Ryan’s fiscal plans are the right plans for America’s present- or her future. I cannot, nor would I, endorse him or any other candidate. But claims that Paul Ryan’s plan run deeply counter to Catholic social teaching are unfounded and unreasonable. Some criticisms are so insidious that one wonders whether the critics have actually read Ryan’s plans.
For Catholics- there are certain social issues on which the answers are firm and absolute. Catholics must recognize the dignity of the unborn, and the injustice of legalized killing. Catholics must recognize the dignity of human sexuality and the immutability of marriage between man and woman. Catholics must recognize the preferential option- the Lord’s love- for the poor. These issues must inform the decisions Catholic leaders make in proposing or supporting policy.
Beyond these non-negotiable principles, there is room for considerable debate on particular policy choices or initiatives. But a primary element of the debate for Catholics- for all reasonable adults- must be the long-term consequences of our choices. St. Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologica insists that strategic decisions take place in light of our end, or purpose, and the means to get there- rather than the dictates of immediate sentimental inclinations. The just means, he says, include the principles of solidarity and subsidiarity- that is, authentic fraternity with the poor, and real respect for the family and the local community.
We should have a serious debate about whether Paul Ryan’s plans- and those of his political opponents- serve our national purpose. We should discuss seriously whether they utilize just means. But we should also discuss whether his plans, and those of his opponents, prudently steward the resources we have.
Paul Ryan is concerned that America will soon be bankrupt, and so we must make hard choices. If he is right, and we ignore the message because the consequences seem compassionless, our sentimental affections may cripple the ones our Lord loves the most- our children.
The Most Rev. Samuel J. Aquila currently serves as the Archbishop of Denver, Colo. with the episcopal motto, “Do whatever he tells you. (Jn 2:5)”