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My Take: Paul Ryan will provoke a debate on Catholic politics
Mitt Romney's VP pick, Paul Ryan, means there will be Catholics on both party tickets. Vice President Joe Biden is also a Catholic.
August 14th, 2012
10:41 AM ET

My Take: Paul Ryan will provoke a debate on Catholic politics

Editor's note: Stephen Prothero, a Boston University religion scholar and author of "The American Bible: How Our Words Unite, Divide, and Define a Nation," is a regular CNN Belief Blog contributor.

By Stephen Prothero, Special to CNN

A lot has been written about the “Mormon moment” in American politics. But the election of 2012 is starting to shape up as a “Catholic moment,” too.

Now that Mitt Romney has tapped the former altar boy (and Rep.) Paul Ryan as his vice-presidential running mate, there will be a Catholic on both major party tickets for the first time in U.S. history.

So as Ryan and Vice President Joe Biden articulate their views, we will be tuning into an intra-Catholic conversation pitting “social justice” Christians on the left versus “family values” Christians on the right.

Because this election will doubtless focus on the economy, and because Ryan is known primarily as the author of a budget passed this year in the Republican-controlled House, this debate will not focus primarily on social questions such as abortion and same-sex marriage but on economic concerns such as tax policy and the safety net. What would Jesus do about our debt and the deficit?

In a preview of the debates to come, Catholic bishops wrote four letters to Congress in April attacking the Ryan budget as unjust and calling for “a circle of protection ... around essential programs that serve poor and vulnerable people.”

These letters, signed by leaders of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, articulated general principles of Catholic social teaching. “A central moral measure of any budget proposal is how it affects ‘the least of these’ (Matthew 25),” wrote Bishop Stephen Blaire of Stockton, California. “The needs of those who are hungry and homeless, without work or in poverty should come first.”

Another letter, co-signed by Blaire and Bishop Richard Pates of Des Moines, Iowa, argued that “the needs of those who are hungry, poor and vulnerable should come before assistance to those who are relatively well off and powerful” and spoke of drawing a “circle of protection” around the “poor and vulnerable.”

But America's bishops also took aim at specific policy proposals, including cuts to affordable housing programs, cuts in food stamps and changes to the Child Tax Credit.

Blaire insisted that “just solutions” to our budget problems “must require shared sacrifice by all, including raising adequate revenues, eliminating unnecessary military and other spending, and fairly addressing the long-term costs of health insurance and retirement programs,” before concluding that the Ryan budget “fails to meet these moral criteria.”

To his credit, Ryan responded to these letters not just with canned talking points but with a fairly detailed defense of his understanding of Catholic social thought.

In an April interview with David Brody, Ryan admitted that the “preferential option for the poor” was “one of the primary tenets of Catholic social teaching.” But he insisted this idea “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.”

A year earlier, in a letter to Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York, Ryan said his budget was informed by the Catholic principle of "subsidiarity,” which he equated with “federalism,” and more particularly with the practice of addressing social problems with local rather than national solutions.

Lots of things changed when Romney tapped Ryan as his vice-presidential pick. Among those things is the religious dynamic of the 2012 election. We have in Romney/Ryan what is arguably the first non-Protestant ticket in U.S. history.

And in the vice-presidential tussle between Ryan and Biden we have the promise of a civil and informed debate about Christian values and economic policy.

For far too long, politicians have been able to name check God or point vaguely to the Bible to gain the imprimatur of heaven for their particular policies or their political party. That sort of "God on our side" politics has been bad for both our religious and our public life.

But substantive debates about Christianity and politics are potentially healthy for both.

A century and a half ago, Americans engaged in a collective conversation about the Bible and slavery that was both civil and informed. Is it too much to hope that an intelligent debate about Christianity and the economy is now in the offing? If so, we will likely have Ryan (and Romney) to thank.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Stephen Prothero.

- CNN Belief Blog contributor

Filed under: 2012 Election • Bishops • Catholic Church • Christianity • Church and state • Economy • Joe Biden • Mitt Romney • Politics • Poverty • United States

soundoff (1,003 Responses)
  1. pritch

    zuefree2b, see you are the problem. Just excuse yourself from intelligent conversations and go back to your bong.

    August 15, 2012 at 9:14 am |
  2. asdf

    Here's a hint: between Social Justice and Family Values...Jesus only talked about ONE of these things.

    August 15, 2012 at 9:12 am |
    • aCriticalEye

      Lets see
      1) Love thy father & Mother
      2) What ever you do unto the least of these my brothers, you do unto me.

      there are probably more

      August 15, 2012 at 10:35 am |
  3. bspurloc

    get religion out of politics....
    FYI Biden is ALREADY VP there is no article.

