The Insincerity of the Georgetown Letter

As has been reported here and here and here, some 90 Georgetown University professors and administrators sent a letter to Congressman Paul Ryan in advance of his speech on campus last week. The main point the letter makes is that Ryan’s political outlook and the budget that issues from it violate Catholic teaching, even though Ryan claims that his Catholic understanding informs his ideas. Those who signed the document make a firm recommendation to Ryan: do not maintain positions that impact the poor and the needy so strongly, but instead preserve government programs aimed toward them.

That’s the stated goal of the letter, to make a man in power change his mind. But as one reads the statement, a big question arises: why does it contain so many condescending, indignant, and downright snotty assertions? As George Weigel observed here, for all its self-assumed high-mindedness, the professors express most of all an all-too-common “academic snobbery.”

The opening paragraph, one must admit, doesn’t sound that way. It’s a generous welcome that anticipates a sober discussion:

“Welcome to Georgetown University. We appreciate your willingness to talk about how Catholic social teaching can help inform effective policy in dealing with the urgent challenges facing our country. As members of an academic community at a Catholic university, we see your visit on April 26 for the Whittington Lecture as an opportunity to discuss Catholic social teaching and its role in public policy.”

(The full text of the letter is here.)

But the very next sentence changes the terms of the exchange entirely:

“However, we would be remiss in our duty to you and our students if we did not challenge your continuing misuse of Catholic teaching to defend a budget plan that decimates food programs for struggling families, radically weakens protections for the elderly and sick, and gives more tax breaks to the wealthiest few.”

No discussion there. Morality and knowledge have shifted entirely to the professors’ side and Ryan is condemned before the conversation even begins. This is not an invitation for equals to “talk,” but a rebuke by the wise ones to a wayward, errant sophomore. It would have been easy for the academics to signal their disagreement with Ryan but still assume he has respectable intentions, for instance, by saying, “We believe that many of your policies contradict Catholic social principles, but we look forward to hearing your side and engaging in a lively and positive debate.” But they can’t seem to suppress the desire to sting.

In the next paragraph, the tone sinks lower. “In short, your budget appears to reflect the values of your favorite philosopher, Ayn Rand, rather than the Gospel of Jesus Christ.” The Rand reference goes back to Ryan’s statements a few years ago about admiring Rand during his youth and urging staffers to read Atlas Shrugged. (See here for a discussion.) Ryan disputes the charge, but even if it is true that Ryan admires Rand’s representations of the dangers of state power and collectivist thinking, this reference doesn’t raise a substantive question. It is just a catty remark. One can easily imagine the sneer on the faces of the academics as they utter “your favorite philosopher.” Once again, it would have been easy for them to say, “You have expressed admiration for Ayn Rand’s work, but, you must agree, her vision is wholly contrary to that of our Lord, and we hope hear how you might reconcile them.” That would open the discussion, not close it.

Further on, we hear that Ryan isn’t just confused or mistaken. He is “profoundly” wrong: “While you often appeal to Catholic teaching on ‘subsidiarity’ as a rationale for gutting government programs, you are profoundly misreading Church teaching.” Note the extreme verb “gutting.” The rhetoric casts Ryan as a wild figure, and the next sentence reveals his catastrophic impact: “Subsidiarity is not a free pass to dismantle government programs and abandon the poor to their own devices.”

Of course, Ryan has an obvious initial response, which he has offered repeatedly. In the long term, the poor and needy are hurt by these government programs (at their current spending levels), he believes. This is where the debate really lies, but Ryan isn’t even given a chance to expound his side. He is cast as a know-nothing from the start.

The final sentence turns to an insufferable condescension:

“Along with this letter, we have included a copy of the Vatican’s Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, commissioned by John Paul II, to help deepen your understanding of Catholic social teaching.”

Translation: “You are a shallow mind, and you don’t even understand, much less practice, your own religion.”

The rhetoric marks this letter not as a sincere expression of frank disagreement and encouragement of debate. It is a petulant complaint. It isn’t designed to convince Ryan of his misunderstanding, but to berate him for it. It serves not to ponder the implications of Catholic social teaching for Federal policy, but to express the superior thinking of the signatories. If they had another intention, they wouldn’t have forgotten a basic truth about honest debate: if you wish to change someone’s mind, don’t start out by insulting him.


  • Mark Bauerlein

    Mark Bauerlein is a professor emeritus of English at Emory University and an editor at First Things, where he hosts a podcast twice a week. He is the author of five books, including The Dumbest Generation Grows Up: From Stupefied Youth to Dangerous Adults.

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One thought on “The Insincerity of the Georgetown Letter”

  1. Paul Ryan suggested gutting government spending? Well, how about that! It’s time someone did that on something besides Defense (which the Congress and Obama Administration are already doing).
    Three cheers for Paul Ryan, and may Georgetown live in interesting times.

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