At Prayer Breakfast, Paul Ryan Urges Christians to Defend Christian Principles in Politics

By Gillian Richards Published on May 25, 2018

House speaker Paul Ryan made a passionate defense of Christian principles in the public square at the National Catholic Prayer Breakfast Thursday morning. Such principles will serve as an “antidote to what ails our culture,” Ryan said to the crowd of over 1,200 people.

Be Still

“The speech was less the policy wonk that most voters know than the devout Catholic that really defines him,” observed Stream executive editor Jay Richards, who attended the breakfast.

Ryan began his speech with the well-known verse from Psalm 46, “Be still and know that I am God.” He said Americans have lost touch with this stillness in today’s public discourse. The public square has become a place for “the survival of the shrillest” rather than a place to exchange ideas based in reason.

We have also lost this stillness in our day-to-day lives. We are becoming so engrossed in our immediate needs that we forget to step back and reflect on larger questions such as our place in society and the dignity of the human person.

This is why prayer is so important. Without “the stillness reflection — of prayer,” Ryan said, we cannot “reconnect with our faith, with our place in the circle of humanity.” We need to be attentive to this as Christians. Quoting St. Augustine, Ryan said, “God is always trying to give good things to us, but our hands are too full to receive them.”

Catholic Social Principles 

He urged the crowd to prayerfully accept the responsibility God has given us to shape our culture. The Christian faith, he argued, gives us principles that apply to our personal lives. They also apply to politics and public life as well.

Throughout the speech, he invoked four key principles — human dignity, solidarity, subsidiarity, and the common good. (The Catholic audience knew these as key tenets of Catholic social teaching. But they are based on natural law and reason, and aren’t unique to Catholics.)

Such principles, according to the Wisconsin congressman, provide a framework for a free and virtuous society. “Not a set of policy prescriptions or even a toolkit for producing those prescriptions — but a vision of dignity and possibility.”

The faithfulness of clergymen and lay people to these principles is more important than ever. Especially in a culture plagued by moral relativism, identity politics, and tribalism, which technology can spread like a virus.

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By respecting the human person, we serve the common good. American democracy rests on the belief that every human being has value. Thomas Jefferson suggested this in the Declaration of  Independence. Moral relativism, by contrast, gives us no way to defend either individuals or the common good.

Democracy requires solidarity — the idea that we have duties to our neighbors. It gives us a sense of civic friendship even when we disagree. It is “the foundation for a mature civic patriotism,” he said, “where we live our freedom for the common good, not just our personal gain.”

And related to solidarity is subsidiarity. It urges us to focus on helping our neighbors we know first-hand, rather than just loving humanity in general.

If we really care about the common good, we’ll defend natural institutions. Institutions like the family, free associations, churches and charities shape our moral culture. These reach us more closely and completely than the state.

Unfortunately, in recent years, government has started to invade these private institutions. “We should all insist that public policy at every level permits Catholic institutions the maximum freedom to serve the poor … the elderly … children yearning for foster families, women in crisis pregnancies, families torn apart by the opioid epidemic: all those who look to the church for the help they need to live lives of purpose. We should insist on this,” said Ryan to loud applause.

Called to Faithfulness, Not Success 

Ryan concluded by urging the crowd to keep the faith. “Let us recommit ourselves to living not just successful lives, but the faithful lives that the grace of God makes possible for all of us.” Faithfulness is itself a way to apply the principles that can restore true freedom in society. It can give us the strength to preserve institutions such as families and churches, and heal debates over politics.

This is our simple duty, Ryan insisted. We can expect adversity, but as Christians, we are uniquely suited for the task that lies ahead.

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