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. AGuest9

    I'm curious. I wonder if Ryan thinks that ketchup is a vegetable, too?

    August 15, 2012 at 9:25 am |
    • ArthurP

      According to the US Government pizza is a vegetable.

      August 15, 2012 at 9:30 am |
    • AGuest9

      John Heinz must be twirling in his grave.

      August 15, 2012 at 9:37 am |
  2. 1812overature

    Paul Ryan may have been raised a Catholic, but he is a self taught Existentialist, that practises his philosophical bent. There is two types of Existentialism: one type is Christian, and the other is not. Paul Ryan is Republican, and will not be for the poor, or elderly if profit is his main goal. The Existentialist part of him will justify his ignoring social justice issues

    August 15, 2012 at 9:25 am |
  3. Bishop Hairy Palms

    The Ryan-Romney budget is based on a number of false and dangerous notions: that an unfettered free market can provide us all we need, that slashing critical programs for struggling families while cutting taxes for the rich will make us all stronger, and that ruthless individualism and selfishness trump community.

    August 15, 2012 at 9:24 am |
  4. chicago7

    "Catholic" and "politics" are a contradiction in terms, as they suggest a mixing of religion and government which no thinking American wants.

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

      Actually about 46% do. That is the problem.

      August 15, 2012 at 9:29 am |
  5. Becky

    There are "Roman Catholics" that called themselves that like Biden, but follow what is convinient for their popularity or carrers, while there are the practicing Roman Catholics that we follow our commands, faith even if it is not popular and can cost ones carrer, popularity, like James Cavizel blaklisted for being one and acting in The Passion and many actors like him, I trust a person loyal to his/her conviccions, he will listen and not bend to any pressure that is against America. If you see around , people like Mr Ryan, live what they preach.
    I am a practicing Roman Catholic, with a Jewish husband, and raising roman catholic children that respect others faiths.
    One can not be half a catholic like Biden, or the radical feminist american nuns. Our Faith is not a buffet meal from where we chose waht we want or like, it is all or nothing. Biden is no catholic no matter how often he goes to mass.

    August 15, 2012 at 9:23 am |
    • AGuest9

      By that standard, neither is Ryan. "When you do to the least of my brothers (or sister)..."

      August 15, 2012 at 9:27 am |
    • Helena Troy

      So caring about creating a safety net for the poor, the disabled, and needy children is not a Catholic value that you believe in?
      These are the values of the nuns you condemn, and the Democratic party. If you are such a stickler for adhering to the Bible, how is it you ignore "Judge not, lest ye be judged"?

      August 15, 2012 at 9:27 am |
    • Jesse

      Christianity has been cherry picking from its book of fables for centuries. Why is this any different?

      August 15, 2012 at 9:28 am |
    • sqeptiq

      YOU don't get to decide who is or isn't catholic. "Judge not that ye be not judged," (Matthew 7:1) RIGHT?

      August 15, 2012 at 9:40 am |
  6. Bishop Hairy Palms

    There is nothing remotely Christian or even Catholic about Paul Ryan's Ayn Rand inspired policies.

    She was a radical atheist activist who promoted selfishness and greed as the greatest "virtues" and believed that helping anyone else in any way was pure "evil".

    "Ayn Rand was the reason I got into politics." Paul Ryan 2005

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

      Until she went on government social assistance when she got cancer.

      August 15, 2012 at 9:25 am |
    • sqeptiq

      Are you suggesting that reactionary conservatives should be consistent? Tell that to Mitt Romney. Never going to happen. Remember, "Keep your government hands off my Medicare" from the tea party.

      August 15, 2012 at 9:42 am |
  7. tv22

    How can you call someone who is pro-abortion and pro gay marriage a Catholic? Only one of these two men is a Catholic.

    August 15, 2012 at 9:20 am |
    • asdf

      he's not forcing churches to marry gays, he's allowing gays to be legally married. The two are extremely different.

      August 15, 2012 at 9:25 am |
    • AGuest9

      ... and the other isn't very christian.

      August 15, 2012 at 9:28 am |
    • gopack53

      And that would be who,,, the one who want to starve the hungry? Step on the poor? Kick those who need help the most? Yeah, that a good Catholic.

      August 15, 2012 at 9:39 am |
  8. Blah blah the wheel's off your trailer


    Mitt Romney has just disclosed 10 years of his t... Well, actually he only disclosed who his running mate is goint to be. Hey Paul Ryan, can you please tell your running mate to stop running away from the tax question? Hey Mitt, shut up and release your taxes.

    August 15, 2012 at 9:20 am |
    • ArthurP

      Yea we want to see his 'long form' tax returns.

      August 15, 2012 at 9:27 am |
    • sqeptiq

      Ryan gave Mitt "many years" of returns but he's following his master and will only show US two years. So, let's show HIM the door.

      August 15, 2012 at 9:49 am |
  9. Sam Morales

    This article is absolutely absurd. There is no question who is the better Catholic. Paul Ryan actually stands for church teachings on 95% of the issues. Biden likes the flaunt that he is the Catholic that supports the poor, while supporting bills that would force churches to provide birth control, or abortions (personally I disagree with the Church on this issue, but I believe the separation of Church and State works both ways). And considering that we have such a high unemployment rate, Biden's "we help the poor!" is hollow. Ryan is by far the better Catholic. Jesus himself said the poor will always be with you.

    Both the "we're pro-life!" line from Republicans and "we're for the poor" line from Democrats are both getting old. How about we vote for a candidate on merit and character instead of religion? Both parties are part of the problem, so vote for whoever you think is the lesser evil.

    August 15, 2012 at 9:20 am |
    • sqeptiq

      Explain the Ryan budget from the Bishops' and Nuns' perspectives. I guess they aren't really catholics to you either.

