MADISON, Wis. — Earlier this year, when Georgetown University announced that Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., the chairman of the House Budget Committee, would defend his budget in a public address, almost 90 faculty members at the Jesuit institution publicly denounced his interpretation of Church doctrine.
While the media generally presented the harsh judgment as a sign that Ryan’s budget proposals violated core beliefs of his Church, most news stories failed to examine why the subsequent appearance of Kathleen Sebelius, the secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, at a Georgetown graduation event did not provoke a comparable furor. Sebelius is widely viewed as the architect of a federal contraception mandate denounced by the U.S. bishops as an “unprecedented” threat to the free exercise of Catholic institutions, but the same group of Georgetown faculty apparently saw no need to register their disapproval.
During the final bruising months of a presidential election that could hinge on the shifting views of Catholic “swing” voters, Americans can expect to witness further disputes that showcase legitimate questions about the practical impact of Ryan's policies and partisan hit jobs that fail to provide a holistic treatment of Catholic teaching.
Now, Bishop Robert Morlino of Madison, Ryan’s bishop, has waded into this election-year minefield, clearly concerned that a valued member of his flock is being unfairly attacked by partisan forces.
In a column posted on his diocesan website Aug. 16, Bishop Morlino vouches for Ryan’s Catholic bona fides, but stresses that his remarks should not be viewed as an endorsement of Ryan or any candidate.
“I know him very well. He is in regular communication with his bishop.
“I am defending his reputation because I am the one who, as his diocesan bishop, should have something to say about this, if anyone does,” Bishop Morlino told the Register during an Aug. 15 telephone interview.
“Since others have, I believe, unfairly attacked his reputation, I have to look out for his good name. That is Church law. If someone disagrees with Paul, he is free to do that. But not on the basis of reputation destruction, really calumny,” he added.
“They say things about him that aren’t true. I am not a defender of Paul Ryan; I am a defender of reputations of Catholics in the public sphere whose reputations are unjustly attacked.”
The bishop did not cite specific examples to document his charges regarding Ryan’s more outspoken critics, though an Internet search quickly locates headlines like "Paul Ryan's Violence." In recent weeks, however, one political ad on television sought to connect Romney with the death of a cancer victim, who allegedly could not receive treatment because Bain Capital, the private equity firm founded by Romney, had closed the company that once provided her husband with health insurance.
Critics began to challenge Ryan’s moral and intellectual credibility in April, after the congressman asserted in an interview with the Christian Broadcasting Network that his economic policies, designed, in part, to get the poor off government assistance, were consistent with Catholic teaching.
“The preferential option for the poor, which is one of the primary tenets of Catholic social teaching, means don’t keep people poor, don’t make people dependent on government so that they stay stuck at their station in life; help people get out of poverty, out onto life of independence,” he stated in the interview.
That month, when Ryan was slated to deliver a prestigious lecture at Georgetown, irate faculty members issued an open letter to the House budget chief.
“Your budget appears to reflect the values of your favorite philosopher, Ayn Rand, rather than the Gospel of Jesus Christ,” says the letter, which the faculty members sent to Ryan.
Ayn Rand’s Influence?
Ryan’s selection as Romney’s running mate has fired up his critics, and similarly harsh judgments have surfaced on political and Catholic blogs and news sites.
Today, one such critique was posted by Charles Reid, a professor of law at the University of St. Thomas. Published by The Huffington Post, it notes the early influence of Ayn Rand on Ryan’s thought and broadly attacks his approach to Catholic social teaching.
“These philosophical premises, of course, stand in contradiction to the social thought of the Catholic Church, as developed over two millennia of experience. Paul Ryan surely knows this. His tepid protest that he reads the Bible and so cannot be a follower of Ayn Rand rings hollow,” charges Reid.
“The record of his public life is that of a man in thrall to a curdled, warped individualism. I, for one, would like to know what he thinks about the magisterium of the Church regarding the positive value of the state.”
During an Aug. 13 appearance on the O’Reilly Factor, Sister Simone Campbell, the executive director of Network, the liberal social-justice lobby, criticized the Ryan budget for failing to secure programs that aided the poor and underemployed, while cutting taxes for the rich.