    August 15, 2012 at 9:12 am |
  4. Mbane18

    What are Christian famally values? As someone raised a Christian, I can't forget that Moses had 7 wives, Mary and Joseph were not married yet lived together and had 7 children, Jesus himself is suspected of "spending time" with Mary Magdalen, yet never married her and the list goes on and on....most biblical figures had multiple wives, had affairs and married their cousins. So where do these family values the right wingers talk about come from?

    August 15, 2012 at 9:12 am |
    • sqeptiq

      Brainwashing!

      August 15, 2012 at 9:20 am |
    • Dyslexic doG

      amen!

      August 15, 2012 at 9:21 am |
    • aCriticalEye

      Some believe Jesus WAS married to Marry, it was the Roman Catholic church that demonized her in the attempt to raise Jesus to the Deity level. Truth is, Jesus was a man, he just had a good message, a message I believe in and live by. Today's catholics just over look the message.

      August 15, 2012 at 10:39 am |
  5. Willa45

    HATE in any way, shape or form and no matter who it is directed at...(.race, religion, lifesyle etc.) is NOT a Christian value!

    August 15, 2012 at 9:10 am |
    • aCriticalEye

      Exactly.

      August 15, 2012 at 10:40 am |
  6. Damian

    Keep religion out of politics............separartion of church and state.

    August 15, 2012 at 9:10 am |
    • Mary

      Separation of church and state?
      When a politician stands at the podium and suggests his audience join in his religion, then I'll worry.
      Until then, you cannot take a person's beliefs (religious, or otherwise) out of the equation when they make decisions. It is just a part of who they are.

      August 15, 2012 at 9:20 am |
  7. Logic

    The religion of the candidate is irrelevant in terms of how they will do their job. Unfortunately, for a significant portion of (small minded) voters and pundits looking for angles, it does matter. Any religious posturing by any candidate is FOR SHOW. No normal (sane) person REALLY wants religion to influence a public servant.

    August 15, 2012 at 9:09 am |
    • sqeptiq

      So, when Paul Ryan sponsors a bill to declare a fertilized egg is a human being, which means most birth control is forbidden, we should forget his religious views? Sounds like a religious position to me and pretty salient to his politics.

      August 15, 2012 at 9:22 am |
  8. pritch

    You can absolutely see the ground swell in this campaign. Just like in WI, when the dems thought they had Walker recalled. All the crybabby shenanigans. The death threats, the interrupting of speeches and debates. I mean you had a Democratic state senator threaten to kill a republican state senator. All of these antics drive people away. The Dems will not win unless they start talking about the issues and stop the crybaby attacks.

    August 15, 2012 at 9:09 am |
    • David

      You seem to have it backwards, how can you possibly make a comment like that when Romney has not offered a solution to one single thing – he just talks about stuff. And now he adopted the Ryan budget which is the only thing they have and it is based on robbing from the poor to give to the rich. Absolutely crazy.

      August 15, 2012 at 9:17 am |
    • sqeptiq

      He is for the Ryan budget except when he's against it. Just like Ryan is a supporter of Ayn Rand except when he isn't.

      August 15, 2012 at 9:24 am |
    • aCriticalEye

      Etch-A-Sketch
      Where exactly are those tax returns.....RobMe is a cheating LIAR
      Where exactly are those "Weapons of Mass Destruction"? LIAR

      August 15, 2012 at 10:43 am |
  9. Lee

    Honestly, religion should play no part at all – this is the major problem (well one of the major problems) the US has with their politics. Why should this be part of the campaign? It shouldn't. But lately it seems that all advertising, media, etc. is just to focus on religion. Religion and politics do not mix.

    August 15, 2012 at 9:09 am |
    • Mary

      You cannot take religion out of politics unless you are prepared to restrict all political offices to atheists.
      A person beliefs will always be a part of their decision-making.

      August 15, 2012 at 9:17 am |
    • Bernie

      What aspect of religion are you objecting to? Social justice; concern for the poor and unfortunate? I didn't know that that was just a Catholic thing. Family values? I didn't know that that was only a Catholic or religious issue either. I thought even atheists were interested in those things.

      August 15, 2012 at 9:19 am |
  10. Dyslexic doG

    It's the same battle as the US Nuns vs. the Vatican.

    The concern for the poor and an effort to be more like Jesus, vs an obsession with power, money and the man made rules of the religion.

    August 15, 2012 at 9:08 am |
    • sqeptiq

      You nailed it.

