Now that Paul Ryan is (sort of) willing to run (reluctantly) for Speaker of the House, his record is being pored over. For my part, I looked over his visit to Benedictine College (my employer) as commencement speaker two years ago, when he was fresh from his campaign for Vice President.
Here is some of what he shared.
Ryan is a seeker.
He spoke with students about their faith and was impressed.
“I’ve gathered from our conversations that you know quite a bit on this topic. You know very well that faith isn’t a Christmas ornament. It’s not something you save for a special occasion. It’s something you live with — and struggle with — every day. That’s why it’s so frustrating — and so comforting.”
He said “my advice — in a nutshell — is to keep up the search. If you still have questions after four years of college — if you’re not quite satisfied with the answers you have — discover for yourself what you really believe … through deep thought and prayer — your moral code will be far more durable and rewarding.”
He shared his personal story.
“Like yours, my story of faith and understanding is personal — and far from complete,” he told our students. “It began when my dad died. I was only 16, and it was tough on our family. It was tough on me. I’d been raised Catholic. I’d gone to Catholic school. I’d even served as an altar boy. I thought I had it all figured out. But when such a shock occurs in your life, it makes you question everything.”
And so, “At a young age, I started a lengthy search for answers,” he said. “I read everything I could get my hands on: from Freud to C.S. Lewis, from Hegel to Hayek, from Aristotle to Aquinas — to everything in between.”
While acknowledging “Our Catholic faith has endured for thousands of years — and for a reason,” he said his faith journey continues.
“After I was elected to Congress,” he said, “I began to wrestle with many issues — both as a representative and as a Catholic. And as I wrestled with my views, I noticed two themes in my beliefs — both of which come from Catholic social teaching: solidarity and subsidiarity.”
He Links St. John Paul II with religious liberty.
He said “I strongly support measures to protect religious liberty. I believe Catholic institutions — like colleges, hospitals, and social agencies — should be free to do their work according to their moral standards. It’s essential to our society. And it’s essential to subsidiarity.”
He added, “Over the years, we’ve been blessed to hear three popes make the case for these principles. Take John Paul II. He rallied the Polish people against the Soviet Union. He said, in effect, that Communism was wrong. There was something beyond this world — and we knew it. There was a God — and we were his children. And by speaking the truth, he electrified the nation — 36 million strong — not with a promise of wealth, but with a simple call: ‘Do not be afraid!’ He showed solidarity with the Polish people. And he freed them from fear.”
He went on to sum up two papacies, starting with Benedict.
“Pope Benedict XVI warned us about another danger — which he called ‘the dictatorship of relativism.’ It’s the belief that there is no right or wrong — that every person is a law unto herself. And it can’t stand the truth — because the truth is self-confident and self-sustaining. So it snuffs it out. It burns books. It censors the press. But as St. Thomas Aquinas once wrote, ‘all men are forced to give their assent’ to reason. Pope Benedict revived interest in his teachings. Just as his predecessor Pope John Paul freed Poland from fear, Pope Benedict taught us how to protect the world from falsehood.
He has high hopes in Pope Francis.
Then he turned to Francis, who he said was “breathing new life into the fight against poverty. He’s renewing our commitment to help the least among us. He has a chance to lift the dialogue to a higher level. I hope he will heal the divisions between the so-called Catholic ‘left’ and ‘right,’ so ‘that all may be one’ in Christ — because it’s the spiritually impoverished who need the most help.”
He saw sympathy in Francis for subsidiarity-conscious Catholics like himself.
“Pope Francis calls ‘the tyranny of relativism’ ‘the spiritual poverty of our time.’ And it afflicts rich countries worst of all, including our own. To truly help the poor, we have to help the ‘whole’ person — not just the material needs, but the spiritual ones too. The fact is, government can’t give this help — because the law is blind. It treats everyone the same. And though we’re all equal, we’re not all the same. We have different needs.”
He attempts to apply Catholic social teaching in his work.
He called political office his “vocation” and shared “my take on Catholic social teaching.”
“It’s not a step-by-step guide; it’s a philosophy,” he said. “It grounds you in certain principles. In a culture that stresses the ‘I,’ the Church stresses the ‘We.’ In a culture that liberates the passions, the Church shows that discipline gives you freedom. And in a world where relativism threatens the weak, the Church works to protect the poor and the powerless. These are the truths that anchor Catholic social teaching. They offer guidance as you discover God’s plan for you.”