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. brian

    By the way, the bible is not a history book by any stretch of the imagination. It was written by man, not a god. And chances are you christians preaching your bs cannot name one person who wrote anything in that book, and yet you hold so much value in what it says. So apparently you don't require the source of information in order to establish credibility. You believe it because you're expected to and you've never questioned anything which you were taught by "authority". Sheep

    November 25, 2012 at 2:45 pm |
  2. brian

    Dear God, please protect me from your followers. If heaven is full of christians then i don't want to go.

    November 25, 2012 at 2:43 pm |
  3. brian

    America was not always a Christian land. And this wasn't always america. And Jesus was not american. But somehow you have to be christian to be president of this idiotic country.

    November 25, 2012 at 2:38 pm |
  4. Leif

    Most CNN forums now require you to log in with a FB or some other 3rd party account, so forgive me for posting this here.
    Chris Christie for president! I am a registered Democrat, and I would vote for him.

    CNN, what is wrong with you? To hell with FB.

    November 18, 2012 at 3:37 am |
  5. lorna

    THIS IS STILL AMERICA....and we do have a right to run for office and vote as we choose regardless of our RELIGOUS PREFERENCES!

    November 13, 2012 at 5:12 pm |
  6. Rohn Timm

    I believe Sandy was a partial judgment/calamity against America for ALL its perversions and falsehoods. This storm was a direct, intentional, deliberate left turn into the upper 1/3 of this Country. Its impact will inflict massive sufferings on over 50 million. America has thumbed its nose at God for too long. We offer the trite expression "God Bless America" yet tell God to stay out of our schools, courts, govt. Wake up! This calamity follows the intense drought this past summer. Do you all think there will be "flashing lights" in the sky when God exercises judgment? The only realization of the judgment is during or after it starts. The first 3 1/2 yrs of the Tribulation doesn't start with a "notice of intent" from God. It STARTS before one is aware of it starting. 3 1/2 years is a LONG TIME to the 1/2 way point. So, we could be in it now and not know it. The false religious leaders won't know it either or even deny it is happening. Stay tuned for further updates.

    November 2, 2012 at 6:29 pm |
    • Matt in Oregon

      Ok, your free to state what you believe. I am also free to state I think your beliefs are ridiculous. Your fairy tale invisible sky daddy had nothing to do with Sandy. Climate change and weakening polar ice sheets on the other hand... well, this is something for which there actually is some evidence for.

      November 13, 2012 at 4:31 am |
  7. Free man in the Republic of Texas


    "Get over your conscience!!!"

    FORWARD -> -> -> ->
    To total depravity !!!

    October 28, 2012 at 5:06 pm |
  8. A Reasoner

    If we don't accept SAT answers based on the respondent's baseless mystical belief, why should we elect anyone on it?

    October 28, 2012 at 8:18 am |
  9. waitasec

    any christian who appoints themselves as "gods police" is just undermining their faith in god.

    October 12, 2012 at 8:38 pm |
  10. Bill G

    Did anyone catch the part towards the end of the debate when the candidates were asked about how their faith influences their decision making? Ryan responded that his private life was inseparable from his public life and that, of course, his religion would influence his decision making. If we can take him at his word (yes, I know that's a stretch) then, by logical extension, we arrive at a few disturbing conclusions: If he can not separate his personal life from his private life, then, by definition, he is incapable of preventing his personal views (read religious) from entering into his public policies. Ryan, a devout Catholic, is therefore bound by his duty to the Vatican (as is every devout Catholic) to make every effort to support legislation which would bring the laws of the United States more in line with the views of the Church. What I'm driving at (if it isn't already obvious) is that a man who cannot separate his religious views from his actions on behalf of the state, cannot, by definition, truly embrace the principle of 'separation of Church and State'. I would think that, if Ryan understands and believes in this principle, he would find himself morally unable to run for any public office. Of course, I imagine that the irony of all this will be lost on most people (and certainly on Ryan himself), but I couldn't help but consider the larger implications of his statements.

    October 12, 2012 at 11:17 am |
  11. Free Man in the Republic of Texas

    Their brains vacuumed out;
    their arms and legs pulled off;
    their skulls crushed.

    Murdered for simply being inconvenient.

    The premeditated, cold blooded murder,
    of innocent and defenseless pre-born babies
    with unique DNA takes place over 3,600 times
    every day in America.

    FORWARD -> -> -> ->

    October 10, 2012 at 6:32 am |
    • Bill G

      I don't see how you can define a grouping of cells that has never had a conscious thought a person. You're 'blown out of all proportion' scare tactics don't change that.