      August 15, 2012 at 9:30 am |
  11. superlogi

    One's a practicing Catholic, good or bad depending on your own faith. The other is nothing more than a phony hypocrite which doesn't matter what your faith is, or even if you have any. And, don't worry about granny, she's better off than you will be when you get to be a granny, assuming of course, you vote for the Court clown and his shukin and jivin boss and they win because of it.

    August 15, 2012 at 9:08 am |
    • Dyslexic doG

      your whole comment can ge summed up by your "don't worry about Granny". ... all the rest is the same old tired Fox News hate speak.

      August 15, 2012 at 9:11 am |
    • Mbane18

      A practicing Catholoc does not vote for wars or create polocies that will make the poor poorer awhile making the rich richer. Going to church on Sundays does not make you a practicing Christian.

      August 15, 2012 at 9:21 am |
  12. Agreed

    The only things these two have in common is that, they were both alter boys and they each were molested by their priest.

    August 15, 2012 at 9:08 am |
    • Mary

      What an idiotic statement.

      August 15, 2012 at 9:14 am |
  13. ArthurP

    Just as God who he wants to be President then take all the campaign funds that have been raised to date and that would have been used to run the election and then use it to pay down the national debt.

    August 15, 2012 at 9:07 am |
  14. olga79

    The question everybody has to answer is :Do we want a humane society or an inhumane society?

    August 15, 2012 at 9:04 am |
    • Bernie

      That's not really the question for the answer is the only reasonable one recognized by both sides. The question is technical -which is where the candidates and electorate differ among themselves: HOW do we achieve a humane society? HOW do we take care of the poor and disadvantaged? HOW do we make a bad situation better? In my opinion Ryan has, technically, the better plan to turn the situation around long term.

      August 15, 2012 at 9:29 am |
    • aCriticalEye

      Bernie, so why hasn't RobMe released the returns. IS HE one of the people that paid ZERO in taxes. Until he comes clean, he will be branded a tax cheat

      August 15, 2012 at 10:47 am |
  15. Chet

    We already have a non-Protestant ticket and they are in power

    August 15, 2012 at 9:02 am |
    • sqeptiq

      Fatuous, jejune, and feckless.

      August 15, 2012 at 9:33 am |
  16. Joseph

    This could be a good conversation, but it will undoubtedly be a bad one. From a Christian (and particularly a Catholic)perspective, the political right is out of the lane regarding certain social justice issues and capital punishment. Likewise, the left is out of the lane regarding abortion and certain other social issues. Both sides display a profound lack of humility in this regard, touting how they are "right" and the other side "wrong", willing to invoke religion as convenient but unwilling to buy the whole loaf of bread. Ultimately it's a painful choice for believers.

    August 15, 2012 at 9:02 am |
    • zufree2b

      Both Nit Robme and Lying Ryan need to shave their heads to prove there no 666 on there!

      August 15, 2012 at 9:09 am |
  17. citizenmn

    Candidate's religious views should be personal; they should not be part of any campaign or public debate. Keep your religion to yourself.

    August 15, 2012 at 9:02 am |
    • Mary

      What you believe in your religion permeates your thoughts about life.
      A candidate can "not talk" about religion, per se, but their (religious) beliefs will always be a part of the decisions they make and the opinions they hold.

      August 15, 2012 at 9:05 am |
    • Bernie

      I was unaware that here in America there were restrictions on what can be debated in the public square. Aren't you forcing your personal views on the rest of us by deciding what can and cannot be discussed?

      August 15, 2012 at 9:22 am |
  18. Mary

    This will be interesting.

    August 15, 2012 at 9:01 am |
  19. Michael McGlaughlin

    I heard that Ryan will be using a human skeleton as a pre- debate prop in place of Biden-no difference, really!

    August 15, 2012 at 9:01 am |
    • sqeptiq

      Was that supposed to be clever? Please don't engage in a battle of wits until you arm yourself.

      August 15, 2012 at 9:35 am |
  20. AGuest9

    "F'n" Joe versus "Granny Killin'" Paul. I'd take the potty-mouth over my grandma on the curb outside her nursing home any day!

    August 15, 2012 at 9:01 am |
    • Damian

      I agree!!

      August 15, 2012 at 9:09 am |
    • jmarm

      How is it that so many have forgotten so much about what our Founding Fathers had in mind when they knew that politics and religion do not mix. Education belongs in the school with help at home. Religion belongs in the places of worship and in Private lives. Politics runs the country.

      August 15, 2012 at 9:17 am |
    • Bernie

      What issues mentioned in the article are specifically 'religion' issues? The article merely reports on the interesting contrast between the two candidates positions on social justice issues addressed by their Church. It's not about religion, as such.

      August 15, 2012 at 9:40 am |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.