Ryan’s Role as Speaker Puts Spotlight Back on Faith-Inspired Agenda

The Catholic Congressman won overwhelming support today from the GOP caucus in the U.S. House of Representatives, to serve as John Boehner's successor.

Rep. Paul Ryan speaks to the media at the U.S. Capitol after House Republicans nominated him to be the next Speaker of the House on Oct. 28.
Rep. Paul Ryan speaks to the media at the U.S. Capitol after House Republicans nominated him to be the next Speaker of the House on Oct. 28. (photo: (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images))

WASHINGTON — In 2012, Congressman Paul Ryan’s advocacy of policies for balancing the budget and fighting poverty that referenced his religious beliefs sparked criticism from Catholic leaders and academics who claimed he had misrepresented the Church’s social teaching.

Now, with his impending election as Speaker of the House, the Catholic Republican from Wisconsin — who served as Mitt Romney’s running mate in the 2012 presidential election — will get a fresh chance to present his vision for legislative reforms to aid the poor and unite his fractious party.

“This begins a new day in the House of Representatives,” Ryan told reporters on Wednesday after he won broad support of the GOP caucus as the nominee as the new Speaker, according to The New York Times. “We are not going to have a House that looked like it did the last few years. We are going to unify. We are going to respect the people by representing the people.”

The formal vote on the House floor will be taken Thursday, when Ryan will take up the legislative duties of another Catholic leader in Congress, Speaker John Boehner, who struggled to unite the Republican caucus in the House, as Tea Party members grew exasperated with his failure to secure budget agreements with President Obama that checked the growth of the ballooning federal deficit.

Though it will take time for Ryan to unveil his plans for the House, Arthur Brooks, the president of the American Enterprise Institute who has worked closely with the Wisconsin congressman on domestic and fiscal policy issues, believes his leadership will offer a striking contrast to his predecessor.

“He is going to expand the speaker’s job, and be more of a visionary in the conservative movement,” Brooks told the Register.

While Boehner was criticized by Tea Party members for punishing dissent, Brooks expects Ryan to foster debate as he encourages policy innovation.

“He will get stuff done. But the House can be more of laboratory of ideas on taxes, budgeting, welfare and safety-net issues,” said Brooks, the author of a new book, The Conservative Heart: How to Build a Fairer, Happier, and More Prosperous America.


Lightning Rod for Catholic Criticism?

Yet Ryan’s new prominence could also make him a lightning rod for critics within the Catholic Church who attacked his efforts to frame his 2012 budget as an expression of the Catholic social principles of solidarity and subsidiarity.

“Ryan’s claim that his 2012 budget proposal were inspired by Catholic social teachings rightfully drew criticism from many Catholic social justice advocates,” said Stephen Schneck, director of the Institute for Policy Research & Catholic Studies at The Catholic University of America.

Schneck, a former board member of Democrats for Life of America who served in 2012 as co-chairman of Catholics for Obama, echoed criticism of Ryan’s 2012 budget plan as an unwarranted attack on “programs for the poor and vulnerable.”

But the congressman has since taken time to “meet with Catholic activists and develop some interesting new ideas for government programs modeled on efforts by Catholic Charities,” Schneck told the Register, expressing the hope that Ryan will heed Pope Francis’ call to give priority to the needs of the poor.

“Given internal GOP politics at the moment, that won’t be easy and indeed will require some personal courage,” Schneck added.

“Speaker Boehner resigned in no small part because of pressure from the GOP’s radicals — like the Freedom Caucus — who thought that he was veering too far into compassionate conservatism.”


Ryan’s Record

Over the past four years, while Ryan served as chairman of the House Budget Committee and then led the House Ways and Means Committee, he has outlined proposals to put Social Security and other social entitlements on more stable footing, while calling for reduced corporate taxes, and an end to estate taxes.

Ryan also has pushed for anti-poverty initiatives that give the states more power and flexibility to fund programs based on local needs. Some proposals offer incentives, like an earned income tax credits, which help those at the margins take home more pay and stay off welfare rolls.

“[T]he 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 into a life of independence,” Ryan stated in an April 2012 interview, that responded to criticism from U.S. bishops regarding his proposed budget cuts to food stamp programs.

His references to Catholic social teaching and papal encyclicals have irritated his political opponents, while prompting his local bishop, Bishop Robert Morlino of Madison, to rise to Ryan's defense.

However, Ryan's policy formulations reflect his deeply personal faith journey. Baptized a Catholic and raised in a close family in Janesville, Wis., Ryan drifted away from the faith in his teens, after the death of his father.

But as an adult, he dove into the works of St. Thomas Aquinas and gained a deep appreciation for the Church’s rich intellectual tradition. He and his wife, Janna, still make their home in Janesville and have raised their three children as Catholics.


A Different Style

Ryan’s profile as a wonkish Catholic political leader marks a shift from Speaker Boehner’s way of expressing his faith.

“John Boehner has what seems like an old-school piety about him. You get the sense it's in his blood, that the Catholic faith was always the background music growing up and never left his heart and soul and head,” said Kathryn Lopez, editor at large of the National Review.

“He tries to keep it as his anchor, so you'd hear him talking in terms of stewardship, … even in the halls of Congress and press conferences, as if to remind himself and others we will all have to answer for our decisions. ” 

Ryan’s style is different, she noted.

