Raucous Primary Leaves Paul Ryan as GOP’s Most Visible Catholic Official

The former VP candidate shows he has learned a lot about combining his faith and politics.

Speaker Paul Ryan with Little Sisters of the Poor before the 2016 State of the Union address.
Speaker Paul Ryan with Little Sisters of the Poor before the 2016 State of the Union address. (photo: Speaker Ryan Instagram)

WASHINGTON — Donald Trump is not the only person to win the Republican primaries.

Speaker of the House Paul Ryan of Wisconsin did not run as a candidate in any of the primaries and, as Trump’s juggernaut built steam, he refused calls that he step in as a compromise nominee at a brokered convention.

Instead, as Trump wiped out a once crowded 16-candidate field that included a record six Catholic candidates, Ryan — fresh in his role as U.S. House speaker — has emerged as the GOP’s most prominent Catholic figure.

And he is drawing upon his faith to offer a thoughtful policy counterweight to a presidential campaign that seems to be constantly embroiled in controversy over the incendiary statements and toxic tweets of its candidate.

Earlier in the summer, a series of policy proposals — collectively titled “A Better Way” — were released piecemeal by Ryan’s office. A spokeswoman told the Register that some of the ideas in those proposals, particularly those geared at ameliorating poverty, are inspired by Catholic social teaching.

“Speaker Ryan believes strengthening work requirements for welfare and tailoring benefits to people’s unique needs will help allow them to realize their full potential. Both of these policies are key aspects of the ‘A Better Way’ agenda and are deeply informed by the Catholic principles of solidarity and subsidiarity,” said the spokeswoman, Molly Edwards.

The proposed anti-poverty measures expand work requirements for those receiving a range of federal benefits, including subsidized housing and unemployment insurance. The plan also endeavors to make it easier for welfare recipients to look for and hold onto jobs. For example, it makes housing assistance portable so that job seekers can move to areas where it might be easier to apply for jobs.

One authority on Catholic social thought says the plan “fits well” with Catholic social thought’s emphasis on the significance of work as both a right and a good, enhancing the human dignity of man.

“I do think he is trying to present his political party as having a real concern for poverty. Outside of vague proclamations of creating more jobs, the presumptive GOP nominee Donald Trump has not talked about means of helping the less well off, and Ryan wants to make sure people realize that there are conservative and Republican approaches to addressing poverty. Here, Speaker Ryan seems to be following the approach of his political mentor Jack Kemp,” said Michael Coulter, a professor of humanities and political science at Grove City College and the co-editor of the Encyclopedia of Catholic Social Thought, Social Science and Social Policy.

“This is a two-front battle: First, it involves battling the centralizers on the ‘left’; second, it involves making the ‘right’ more aware of our duty to the poor,” added Tim Carney, a Catholic political writer who is a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a senior political columnist for the Washington Examiner.


Solidarity and Subsidiarity

Chad Pecknold, an associate professor of systematic theology at The Catholic University of America, said Ryan is aiming to stir a new debate about civic action that is informed by Catholic principles.

“We have witnessed deficient interpretations of both solidarity and subsidiarity principles,” Pecknold said. “On the left, solidarity has tended to be thought of in collectivist terms, while on the right there has been a temptation to think about subsidiarity in libertarian terms, without reference to common goods or diverse functions of civil society and government.”

Pecknold said Ryan understands that solidarity is “not achieved by the government,” but by all citizens sharing in common goods through the family, schools, neighborhoods and the workplace. “In other words, solidarity is only achieved through proper subsidiarity,” Pecknold said.

“Perhaps most notable about his poverty policy is that it puts the family at the center,” Pecknold said. He said that reflects the Catholic emphasis on the family as the “basic cell of society” and the Church’s belief that work “must be fitted to the needs of family life.”

The influence of his faith may also be seen in how Ryan has taken on the role as moral arbiter amid an exceptionally tumultuous election. Ryan has condemned Trump’s proposed blanket ban on Muslim immigration, and he called the presumptive nominee’s remarks on the Mexican heritage of an Indiana-born judge hearing the case on Trump University a “textbook definition” of racism.

“Speaker Ryan has struggled to find the right response to Donald Trump, but he has demonstrated his commitment to religious liberty and human dignity most admirably in rejecting unequivocally Trump’s proposed ban on Muslim immigration,” Pecknold said.

In the wake of the comments about the Indiana judge, Ryan said House Republicans should vote their conscience on Trump. He said he has no plans to rescind his own — albeit halting — endorsement remarks, which seemingly open the door to just such a possibility. He also declined to fundraise for Trump after campaign finance reports last month showed the candidate had barely more than $1 million cash on hand.


2020 Candidacy?

Ryan’s repeated denials earlier in the nominating contest that he might step in as a compromise nominee at the convention seem to have only fueled speculation that he is weighing a 2020 run. In March, Ryan delivered a speech on the “the state of American politics” that had the look and feel of an audition for a presidential announcement speech. An accompanying video featuring clips from the speech and touting his policy agenda was noted for the distinctly presidential tone it struck.

But Coulter cautions that the speaker’s office may not be the best vantage point from which to launch a presidential campaign.

“I think it would be nearly impossible to be a successful speaker of the House and be a successful presidential candidate. Being speaker means trying to get his party members to pass some bills, and that will inevitably involve some deal-making with members of his party. Anything that looks like deal-making or compromise doesn’t sit well with the Republican base, and that base is vitally important in a presidential primary,” Coulter said.

Pecknold disagreed: “Speaker Ryan, along with Sen. Ben Sasse [of Nebraska] and Sen. Marco Rubio [of Florida], stands among the most promising conservative leaders in America today, at least in part because they’re the ones who have thought most about how to take these social principles seriously. Speaker Ryan is ahead of everyone in putting together a coherent policy agenda, and that puts him as the lead prospect for 2020.”


Register correspondent Stephen Beale writes from Providence, Rhode Island.