I'm not a fan of Mark Shea's. He's too snide and sarcastic for my taste. His habit of berating fellow Catholics from a position of moral and intellectual superiority gets under my skin. He writes as if everyone who doesn't see things exactly as he does must be insufficiently informed. He lacks grace and nuance and receptivity.
Being aware, though, that we're on the same team, I usually deal with my distaste it by not following his column rather than taking him on directly. But a post of his today at Patheos on Paul Ryan (linked by a facebook friend) goes beyond the pale.
He begins, as is his wont, with sneering sarcasm:
While everybody is busy having the vapors over exciting, dynamic Catholic Paul Ryan, permit me to throw a wet blanket on the festivities, as is my custom, by pointing out that a) he was (until it became awkward) a fanatical devotee of one of the great enemies of God the 20th century produced: Ayn Rand.
You see, unlike the above-it-all Mark Shea, most of his fellow Catholics are a bunch of brainfless teeny-boppers carried away by unthinking enthusiasm.
He goes on to charge Ryan not only with fanaticism, but with outright lying.
And when Ryan starts his proclamation of fealty to the thought of St. Thomas with a good solid lie that it is a baseless “urban legend” that Rand has been a huge influence on him, he does not inspire confidence that what he is saying about anything else is going to be honest either.
But, while we're touting the virtue of honesty, let's note that in that NRO article, Ryan doesn't deny that Rand was an influence, he denies that he's "obsessed" with her and that he's a "devotee" of the Randian "gospel." Here he is, explaining in his own words.
“I, like millions of young people in America, read Rand’s novels when I was young. I enjoyed them,” Ryan says. “They spurred an interest in economics, in the Chicago School and Milton Friedman,” a subject he eventually studied as an undergraduate at Miami University in Ohio. “But it’s a big stretch to suggest that a person is therefore an Objectivist.”
“I reject her philosophy,” Ryan says firmly. “It’s an atheist philosophy. It reduces human interactions down to mere contracts and it is antithetical to my worldview. If somebody is going to try to paste a person’s view on epistemology to me, then give me Thomas Aquinas,” who believed that man needs divine help in the pursuit of knowledge. “Don’t give me Ayn Rand,” he says."
It sounds to me like Ryan is a lot more sophisticated a Catholic thinker than Mark Shea.
Memo to Mark: It's possible to be influenced, even profoundly influenced, by a thinker without adopting her philosophy wholesale.
Let's consider, for a comparison, John Paul II. Students in Fr. Wojtyla's ethics classes testify that the thinker he dealt with most centrally was Kant. In his ground-breaking ethical work, Love and Responsibilty, the future Pope makes his own Kant's ethical principle, which he calls "the personalistic norm": "A person is an end in himself, never to be used as a mere means." In other words, the central insight and foundation of John Paul II's personalist ethics comes from Kant.
So is the late Pope a Kantian? Is he lying when he rejects Kant's idealist epistemology?
Was Wojtla disingenuous for making important use of Scheler's analysis of shame while at the same time critiquing his deficient metaphysics?
Speaking for myself, I despise and deplore Ayn Rand's philosophy. I endorse every line of Whittaker Chamber's justly famous take down of her libertarian radicalism. And yet, guess what? I think there's a lot of truth in her critique of liberalism and socialism. And her books, wretched as they are both philosophically and literarily, are engaging and influential. They can wake a person up and motivate him to make more of himself. Is it so impossible to believe that that might be the case with Paul Ryan?