      August 15, 2012 at 9:51 am |
  10. Clement

    150 years ago = 1862. I am not sure if I would consider the American Civil War part of a "civil" conversation about slavery. Or maybe there was a pun intended.

    August 15, 2012 at 9:20 am |
  11. sir_ken_g

    Ryan is no Catholic – nor religious at all. His idol is Rand – an atheist, and he has no trouble trowing the young and the old in the ditch.

    August 15, 2012 at 9:19 am |
    • AGuest9

      There seems to be a great leap you are making from being atheist and being uncharitable.

      August 15, 2012 at 9:30 am |
    • sqeptiq

      You imagined that leap. He didn't say the two belong together; he just said Ryan is for both. Stop being so hypersensitive; you sound like a teapublican.

      August 15, 2012 at 9:53 am |
  12. Truth Seeker

    Ryan appear to be the kind of Catholic that hides and protects pedophiles. Biden appears to be the kind of Catholic who wouldn't

    August 15, 2012 at 9:18 am |
    • AGuest9

      Good point.

      August 15, 2012 at 9:31 am |
  13. ArthurP

    Lets see, the last time I looked the United States was not electing a Pope so religion should have no part of the election process what so ever. If Americans want to elect a Pope them they should subjugate themselves to the Vatican and be done with it.

    August 15, 2012 at 9:16 am |
  14. PC

    Yesterday, "Limbo" Joe showed just how low he could go by stating in front of an African-American audience that Romney wanted to "put them back in chains" which was obviously intended to raise the image of slavery, incite fear, and garner Democratic votes . Yes, Joe "Bull" Biden has played his King of Spades "card" and wallowed the trough of racial politics.
    His mouth outran his brain, and now the Democratic apologists are trying to put a spin on this to get him our of the hole he has dug for himself and his boss-man. Limbo lower Joe...how low can you go ?

    August 15, 2012 at 9:16 am |
    • sqeptiq

      Funny thing. Where were you when Rick Santorum used the EXACT same words during the primary? I guess you didn't think it was so bad then. But then, expecting consistency from a teapublican is asking too much. Wouldn't want to show up old Mitt, who goes both ways on almost every issue.

      August 15, 2012 at 10:04 am |
  15. Bishop Hairy Palms

    The single greatest accomplishment of the modern conservative movement has been to convince millions of weak minded individuals that selfishness, greed, and hate for the less fortunate are good, Christian values.

    Paul Ryan is the golden boy of this movement.

    August 15, 2012 at 9:15 am |
    • Sarah

      And since when would God defend the killing of unborn children, "bishop"? You are a false prophet, if you really believe what you said. Shame on you.

      August 15, 2012 at 9:18 am |
    • sqeptiq

      Well Sarah, you should read your bible more closely. God has killed huge numbers of BORN children throughout the bible for such sins as being born in the wrong place (Sodom and Gommorah), and for making fun of a bald man (he sent bears to tear those children apart). And He regularly aborts millions of children through miscarriage.

      August 15, 2012 at 10:09 am |
  16. Willa45

    Religion should be irrelevant! If a person has a good heart who cares what religion they are?

    August 15, 2012 at 9:15 am |
    • Bishop Hairy Palms

      Ryan has no heart at all so that rules him out.

      August 15, 2012 at 9:16 am |
  17. Libdumb

    Biden as well as Pelosi are only Catholics in name. They don't aspire to ANY of the principles. I would walk out of Mass if they showed up which is very doubtful.

    August 15, 2012 at 9:15 am |
    • landy

      How very "Christian" of you.

      August 15, 2012 at 9:26 am |
    • sqeptiq

      How dare you arrogate to yourself what belongs to God. All are welcome in his house. "Judge not that ye be not judged." Gospel according to Matthew.

      August 15, 2012 at 10:11 am |
  18. Jon Durham

    Barak Obama is the only Protestant Christian in the race.

    August 15, 2012 at 9:14 am |
    • Huebert

      Mormons are technically protestant Christians.

      August 15, 2012 at 9:20 am |
    • AGuest9

      I'm not familiar with any blonde-haired, blue-eyed Israelis.

      August 15, 2012 at 9:33 am |
    • sqeptiq

      No, they are not Protestant. They are non-Catholic.There is a difference.

      August 15, 2012 at 10:13 am |
  19. Alan

    Stephen P: You've conveniently overlooked an issue that is galvanizing Catholics and all Christians – Obamacare forcing Catholic organizations to provide birth control. Try as you can to spin Ryan a negative due to his responsible approach on budget, his presence in this race draws a clear contrast that is much more reflective of mainstream America's views both on work ethic and freedom of religion.

    August 15, 2012 at 9:14 am |
    • Mbane18

      Please provide exact Biblical quote that is against birth control! Please also know know that birth control pills are prescribed to cure other problems.

      August 15, 2012 at 9:18 am |
    • Jon Durham

      No one is forced to take birth control. If Catholics don't want birth control, they simply don't ask for it or take it. However, if they employ secular or non – Catholic women in their organizations, these women will have their birth control covered by their employers health insurance.

      August 15, 2012 at 9:18 am |
    • tv22

      @mbane – "Thou Shall Not Kill"

      August 15, 2012 at 9:21 am |
    • Mbane18

      @tv22 – exactly, so please explain why Republicans started 2 wars and are against healthcare for everyone? Don't the same principles apply? Or they they want to ban abortions so they can raise bigger armies to go kill more people or have more people die without medical treatment?

      August 15, 2012 at 9:25 am |
  20. Faith-Isn't-a-Preacher

    It's obvious which one is Catholic by name only.

    August 15, 2012 at 9:14 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.