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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. Mercydivine

    Angela & Hawaiiguest...Pedophilia was less than 5% of all abuse....

    August 15, 2012 at 3:51 pm |
  2. Lisa

    This divide between the compassionate and joyous message of Christ and the judgmental and rigid message that grows from the instructions of the Apostle Paul (via his letters that make up so much of the New Testament) happens across the Christian religious spectrum–not just with Catholics.

    August 15, 2012 at 3:00 pm |
    • Mercydivine

      Giving the poor a hand up is better than keeping them down. And what is more compassionate, supoorting the murder of children in the womb and degrading & exploiting women through the violence of abortion, or helping women choose life for their child who is made in the image and likeness of God, so therfore abortion is a rejection of God....St. Paul's message will free sinners and make them joyous....

      August 15, 2012 at 3:42 pm |
    • Bibletruth

      Wow...pitting Paul against Christ?????????? Their messages are absolutely Identical.

      August 16, 2012 at 11:39 am |
  3. TC

    Ryan doesn't fully believe like a Catholic and if one really subscribes to the Democratic party of this day and age then you certainly cannot be a Catholic.

    August 15, 2012 at 2:36 pm |
    • Angela Birch

      You mean like all those catholics who belong to the Democratic party?? Get a grip Democrats come in all religions including Catholics. I suspect your view os based on the fact that the Democrats believe in allowing people to make their own choices based on their faith. While Republicans want to enshrine into law the beliefs of certain faiths so that everyone is forced to follow the beliefs of a faith they might not believe in. I prefer a political party that allows me to follow the dictates of my faith

      August 15, 2012 at 3:34 pm |
  4. buenlb

    Haha. Civil. That must be why they called it the "civil" war.

    August 15, 2012 at 1:41 pm |
    • Angela Birch

      No a civil war is a war fought between factions of the same country. It comes from the latin civilis meaning having to do with citizens. IT is a war between citizens. A larger and more comprehensive dictionary might be a good investment.

      August 15, 2012 at 3:38 pm |
  5. DSL

    My Take: These days, religion is second (and not a distant second) only to money in terms of influence on the American political system. It affects both major political parties and does nothing but contribute to the vitriol and extremism that is so common in politics today. For that, we as a nation should be ashamed.

    August 15, 2012 at 12:56 pm |
  6. Rational Libertarian

    Romney tapped an alter boy. I thought that was the priest's job.

    August 15, 2012 at 12:11 pm |
    • Mercydivine

      You mean the gay Priest....

      August 15, 2012 at 3:37 pm |
    • Angela Birch

      Pedephilia is totally different from orientation.

      August 15, 2012 at 3:41 pm |
    • hawaiiguest

      Pedophelia has nothing to do with sex or physical attraction. It's all about power and control, the same as rape.

      August 15, 2012 at 3:45 pm |
  7. Chunk a chunk

    Regardless of your political point of view, I think we all should be praying very hard for Obama. Please, don't let anything happen to Obama from now until January, because if it did, we would get stock with Biden and that is a terribly scary thought. Amen.

    August 15, 2012 at 10:42 am |
    • gerald

      There is a psalm I use to pray for him every day. Don't recall the number but it says "may his days be short and another take his place". That is truly a pslam and it applies to him nicely.

      August 15, 2012 at 11:08 am |
    • gerald

      Ah here it is.

      Psalm 109:8

      English Standard Version (ESV)

      8 May his days be few;
      may another take his office!

      August 15, 2012 at 11:10 am |
    • Jesus freaker

      'There is a psalm I use to pray for him every day. Don't recall the number but it says "may his days be short and another take his place". That is truly a pslam and it applies to him nicely.'

      Once again, prayer has failed you. Did you give up on praying all together or just that one?

      August 15, 2012 at 11:48 am |
  8. Henry James

    Believing and Truth are not the same thing. When you believe in spite of the evidence to the contrary, it just makes you confident and wrong. This closed mindedness prevents you from learning the real Truth. If you do not allow yourself to learn Truth then you are swimming upstream against the current of reality and make your life harder than it has to be. Often it is not you that pays the most for your beliefs but those closest to you. Many times the people that realize you are wrong and do not want you ruling their life and making it worse. I wonder how many families have been destroyed due to sons and daughters being shunned out of intolerance?

    August 15, 2012 at 10:35 am |
    • Huebert

      Pleas enlighten me: What is the difference between "truth" and "Truth"?

