Does Ryan have a “Catholic problem”?

posted at 6:31 pm on August 19, 2012 by Ed Morrissey

That question has come at me several times in the nine days since Paul Ryan joined the Republican ticket as Mitt Romney’s nominee — and not meant in the same way that JFK had a “Catholic problem” in 1960.  People wondering about Ryan’s relationship with Catholic voters usually results from Ryan’s attempts to restructure federal spending, or his supposed devotion to Ayn Rand.  The last question is easiest to answer, since I’ve read Rand and admired the ideas in Atlas Shrugged while rejecting completely the philosophies of objectivism and atheism Rand embraced.  One hardly needs to be an atheist to appreciate limited government, especially after the HHS contraception mandate being imposed on religious organizations and charities.  Reading Atlas Shrugged and appreciating the wisdom of limited government is not an excommunicating act in the Catholic Church, I assure you.

What about Ryan’s budget?  It’s no secret that liberals dislike it, although some conservatives might wonder why, considering the moderate approach Ryan took toward deficit and entitlement reform.  Our colleague Kate Hicks notices a new group of Catholics who want Ryan to have a change of heart … in the middle of an election:

It’s the ultimate in Catholic double standards: a website called www.PrayForPaulsChangeOfHeart.org launched this week, calling for Catholics to pray that he abandons his Path to Prosperity budget in favor of something more in line with the Church’s social justice teachings. If you click around, you can also find a page with one sentence requesting prayers for Vice President Joe Biden, noted adamant supporter of the pro-choice cause. (It says nothing of Kathleen Sebelius, whose Mass attendance doesn’t exactly jive with her record ofeschewing established Catholic doctrine.)

In condemning Ryan’s budget, the site pulls from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ letter to Ryan, which outlines the criteria the Church feels a Catholic policymaker ought to consider when crafting budgetary policy …

Of course, it’s very easy for a Catholic capitalist to dispute each of these claims – first and foremost, how does it serve the poor if the government continues down its current path to bankruptcy? – and this potential for argument creates a crucial distinction between budgetary policy and life issues. A budget has room for interpretation, and there are different ways to construct the social safety net; abortion, however, is a clear-cut issue, a literal matter of life or death.

So I’m going to be a little blunter about it: the Catholic Church needs to shut up about Paul Ryan’s budget.

Well, I’m not going to go that far, because this group isn’t the Catholic Church.  It’s a small group of the laity — in fact, it might be just one person with an amateurish website, one that offers no explanation of whether the owner of the site is even Catholic at all.  The act of offering a Rosary prayer for the “Conversion of Representative Paul Ryan” (one of the events listed on the main page) comes close to the sin of judging another person’s standing with God, something that a proper Catholic would recognize as dangerous ground. One can certainly judge the standing of a member within the faith (although that’s best left to pastors and bishops), but “conversion” strongly implies that the petitioner doesn’t consider Ryan a real Catholic.  I’m skeptical of this website being anything more significant than someone’s idea of gadflyism.

My good friend Deacon Greg Kandra notes a somewhat more established group in the laity supporting Barack Obama,  and their shift in emphasis from 2008 as “pro-life” in support of Obama to an economic message in 2012, presumably in response to Ryan’s selection as Romney’s running mate:

Catholics for Obama has launched its 2012 initiative with a focus on economic issues, in an apparent shift from its 2008 presentation of the presidential candidate as “pro-life.”

“We endorse the President because of his tireless focus on economic security for middle-class families,” the national co-chairs of Catholics for Obama wrote in an Aug. 13 letter, kicking off their effort to target a key voting bloc in the closely contested election.

Proclaiming their commitment “to our faith and our country,” the 21 signers devoted much of their letter to jobs and the economy, along with a variety of foreign policy items which have been seldom-mentioned in the presidential campaign. ….

The letter cited the Catholic teaching “that every human being is made in the image of God,” as a warning against Republican policies that the signers said “would shred our nation’s compassionate safety net” by “gutting” social assistance programs.

Here, though, we have no real change in status.  These same accusations against Republicans were also offered as secondary arguments in 2008 by this group, and are made every electoral cycle by liberal Catholics.  Ryan’s not going to win their vote simply by sitting in the same pews, but that’s not the same as arguing that Ryan damages Romney’s Catholic draw by being on the ticket.