Sister Simone did not issue any personal attacks on the candidate, but asserted that “the Ryan budget shifts money to the top, not to the bottom. So the Ryan budget won’t do anything to stimulate the economy.”
In his column, Bishop Morlino sought to tamp down the rhetoric and encourage the kind of civil discourse that assumes the good intentions of a Catholic in good standing who is arguing about matters on which people of good will are free to disagree.
“Where intrinsic evils are not involved, specific policy choices and political strategies are the province of Catholic lay mission,” he states in a column that emphasizes the distinction between intrinsically evil choices that must always be opposed and policy positions shaped by prudential judgments, which should be guided by the principles of subsidiarity and solidarity with regards to those most in need.
“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,” Bishop Morlino asserted, providing an unusually explicit defense of the candidate.
In a statement that expresses pride in the accomplishments of a “brother in the faith” and promises prayers for a candidate facing “the unbelievable demands of a presidential campaign here in the United States,” the bishop notes the responsibilities and limits of his own role as a teacher of faith and morals.
“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.”
“It is the role of bishops and priests to teach principles of our faith, such that those who seek elected offices, if they are Catholics, are to form their consciences according to these principles about particular policy issues.”
Many Republicans welcome Ryan’s ability to stir debate about the nation’s budgetary priorities amid an economic crisis with a ballooning national deficit. Ryan has a knack for explaining budget tradeoffs. And he is comfortable raising questions about whether increased govenment spending on social programs necessarily translates into improved outcomes in poor neighborhoods.
Increasingly, Capital Hill's heated discussions about budgetary realities, the future of once secure social entitlements and the needs of the poor have introduced a parallel debate within the U.S. bishops' conference.
Last spring, Bishop Stephen Blaire of Stockton, Calif., the chairman of the U.S. bishops’ Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development, critiqued the Ryan budget, sending letters to Congress that attacked proposed cuts in food stamps and benefits for children of immigrants as “unjust.”
The bishops’ conference is now developing a document, “Reflections on Work, Poverty and a Broken Economy,” that will review Catholic social teaching, examine the “costs” of the crisis, and express solidarity with the unemployed and those at the margins. The stated goal is to stir “Catholic conversations” on the moral responsibilities of people and institutions at the center of the economy.
But during the bishops’ semi-annual meeting in Atlanta earlier this year, a number of bishops expressed concern that such statements had been hijacked by partisan forces. They questioned whether the endorsement of specific policies went beyond their competence as teachers of faith and morals and whether the conference’s tendency to embrace government programs ignored a new reality of budget-busting debt.
Bishop Morlino described himself as a bystander in the conference’s internal discussions. But he had clear views about the tendency of some self-described “social justice” Catholics to ignore or even repudiate Catholic teaching on abortion, marriage and religious liberty.
Addressing what he called an “artificial divide” between “life and social justice” issues, he noted during his interview that “there is one group of ‘justice issues,’ and they are placed in a certain hierarchy with regard to how fundamental they are to being Catholic.”
His column, he said, attempts to bridge that artificial divide by providing a framework with which to approach a range of policies and party platforms.
“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,” he notes in the column.
“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.”
Yet Paul Ryan’s confident references to Catholic social doctrine also serve as a reminder that some Catholics leaders seek to challenge the predictable arguments and politics appropriated by “social justice” Catholics.
Asked during the interview if Ryan represents a uniquely American type of Catholic politician, born and bred in a free-market environment that sharply departed from the European experience, Bishop Morlino paused for a moment and then observed that during a U.S. recession overshadowed and worsened by Europe’s cascading debt crisis, Americans are struggling to compare and contrast the two systems.
“Some say, ‘How can we compare America to Greece?’ Others say, ‘As Greece goes, so America goes.’
"We do have a distinctive way of looking at this,” but Church teaching on a just society transcends the European experience, providing essential moral and practical guidance for all Catholics, he said.
American Catholics are “shaped by an economic culture that fosters, really reinforces, a self-centered ethos,” he said, stressing the vital importance of a properly formed conscience.
“We cannot be complacent about our market system,” he concluded. “Private property is a natural right, but it’s not an absolute right.”
Joan Frawley Desmond is the Register’s senior editor.