      August 15, 2012 at 10:41 am |
  9. The inquireR

    A Mormon running with KKK... Oh you didnt know Janesville Wisconisn is known predominately as a KKK town. If you live in Madison, Milwaukee, Rockford, or any busy neighboring cities, you get wind of this right away. I lived in Madison for about 5 yrs and have heard of and seen a large KKK presence in Janesville. Hopefully Ryan is not one of these hood wearing racists and does not share their ideology. Here are some KKK news from that area so you guys can see what im talking about very clearly, all you have to do is look up KKK Janesville, Wisconsin and see for yourselves. Some are old some are new, but the point is the relevance and strong presence of KKK associated with Ryan's home town of Janesville , Wisconsin most known for the 1992 Geraldo Rivera KKK rally where he got arrested. Yes this was in Janesville.

    Here is a report from the Janesville "Gazzette" = http://facstaff.uww.edu/mohanp/ethnic11f.html

    http://www.journaltimes.com/news/national/article_a4527e1d-beb0-5fae-bcbd-1597246c3633.html

    http://gazettextra.com/news/2008/dec/01/janesville-police-department-has-no-blacks-or-lati/

    http://www.city-data.com/forum/wisconsin/17173-can-anyone-tell-me-about-janesville-4.html <<CDLIGHT 's post

    August 15, 2012 at 10:24 am |
    • Chunk a chunk

      Yes, Harry Reed is a mormon running that.

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

    The real joke of this is that Biden is being brought back into the spotlight with Ryan. How can we pretend that Biden is important in any way shape or form? I'm so excited for all his slip ups again.

    August 15, 2012 at 10:13 am |
    • Huebert

      This years VP debate is going to be great comedic relief.

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

    It's about time to start believing that first, we are all human beings. The beauty of a democracy is allowing us to chose or not a religon, political party, etc. But the most important action of a human being is RESPECT. It's very sad and scary to see how we forget that our words can destroy the dreams of our children. We are not respecting our children by insulting out loud one another. It's about time meditate and demonstrate to our children the value of life. That we will always be 1st human beings.

    Thanks.

    August 15, 2012 at 9:49 am |
  12. pops

    so the Catholic nuns have become hypocrites just like Biden. You can not be a good Catholic and believe in abortion, gay marriage nor birth control pills. Ask the Pope! The nuns should stay out of the economy and worry about a President & Vice-President who are attacking the values of the church for political gains. The Catholic church is the richest insitution in the world, they should do more to feed the hungrey and take care of the poor. What do they do with all the money they collect each year?

    August 15, 2012 at 9:36 am |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV

      Ummmm, feed the hungry and take care of the poor?

      August 15, 2012 at 10:33 am |
    • Jen

      Ask the pope? Ummm...he was a nazi....not exactly my go to person for advice on morals....

      August 15, 2012 at 10:39 am |
    • gerald

      Jen, no I am sorry. You are wrong. He was not a nazi. ALL german teenage boys HAD to be in the Hitler youth. Do you want to be held accountable the rest of your life for what you were forced to do at 14-16? Pretty silly I think.

      August 15, 2012 at 11:07 am |
    • Jen

      So all those nazis that tortured the Jews should never have been prosecuted since they were just doing what they were forced to....good to know....

      Also, once the pope came into a position of power he did everything in his power to protect pedophiles. Clearly not being forced to commit evil. (by the way, my husband is Catholic and totally agrees with me on this)...

      Finally, you shouldn't be trying to tell me anything. I saw the exchange you had with chief and it is clear you both have insurmountable mental issues....yikes....

      August 15, 2012 at 11:14 am |
    • gerald

      Tell me who he tourtured and I will be glad to recant my statement and ask that he be prosecuted to the full extent of the law.

      August 15, 2012 at 1:28 pm |
    • gerald

      As for my words to chief, they certainly were over the top to make a point. If you knew the history between us you might understand. I am not proud of what I said to him but i do say he had it coming. My apologies to all for my attack on him.

      August 15, 2012 at 1:31 pm |
  13. asdf

    Things Jesus said about abortion: 0
    Things Jesus said about gays: 0
    Things Jesus said about legislating morality: 0
    Things Jesus said about social justice/helping the poor: 2134238987

    Who is the real Christian?

    August 15, 2012 at 9:33 am |
    • Bill Deacon

      How can there be social justice without the right to life?

      August 22, 2012 at 11:12 am |
  14. Colin

    I expect that, one day, history students will look back in awe at how “as late as the 21st Century, they still based government policy on a book called the “Bible” which was essentially a collection of Southern European Dark Ages superst.itions stapled to the back of a collection of Iron Age Jewish mythology. This is quite remarkable for a civilization that was, otherwise, quite advanced”.

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

      well to be fair, since most of the bible was stolen from previous religions, we're just keeping up with the Joneses at this point.

      August 15, 2012 at 9:34 am |
  15. Whats In A Name

    Regardless of the Bishop's or Archbishop's emphatic statements, there is nothing in scripture to indicate that the gov't is responsible for taking care of the poor. In fact, it is an obligation of individuals.