The key question of whether Ryan’s budget violates his faith gets addressed best by the man who has the authority to speak on Ryan’s standing in the church — his bishop.  Bishop Robert C. Morlino addressed this accusation in a column on Thursday to members of the Diocese of Madison, instructing that Catholic social teaching involves both solidarity (with the poor) and subsidiarity — the principle that support for the poor should come from the sources closest to them, the individual members of the church, or the local communities.  Where “intrinsic evil” is not involved, the political solutions for the ills of the world should come from the laity, and not the church itself:

In these most fundamental matters, a well-formed Catholic conscience, or the well-formed conscience of a person of good will, simply follows the conclusions demanded by the ecology of human nature and the reasoning process. A Catholic conscience can never take exception to the prohibition of actions which are intrinsically evil. Nor may a conscience well-formed by reason or the Catholic faith ever choose to vote for someone who clearly, consistently, persistently promotes that which is intrinsically evil.

However, a conscience well-formed according to reason or the Catholic faith, must also make choices where intrinsic evil is not involved. How best to care for the poor is probably the finest current example of this, though another would be how best to create jobs at a time when so many are suffering from the ravages of unemployment. In matters such as these, where intrinsic evil is not involved, the rational principles of solidarity and subsidiarity come into play. The principle of solidarity, simply stated, means that every human being on the face of the earth is my brother and my sister, my “neighbor” in the biblical sense. At the same time, the time-tested best way for assisting our neighbors throughout the world should follow the principle of subsidiarity. That means the problem at hand should be addressed at the lowest level possible — that is, the level closest to the people in need. That again, is simply the law of human reason.

That doesn’t mean that Catholics have to like Ryan’s budget; there are plenty of areas of debate that it produces, just as any complex public policy will do.  It isn’t a matter of Ryan’s Catholicism, though, and Bishop Morlino is particularly emphatic when it comes to those who claim that in the debate:

It was no shock at all for me to learn that our diocesan native son, Paul Ryan, had been chosen to be a candidate for the Vice Presidency of the United States. I am proud of his accomplishments as a native son, and a brother in the faith, and my prayers go with him and especially with his family as they endure the unbelievable demands of a presidential campaign here in the United States. It is not for the bishop or priests to endorse particular candidates or political parties. Any efforts on the part of any bishop or priest to do so should be set aside. And you can be assured that no priest who promotes a partisan agenda is acting in union with me or with the Universal Church. …

As one looks at issues such as the two mentioned above and seeks to apply the principles of solidarity and subsidiarity, Catholics and others of good will can arrive at different conclusions. These are conclusions about the best means to promote the preferential option for the poor, or the best means to reach a lower percentage of unemployment throughout our country. No one is contesting here anyone’s right to the basic needs of food, clothing, shelter, healthcare, etc. Nor is anyone contesting someone’s right to work and so provide for self and family. However there can be difference according to how best to follow the principles which the Church offers.

Making decisions as to the best political strategies, the best policy means, to achieve a goal, is the mission of lay people, not bishops or priests. As Pope Benedict himself has said, a just society and a just state is the achievement of politics, not the Church. And therefore Catholic laymen and women who are familiar with the principles dictated by human reason and the ecology of human nature, or non-Catholics who are also bound by these same principles, are in a position to arrive at differing conclusions as to what the best means are for the implementation of these principles — that is, “lay mission” for Catholics.

Thus, it is not up to me or any bishop or priest to approve of Congressman Ryan’s specific budget prescription to address the best means we spoke of. Where intrinsic evils are not involved, specific policy choices and political strategies are the province of Catholic lay mission. But, as I’ve said, Vice Presidential Candidate Ryan is aware of Catholic Social Teaching and is very careful to fashion and form his conclusions in accord with the principles mentioned above. Of that I have no doubt. (I mention this matter in obedience to Church Law regarding one’s right to a good reputation.)

So what does constitute the criteria the church uses to decide when to weigh in on policy matters?  Morlino is also emphatic on what constitutes intrinsic evil:

However, the formation of conscience regarding particular policy issues is different depending on how fundamental to the ecology of human nature or the Catholic faith a particular issue is. Some of the most fundamental issues for the formation of a Catholic conscience are as follows: sacredness of human life from conception to natural death, marriage, religious freedom and freedom of conscience, and a right to private property.

Violations of the above involve intrinsic evil — that is, an evil which cannot be justified by any circumstances whatsoever. These evils are examples of direct pollution of the ecology of human nature and can be discerned as such by human reason alone. Thus, all people of good will who wish to follow human reason should deplore any and all violations in the above areas, without exception. The violations would be: abortion, euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide, same-sex marriage, government-coerced secularism, and socialism.

