Free Enterprise, Faith, and the Common Good

Benedictine College Commencement Address
May 11, 2013

By Paul Ryan

A U.S. Congressman and former Vice Presidential candidate, Ryan lives in Janesville, Wis., with his wife and three children. A 2011 runner-up for Time magazine’s Man of the Year, Ryan is the Chairman of the House Budget Committee.

Before I offer a word of advice, I want to offer a word of thanks. I’ve heard very good things about Benedictine College — a lot of them from my friend George Weigel. He said you were a community of faith and scholarship. He said you were tight-knit yet broadminded — small-sized yet bighearted. Well, now that I’ve spent some time here — and gotten to know some of you — I can say he was right.

You’ve made me feel right at home. This is a special place. It’s obvious. You’ve done me a great honor. And I’m very happy to be here. Thank you.

As I’ve talked with some of you, I’ve been struck by the many changes you’ve seen. You’ve seen a new abbot at St. Benedict’s. You’ve seen a new pope at St. Peter’s. And you’ve seen the largest freshman class in Benedictine’s history. So on this beautiful spring day, three things are clear: You’ve been through a lot. Your parents have paid a lot. And today we celebrate your achievement. Congratulations.

Now that we’ve done the important stuff, I guess it’s time for my advice. Whenever I’m in this type of situation, I usually ask myself, “What do I know now that I wish I knew then?” Well, life’s not that easy. You can’t just ask someone for the best short cuts to take. You have to learn some lessons by living them. Those lessons tend to be the hardest — but also the most fulfilling. And often, they’re lessons of faith.

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. It’s always there. It’s always waiting for you. Sometimes, the hardest part is simply finding your faith. It’s finding out what you really believe. As you know, philosophy isn’t a book of answers. It’s a search for wisdom.

And 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. Boil things down to basics. See how they add up. And if they don’t add up, keep looking. That’s why we call this a commencement — because there’s no end to your spiritual journey. As you gain in wisdom, you will more often make refinements to your views instead of big changes. And if you form your views this way — through discovery and debate, through deep thought and prayer — your moral code will be far more durable and rewarding.

But as you develop that code, you have to live up to it. You have to put it into practice. As Catholics, we’re meant to be in the world, not of the world. We’re meant to take up the vocation God has given us — and to do it well. Several years ago, I decided my vocation was public service. So today I want to talk to you about my faith — and my attempt to live up to it. I want to answer this question: How does a Catholic public servant apply Catholic social teaching?

There are different ways to answer this question. Today, I want to talk about two: Our support for free enterprise and for strong communities. Now, Good Catholics can disagree. And we do. That’s the difficulty — and the beauty — of our faith. On some issues, the teaching is very clear. For instance, we must always protect the sanctity of life.

But on other issues, there’s a broad arc of prudential judgment. And there’s room for everybody. So I’m not going to stand here and vanquish some straw men erected for my position. I’m going to take on the straw men erected against my position. In short, I hope to make the moral case for free enterprise. In this effort, I speak only for myself. And I ask only for your consideration.


Like yours, my story of faith and understanding is personal — and far from complete. 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.

So at a young age, I started a lengthy search for answers. 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.

In fact, you may have heard that I enjoyed the work of a certain female author, whose books were monuments to the idea that men and women should be true to their individual passions — even in the face of relentless social pressure to conform. Yes, it’s true. I was — and I remain — a huge fan of the Twilight saga.

After I was elected to Congress, 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. They might sound a little intimidating. But they’re actually quite simple.

Solidarity is the belief that we’re all in this together. So we must be good to one another. We must be generous with our love — and withhold it from no one. And when we write the laws of our nation, we must never lose sight of our primary purpose: the common good.

Subsidiarity is like federalism. It’s the belief that every part of our country adds to the whole. But for the whole to benefit, every part must be free to do its work — on its own terms. Yes, government must do some things. But it can’t do everything. So it shouldn’t assume other people’s roles. And it shouldn’t tell them how to do their work. The people closest to the problem are the most likely to solve it — because they know the community best.

We see this principle in the First Amendment. Religious communities do great things in our country. They care for the poor, the hungry, and the sick. And they do this work in their own unique way — guided their by conscience and their beliefs. That’s why 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.

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.

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.

These two popes showed solidarity with the oppressed. And today Pope Francis is showing solidarity with the poor — as the Church has done for 2,000 years. He’s 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.

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.

Only people can meet these needs. And though most people who serve in government are hardworking, they can do only so much. They can’t give us the personal attention we need. So we need to look for people outside of government. And we will find them in our communities — in our churches and schools, in our nonprofits and neighborhoods, in our friends and families. Academics like to call these things “mediating institutions.” But in the end, they’re just people — people working together.