    August 15, 2012 at 9:32 am |
    • Howard

      And what is a democratic government, if not an expression of the collective will of its nation of individuals?

      August 15, 2012 at 10:37 am |
  16. curiositykilledthecar

    Remind our politicians that there only christian (like all Europeans) because Emporer Constantine imagined a symbol in the sky before the Battle at the Milvian Bridge (312 C.E.). While your at it remember George Bush Jr. thought God had selected him to be President ( I'm sure Constantine felt the same way!). America has associated Religous beleifs (of the Ancient Israelites,[Jewish faith,Islam,ect.] for to long. Jesus Christ is based on an Egyptian God, Moses legend is actually Sargon' legend. Try putting down your bible and pick up a history book, at one point in time Christianity and Islam were Progressive cultural advancements, so was Protestantism and Martin Luther's teachings.Society no longer needed Neptune to drive the Tides. Now either God is imaginary, or he's more afraid of me than I am of Him!

    August 15, 2012 at 9:31 am |
    • HistProf

      More accurate to say that Constantine wisely decided to appeal to a very popular religion among troops on both sides of that battle in a civil war. A shrewd political move by a politician seeking to become sole ruler, using popular but previously suppressed religious supsersition to his advantage. Constantine himself converted on his death bed, another interesting case of a skilled politician playing it safe. After all, if the Christians were right last rites forgave all. And if his pagan/atheist leanings were correct, nothing lost.

      August 15, 2012 at 10:20 am |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV

      @HistProf,

      I am no Constantine scholar, but given all the genuine scholarly interest in Constantine I, there does not appear to be a universal consensus that his conversion to Christianity happened as late as his deathbed. There is no question that he was more than a strong sponsor of Christianity as the religion of the Roman Empire, most notably by hosting the Council of Nicaea.

      The skeptic can easily argue that he was likely to be more interested in running a h0mogenized, trouble free Empire than in personal questions of faith but the deathbed conversion seems like a skeptical apolgia to counter earlier commentary that he was an enthusiastic convert earlier in life. The truth is usually somewhere in between.

      The "Historians" of antiquity (and their subsequent editors) never let the facts get in the way of a good story.

      Given your handle, I assume you don't believe everything you read in Dan Brown novels.

      August 15, 2012 at 10:53 am |
  17. Rosalia

    El verdadero cristiano no puede ser incoherente con su pensamiento y sentir, no se puede ser tibio como señala el evangelio, Dios quiere cristianos que sean ejemplo de vida y que sean valientes defensores de un cristianismo vivo que defienda los valores en nuestra sociedad, como católica no puedo estar de acuerdo con el aborto, el matrimonio gey, y toda ideologia liberal que atente contra nuestros valores, y tenemos voz y derechos para protestar y hacer defender nuestro cristianismo y una forma de hacerlo es votando y apoyando a politicos que sean fieles a estos principios.

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

      el problema con catolicos americanos es que son catolicos muchas veces solo en nombre.

      August 15, 2012 at 10:16 am |
  18. Bishop Hairy Palms

    Not only does Paul Ryan's plan end Medicare and Social Security, it does this to pay for trillions more in tax cuts for the rich.

    There is nothing remotely Christian about the values that drive Paul Ryan.

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

      Christianity is not based on what the government does or does not do. We do not do our charity by raising taxes on the rich, extracting money from their pockets unwillingly and then redistributing it. Now it may be that the government needs to do this but don't tie it to Christianity.

      August 15, 2012 at 11:05 am |
  19. Mbane18

    @Jon Durham, Europe is mostly Christian, yet everyone there uses birth control and almost every farmacy has birth control despensing machines on the outside. It's not an issue over there, so why is it an issue here?

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

      Because the United States philosophy is directly related to Puritanism which because of its intolerance was drummed out of Europe. Essentially the Puritans went to America where they were free to practice religious intolerance. (get the irony)

      August 15, 2012 at 9:34 am |
  20. Bishop Hairy Palms

    Catholic nuns, priests and friars have called the Ryan budget "immoral," a "severe failure," the "height of hypocrisy" and "unpatriotic." Sister Simone Campbell led a 17-city "Nuns on the Bus" tour this summer to visit faith-based social service programs that would be hurt by cuts proposed in the Ryan budget. Last week her organization, NETWORK, and the Franciscan Action Network invited Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan to spend a day with them visiting the poor in order to meet the people who'd be affected by their budget cuts.

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

      Correction – liberal Catholic Bishops, priests, nuns. Not all by a long shot. Those who have said it don't represent the Church as a whole. They do not have that kind of authority. Sorry. How can it be called a severe failure when it hasn't been tried.

      August 15, 2012 at 11:02 am |
    • Bill Deacon

      What about 15 trillion dollars in debt, a flat lined economy and a reduced credit rating do you not understand?

      August 22, 2012 at 11:18 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.