The answer to whether Ryan has a “Catholic problem” in terms of gaining or losing Catholic votes for the GOP will only be answered in the exit polls after the election.  Without question, though, Ryan does not have a problem with the Catholic Church or its teachings, as Ryan’s own bishop makes plainly clear.  While the laity and the ordained may have issues with Ryan’s budget proposals, they don’t rise to the level of intrinsic evil, and so those individuals and groups that engage in the debate over budgetary matters speak for themselves, and not for the church itself.  As far as offering Rosaries for conversion, we Catholics should be doing that for the whole world, and in particular for an end to abortion and the other intrinsic evils Bishop Morlino notes in his excellent column.

Addendum: Via ConservativeLA on Twitter, Antony Davies and Kristina Antolin take up the opposite argument — that government programs represent involuntary coercion and therefore cannot be acceptable to Catholics:

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has long supported government interference in the economy as a means to help the poor. But we suspect the bishops haven’t fully thought this through: If God really did favor a top-down approach to poverty reduction, why wouldn’t He establish a government with the power to wipe away poverty on demand instead of leaving things to chance and the possibility that someone like Mr. Ryan would come along and mess up His plans?

Perhaps we dehumanize the poor when we treat them as nothing more than problems to be solved, and we dehumanize the rich when we treat them as wallets to be picked.

Wealth and poverty are catalysts for bringing the rich and the poor together in community, and community is the hallmark of the church’s mission on Earth. Government is not community. Government is one of community’s tools, a coercive one we use when it is necessary to force people to behave in ways they would not otherwise behave voluntarily.

But that word—voluntarily—is key, and it’s where Mr. Ryan’s religious detractors go awry: Charity can only be charity when it is voluntary. Coerced acts, no matter how beneficial or well-intentioned, cannot be moral. If we force people to give to the poor, we have stripped away the moral component, reducing charity to mere income redistribution. And if one really is as good as the other, the Soviets demonstrated long ago that it can be done far more efficiently without the trappings of church and religion.

While I agree with their argument on the policy merits, I think this overshoots the mark, too.  Government programs and their funding through taxation are involuntary once passed into law.  However, the democratic processes in our republic are intended to establish self-government, which derives from the consent of the governed.  In such a system, one cannot declare that they will not abide by laws with which they disagree, unless those laws become tyrannical or (in the Catholic case) impose an “intrinsic evil.” The passage of entitlement programs has been part of that process of self-government, as are the debates on their current funding and need for reform, and which forms reform should take.  There is nothing intrinsically immoral or amoral about systems of self-government creating legitimate safety net programs for the truly needy, even if tax dollars go to their funding, although the relative merits of such programs vis-a-vis crowding out private charity, the scope of the programs, and the best level of governance for tending such systems are also legitimate issues for debate among Catholics and non-Catholics alike.

There are many reasons to believe that the policies of the nanny state will deliver more misery than it relieves — Bishop Morlino refers to that in his column — but that is a measure of policy effectiveness, which as Bishop Morlino states does not directly relate to church doctrine.  The USCCB acknowledges a wide variety of fair-minded opinion on how best to deliver on Catholic social teachings through public policy, and exhorts only that public policy should be formed with the needs of the poor and infirm in mind to deliver the best possible solutions to their circumstances.  Just as liberals should not claim Ryan’s efforts to be outside of Catholic moral thought, we should be careful not to unfairly delegitimize others in the Catholic community who honestly see other solutions for social ills as more effective.

As I wrote before, the Catholic Church goes far beyond political agendas, and encompasses a wide diversity of thought.  Attempting to politically pigeonhole people on the basis of faith is usually a recipe for failure.  In my opinion, a system on track to put a third of the citizens and residents of the world’s richest nation on federal welfare programs outside of Social Security and Medicare (technically contribution programs) is a nation that is taking too much capital out of systems that would otherwise expand the sources of real prosperity and improved living standards, and is diluting the ability to assist the truly needy of our nation.  The need to reform such a system to return capital to those who can expand prosperity and raise living standards while making assistance to the needy more effective and efficient is well within the purpose, motives, and spirit of Catholic social teaching — but I’m not going to be arrogant enough to claim that my perspective is the only one that fits within those parameters.

Update: The reference to the near occasion of sinfulness in the way the website demands the “conversion” of Ryan comes straight from Scripture.  When Jesus said, “Judge not, lest ye be judged,” He meant that to arrogate to ourselves the authority to judge the status of another’s soul in relation to God was to infringe on God’s prerogative — and to operate far above one’s pay grade.  We can argue whether one’s policies fit within Catholic doctrine, especially when it comes to intrinsic evils such as abortion, but we have no more standing to judge the status of Nancy Pelosi’s soul than Paul Ryan’s.  As Jesus taught, we’re better off focusing on the status of our own souls and our relation to God.


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