08/30/2012 03:21 pm ET Updated Oct 30, 2012

Aquinas Shrugged

When Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, the Republican vice presidential candidate, distanced himself recently from Ayn Rand, the author of Atlas Shrugged, saying instead, "Give me Thomas Aquinas," he revealed something about the nature of the debate we are likely to see this fall. He showed how he believes his faith as a Roman Catholic is related to his work as chair of the House Budget Committee. Through his position on that committee, he proposed the controversial "Path to Prosperity," an economic plan for stimulating jobs, reducing the national debt, and increasing revenue through a combination of tax reduction and the elimination of certain exclusions. The reaction to that plan has been intense, involving name calling as well as assessments and counter-assessments from the Tax Policy Center of the Brookings Institute and the American Enterprise Institute. The plan stirred reactions from religious organizations as well, including the pastor of Ryan's former parish in Janesville, Wisconsin, Rev. Stephen Umhoefer. Does the path lead the poor out of poverty? Umhoefer asked.

By invoking Aquinas, however, Ryan may have complicated things rather than cleared them up. The case can certainly be made for a thomistic justification of free markets and capitalism, but only if these are seen as deriving from natural law, which, in turn, is based on divine or "eternal law." As such, market exchange, trade, wealth, pricing, labor, and private property are commendable only if they lead to responsible and virtuous living. And what is virtuous living? Behavior that promotes peace and justice and ensures that the poor are cared for. From a thomistic perspective, the way to ensure that free markets encourage rather than undermine virtuous living is through a combination of individual responsibility and government regulation.

Ryan's "Path to Prosperity" is based on the possibility that eliminating the deduction of interest on tax-exempt municipal bonds and life insurance savings will generate enough revenue to make up for his proposed tax cut. But it doesn't require that these loopholes be closed. Most critics have focused on whether or not the math makes sense. Does it or does it not add up? However, there is a larger issue at work here, one that will provide a theme for the general campaign. Political commentators have identified it as the role of government and the degree to which regulation should play a part in the economic recovery. That is certainly part of it, but that is not what moves most people.

The key to the election will be in defining what kind of people we are. What does it mean to be an American? If the defining characteristic of the United States is the existence of a vibrant middle class, then a debate about what it means to be a member of that group and how to get there would prove invaluable. Naturally, that includes job creation, education, and tax incentives, but more importantly it means identifying an underlying philosophy, the why more than the what. In Ryan's case, what is missing is a substantive theology of the middle class, one that would integrate the American values of free enterprise and individualism with the thomistic concern for social justice and humility in the face of a divine law that gives meaning and purpose to our lives beyond profit. Citing Aquinas to counter the frightening narcissism of Rand's so-called "objectivism" is a start but not to justify cutting Medicaid.

There are two debates going on simultaneously. One has to do with the poor and which Gospel to follow as pointed out by a number of faculty at Georgetown University and the US Conference of Catholic Bishops. Are we to follow the Gospel of Jesus Christ or Ayn Rand? It would seem that we cannot pick both. We must decide. The second involves the middle class and how to inspire them to a new self-understanding, one that rejects economic liberalism and the hedonism of mass consumption in favor of virtuous living in the context of free markets and individual enterprise. It can be done. So far, Ryan has argued the first, but he needs to address the second. His appeal to Aquinas needs to be developed into a sound, rational theory of economic responsibility in the context of both the recovery and national identity in the twenty-first century. The party that can develop and articulate such a theory in a serious way beyond simplistic slogans and name-calling may have something to celebrate come November.