“Paul Ryan pro-actively talks about Catholic social teaching. He wants to engage consciously as a Catholic and is likely to be heard quoting an encyclical now and then,” noted Lopez.

“They both bring some humility to the mix — I’ve never gotten the sense either thought he is the one we have been waiting for.” 

Ryan’s decision to accept pleas from House members that he succeed Boehner will offer a broad public forum for his faith-infused conservative vision for domestic social programs and fiscal responsibility.

Meanwhile, he must take up the vast administrative and legislative duties of the Speaker, from opening the House to corralling votes for a controversial bill. Boehner also spent much of his weekends raising money for his party — a job Ryan hopes to assign to another House leader, so he can spend time with his family.

At present, the new speaker faces another important challenge: healing the House Republicans’ deep divisions. They reflect the painful legacy of the budget standoffs between Boehner and Obama that have shut down the government in previous years and tarnished the GOP’s credibility with the public.


Bridging Republican Divisions

Last month, the day after Pope Francis delivered a landmark address before a joint meeting of Congress, Boehner threw in the towel and said he would resign from the House. The news ignited a firestorm on Capitol Hill, and sparked an internal battle for a successor who could bridge the divisions between Tea Party Republicans and the GOP establishment.

Ryan, the 45-year old chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, soon emerged as the strongest candidate, and key Tea Party legislators finally endorsed him, just as Congress and Obama approved a budget deal that raised the government’s borrowing limit.

The agreement also balanced small cuts in Medicare and Social Security disability benefits with an increase in spending over two years.  

The deal fulfilled Boehner’s pledge to “clean the barn” and resolve another standoff between the GOP-controlled House and the president before he left office.

Ryan will now have some freedom to advance his own initiatives, and he understands that House Republicans and party members across the nation are hungry for change.

“People don’t care about blame. They don’t care about effort. They care about results,” Ryan has said. “Results that are meaningful. Results that are measurable. Results that make a difference in their daily lives.”

At the same time, his efforts to reform social entitlements and help low-income Americans move into the middle class will likely revive questions from naysayers who have poked holes in his policy formulations and argued that vulnerable people will be worse off if Ryan’s reforms are enacted.

The new Speaker will help “reinvigorate and energize” House Republicans, predicted Jim Capretta, a senior fellow at the Washington, D.C.-based Ethics and Public Policy Center who previously served as the associate director of the White House Office of Management and Budget during the George W. Bush administration.


The Immediate Challenge

Ryan’s immediate challenge, noted Capretta, will be “to convince everyone in the caucus that it is better to put something forward than to do nothing. You become a much stronger caucus if you get credit from the public” for doing important work.

“Republicans have ideas and legislation they can put forward to solve all kinds of problems. Ryan intends to make that the focus," Capretta added.

“In effect, the GOP will say, ‘Here is our multi-year proposal for [rebuilding] infrastructure that will make sense. Here is a new opportunity to help lower-income households that will break from the less effective way it has been tried in the past.’” 

John Carr, the director of the Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life at Georgetown University, remains deeply skeptical of Ryan’s solutions for reforming social entitlements and reducing the federal government’s role in anti-poverty programs. Still, he sees  Ryan as a compelling political leader whose ideas will help drive a long overdue debate on poverty in America.

“You can have your differences with him, but he is both a serious Catholic and a serious legislator,” said Carr. “Time will tell what difference that will make.”

Heartened by the concerted bipartisan push to approve the budget deal,  Carr traced the new tone of cooperation to Pope Francis' recent visit to Congress and said  it provided a fresh opening for the new Speaker.  

“One factor may be Francis’ call for political leaders to accept their vocation to work for the common good,” suggested Carr, who previously spent two decades at the helm of the Department of Justice, Peace and Human Development at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops

‘Free Markets — not Crony Capitalism’

It is hard to know how much time Ryan will have to develop his own agenda, and get the kind of political traction that will overcome legislative gridlock.

It is also not yet clear how he will link his policy proposals to the social teachings of his faith, given the backlash that followed his 2012 statements. But last year, when asked about the past criticism he had received from fellow Catholics, Ryan seemed to take it in stride.

“As a lay Catholic exercising my prudential judgment, I believe that free markets — not crony capitalism — encourage more personal collaboration than any other economic system,” he told the Register in a September 2014 interview.

“Free enterprise is not coercive, and it also does more to help the poor and lift up people.”

“Pope Francis is inviting us to have a conversation so we can decide how best to advance solutions that will further human progress and freedom,” Ryan continued.

“The debate is not settled.”

Catholic friends, like Arthur Brooks, point out that Ryan need not specifically reference the Catholic social principle of subsidiarity when he develops legislation that reflects the Church's preference for grassroots outreach.

“We are doing Catholic social theaching all day long," said Brooks.  "He will sometimes use the lagnauge of the apostolate, but he has a secular job."

Jim Capretta, for his part, believes that the U.S. bishops should give Ryan time to work on his proposals.

“The country faces massive deficits and fiscal problems. Responsible political leaders have to grapple with that and think about what to do to promote sustained growth,” said Capretta.

“It is generally an unfair criticism to say the direction of his policy and his intentions is just to ‘cut the budget.’ He is trying to reform programs that will improve the lives of people on the margins.”

Joan Frawley Desmond is the Register’s senior editor.