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The Speaker and the Social Doctrine


TRIGGER WARNING: This column will speak well of Paul Ryan, the new Speaker of the House of Representatives, and compare him favorably to two liberal icons.

Over forty years of teaching and writing about Catholic social doctrine, I’ve gotten to know three men who had the opportunity to embody the Church’s social teaching for a national audience. Two of them couldn’t pull it off, for different reasons.

The first was R. Sargent Shriver, founding director of the Peace Corps, later head of Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty, still later ambassador to France and 1972 Democratic vice-presidential candidate. Sarge was a wonderful man who struck me as an instinctive Catholic social doctrine guy. He was far better-educated as a Catholic than his Kennedy in-laws. But he “got” the Church’s social doctrine, not as an intellectual exercise, but through his innate decency and his general approach to politics as a matter of “oughts” as well as a matter of power.

LBJ, it seems, thought seriously about putting Sarge on the 1964 Democratic ticket, until the in-laws made it clear that, if there was going to be any member of Clan Kennedy on the ticket in 1964, it would be Bobby, not Sarge. Yet that, in retrospect, was Sarge’s moment. He was ill-matched with George McGovern eight years later. As sitting vice-president and presidential nominee in 1968, though, he might have done what Hubert Humphrey couldn’t manage – pull off a Democratic victory. And a pro-life Democratic president in the early 1970s might have prevented (or at least forestalled) the party’s catastrophic embrace of the abortion license. Thus was a great opportunity lost.

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