May 25th, 2011
10:05 AM ET
Editor's Note: Stephen Prothero, a Boston University religion scholar and author of "God is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions that Run the World," is a regular CNN Belief Blog contributor.
By Stephen Prothero, Special to CNN
A couple weeks ago, some Catholic leaders called out House Budget Committee Chairman Rep. Paul Ryan and House Speaker John Boehner for neglecting Catholic social teachings in their proposed 2012 budget.
Boehner avoided the issue in his recent commencement address at Catholic University, but Rep. Ryan tackled it head on in an April 29 letter to New York Archbishop Timothy Dolan, President of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
Dolan responded in a letter dated May 18, and Ryan responded in turn. All three letters are now available on the House Committee on the Budget website.
I think of Ryan as a follower of the philosopher/novelist Ayn Rand more than a follower of Jesus, so I was surprised to see him offer such a thoughtful response, addressing such traditional topics in Catholic moral theology as “the well-being of the family, subsidiarity [more on that later], the preferential option for the poor, and the dignity of the human person.”
Throughout the four-page letter, he addresses topics—including hunger and homelessness—rarely addressed today by Republican politicians. In fact, he sounds at times like a throwback to President George W. Bush's "compassionate conservatism."
Ryan begins by sounding the alarm. Our economic situation is dire, he argues, largely because of unsustainable deficits and debt. And this dire situation by no means affect only the rich.
“Ultimately the weakest will be hit three times over,” Ryan writes, “by rising costs, by drastic cuts to programs they rely on, and by the collapse of individual support for charities that help the hungry, the homeless, the sick, refugees and others in need.”
I must say I find some of Ryan’s writing disingenuous, most notably his claim that his budget “reforms welfare for those who need it,” including the poor and the sick, while it “ends welfare for those who don’t—entrenched corporations, the wealthiest Americans.”
I also don’t buy that his budget is “aimed at strengthening economic security for seniors, workers, families, and the poor.” Ryan and other Republicans have repeatedly insisted that the aim of their budget is reducing the deficit and jump-starting the economy by coming to the aid of “job creators” who “encourage expansion, growth, and hiring.”
Still, I have to commend Ryan for taking his Catholic critics (and his Catholicism) seriously enough to respond with some care.
Ryan argues that his proposed changes to Medicare are “consistent with the preferential option for the poor” long articulated by Catholic theologians and rooted in the Gospel of Luke (“Blessed are the poor”).
He claims that his budget is “rooted in the dignity of the human person” because it gets citizens off the dole, and he finds support for this view in Pope John Paul II’s encyclical Centesimus Annus.
Ryan’s cleverest twist is an effort to justify his interpretation of federalism via the church’s “principle of subsidiarity,” which says it is wrong “to assign to a greater and higher association what lesser and subordinate organizations can do.” I am going to have to leave that one to the theologians to parse, but I have never thought of Roman Catholic governance as particularly attuned either to localism or to states' rights.
Archbishop Dolan’s response to Ryan's letter is, unfortunately, conciliatory to the point of fawning. In essence, he lauds Ryan for articulating his budget in terms of the church's social teachings. But he never really challenges Ryan’s highly unorthodox interpretations of those teachings, and at times he seems to endorse them.
After quoting from the Centesimus Annus encyclical, where John Paul II writes “the defenseless and the poor have a claim to special consideration,” Dolan basically takes at face value Ryan’s assurance that his budget "would be attentive to such considerations.”
And when it comes to subsidiarity and federalism, he meekly reminds Ryan that solidarity, too, is a Catholic value—taking care to act “with a view to the common good.”
Dolan writes that “a singularly significant part of our duty as pastors is to insist that the cries of the poor are heard,” and now some Catholic groups are taking Dolan to task for shirking that duty by being too conciliatory toward Ryan and his budget.
Yesterday Catholics United called on the Archbishop “to defend the poor, not tax breaks for the wealthy,” saying his letter to Ryan “shocks the conscience of all Catholics and people of faith who care about the poor and vulnerable.”
A similar but less strident challenge from Catholic Democrats is calling on Dolan to clarify his response, noting that his letter “is being interpreted by some as an endorsement of Ryan’s budget.”
I know that defenders of a strict separation of church and state will wonder why Ryan engaging in this public exchange with a Catholic bishop over what might seem to be a purely secular matter. But I welcome it.
All too often, politicians on both the left and the right cloak their public policy positions in vague claims that they are based in the Bible or Christian theology. Ryan's letter is not vague. He thinks his budget is in keeping with Catholic social teachings, and he has now told us why.
The next step in what Ryan is rightly calling a "constructive dialogue" is for American Catholics to weigh in. What do they think of Ryan's efforts to claim the imprimatur of Catholicism for the GOP budget? I am eager to hear.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Stephen Prothero.
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