And government must not push them out. It must not crowd out society. Instead, it must support them. It must allow these groups to address to our needs. It must expand the space for society. And one of the best examples of such a partnership is the free-enterprise system.

Free enterprise is an example of that second principle: subsidiarity. It allows each person to contribute to society. It allows them to discover their talents and to pursue their dreams — because when they do, they add to the common good. They create jobs. They save lives. They feed people. They add to the store of knowledge. And most importantly, free enterprise gives us the resources to care for ourselves — and for others. It helps to ease human suffering.

We know the power of free people working together. We see it most clearly when it’s absent. I want to borrow an example from Father Robert Sirico. Look at a picture of the world at night. You’ll see light across the globe. One exception is in the northern half of the Korean peninsula. In North Korea, there’s only one point of light — in Pyongyang, the capital, where the elite live. There’s no free enterprise in the country. People aren’t allowed to buy or sell, to trade or bargain, to build or create. And they suffer because of it. They’re trapped in darkness.

So why is there such resistance to free enterprise? It’s the old problem of greed. The critics say nothing good comes from commerce. They think it’s all pinstripes and no principle. Sure, free enterprise makes more stuff, they argue. But it relies on “greed” — on people pursuing their self-interest. And isn’t the love of money the root of all evil…or something to that effect?

Look, many people want the chance to get ahead. And to get ahead in a free economy, they must serve the needs of society. At some level, we all ask ourselves, “How can I make ends meet?” But the successful ask a better question: “What’s something people need?” Voluntary exchange is an act of good faith. It gives the buyer a good in exchange for something of equal value. It creates a culture of personal responsibility and good will. To attract customers, you must be trustworthy. To attract workers, you must treat them with dignity.

Free enterprise helps the workers themselves — because work gives people more than a paycheck. It gives them a sense of pride — a sense of purpose. It makes them a part of their communities. And when we share our gifts with other people, we show solidarity with each other. If farmers didn’t harvest, people would go hungry. If doctors and nurses didn’t practice, the sick would go untreated. We don’t think of ourselves as greedy — even though we take part in the economy. And we shouldn’t — because we’re working to help our families. We’re helping to put food on the table, to pay for our education, to save for retirement.

Yes, we must guard against greed. But greed will always be with us. Our job is to limit its power. Free enterprise doesn’t reward greed. It rewards value — because competition checks greed. And there’s no greater opportunity for greed than government cronyism. Greed knows how to exploit the pages of regulations. It knows how to navigate the halls of power. So if we’re concerned about greed, we shouldn’t give it more opportunities to grow.

No, money isn’t everything. Wealth is a means to an end. And the end isn’t a full bank account. The end is a good life — one lived in accordance with God. And to live a truly good life, we must go beyond ourselves. We must minister to the poor and the sick. We can’t outsource the job. Concern for the poor doesn’t demand faith in big government. It demands something more — from all of us.

If we continue to believe that the war on poverty is primarily a government responsibility, then we will continue to weaken our communities. We will drift further apart as people.

As Catholics, we know happiness can’t be bought or sold. And it can’t be legislated. Earning your just rewards from achievement and hard work promotes human flourishing and happiness. It brings fulfillment both to yourself and to others. In short, we find happiness only in the thrill of accomplishment, in the comfort of community, and in communion with God. This is how solidarity and subsidiarity work together: They create a society that serves the poor. They create healthy communities by building healthy relationships. And on this philosophy — from this beachhead — we can fight back the growth of relativism.


That’s my take on Catholic social teaching. As you can see, it’s not a step-by-step guide. It’s a philosophy. 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.

Your task is to consider that guidance as you continue your search for wisdom. This is the advice I plan on giving my children. Naturally, I hope they take up my own point of view. Most parents feel that way. But you can’t be secure in your beliefs until you know how they stack up against others’. So my advice is to keep searching — to keep questioning. And when you need a port of call, I hope you will take comfort in the Church as I have. And when you do, you will know for certain that you’re there to stay.

Our Catholic faith has endured for thousands of years — and for a reason. The world offers many challenges. Our legacy will endure if you can handle those challenges. Here, at Benedictine, you are off to a great start. I wish you continued success as you find your path. And whether you walk on the left side of the street or the right, whether you walk the straight and narrow — or you take the scenic route — I hope you will always walk with God.

Benedictine College

Founded in 1858, Benedictine College is a Catholic, Benedictine, residential, liberal arts college located on the bluffs above the Missouri River in Atchison, Kansas. The school is honored to have been named one of America’s Best Colleges by U.S. News & World Report, the best private college in Kansas by The Wall Street Journal, and one of the top Catholic colleges in the nation by First Things magazine and the Newman Guide. It prides itself on outstanding academics, extraordinary faith life, strong athletic programs, and an exceptional sense of community and belonging. Benedictine College is dedicated to transforming culture in America through its mission to educate men and women within a community of faith and scholarship.