      October 12, 2012 at 11:17 am |
    • Mooretone

      That's a hoot..............."Freeman" in Texas? LOL Since when was Texas ever freed from Spain? Where's all Perry's drug mule money from the state's business affairs with Mexican Mobsters being used by the Vattican in sales of sin? That doesn't sound "Free" to me poser. Maybe you should put on a sheet, draw a red cross on it and pretend to be something that never was–Freemasons and Templars were NEVER the same. Templars had French blood and disobeyed the Bible by selling safe passage for Jewish Pilgrims for which the Vattican then tried to have them executed for using the church for commerce–remember Jesus overthrowing the tax-man's table for using the church for commerce? What do you think Freemasons did? They sold Christianity like a Mob. What does the Vattican in Texas do? It runs Mexican Drug Lords tied to Spanish Elites who use them as "Peasants" for which the church then takes that money back to Italy, and invests in Mob businesses from New Jersey to New York, all the way to Louisiana, Texas and Arizona. The Templars were never erradicated only shifted to "The Enlightenment Movement" from which the Free Masons rode thier coat tails.

      Freeman in Texas. LOL What a hoot.

      October 31, 2012 at 9:24 am |
  12. Patricksday

    Pompus Catholics of the 1950's are dying off and the Bishops no longer have the Power they once had, the people are waking up to the lies and corruption of the Vatican, Like Jesus will dress in expensive gowns and jewels and carry on this wicked old boys club.

    September 29, 2012 at 9:46 pm |
  13. JamesA

    I'm a Cathloic, and I say that these secular affairs, like the government should ramain secular. I do not need to tell people what they should believe, as I believe that rightiousness is the only true princible that should be held in ANY religion, and anyone for that matter. Religion has absolutely zero bearing on someone's intelligence, courage, and goodness.

    Oh, and please forgive my spelling errors. 😛

    September 24, 2012 at 12:37 pm |
    • CGAW

      I agree james and today's politicians typically do not reflect the beliefs they espouse so anyhing thye would say in regards to their religious beliefs is most likely a lie.

      September 26, 2012 at 2:06 pm |
  14. RichardSRussell

    I wonder what all the Religious Right zealots are going to do once they realize that the only BIble-believing Protestant on the ticket of either major party is Barack Obama. The cognitive dissonance must be excruciating for them — however delicious it is for me.

    September 22, 2012 at 5:44 pm |
  15. CGAW

    I wonder when was the last time an atheist org wrote a letter to the US govt asking for consderation of poor and underpriviledgd? Oh that's right, they don't do stuff like that. Why would they? Ever seen an atheist missionary group in Africa or INdia?

    September 20, 2012 at 7:23 pm |
    • RichardSRussell

      You're right. Why would we? We've got SECULAR organizations like the Red Cross, Doctors without Borders, Amnesty International, etc. to do it for us. We don't need one with all the religious baggage, nor do we need to reinvent the wheel with an organization that specifically says "This is coming to you out of the goodness of our hearts, not because we're trying to convert you."

      September 22, 2012 at 5:48 pm |
    • David

      CGAW... Do you really believe your comment? You are just trolling uh? Those with rational thought processes understand they should not hold food in one hand, holy book in the other, and call it charity. That is not how kind people behave. Saying you can have food but first you must believe in my god(s) is the definition of coercion. I am going to believe you are a troll and not feed you anymore. DEAL WITH IT

      October 5, 2012 at 11:45 pm |
    • brian

      somewhere along the way of your indoctrination your parents or whoever brainwashed you convinced you that atheists are bad people and just evil for not subscribing to your beliefs. Stop being self righteous and attempt to think outside the box in which you have been thinking inside your whole life. ignorance is bliss.

      November 25, 2012 at 2:42 pm |
  16. Eric

    I appreciate davidpun's sentiments. Too bad there aren't more of us who can think clearly enough to see both sides of an issue. Intolerance joined hip to hip with prejudice only leads to bigotry, hate, and utter disrespect of other people. That is what I am seeing on the increase across America and the world.

    September 18, 2012 at 9:27 am |
  17. Bill

    Romney and Ryan use their religious affiliations for political power. Religious convictions are the leading cause of the current conflict we have in the world right now.

    September 18, 2012 at 8:42 am |
    • Eric

      Sorry, but it is a falsehood. Personal beliefs apart from religion have lead to the current violence. People hate those who are different from themselves and whom they believe threaten their way of life. Muslims frequently view Americans as flooding the entire world with an immoral lifestyle. In many ways they are correct and Americans must fix that problem. But another segment are jealous because America has been so successful and its citizens have so much more money than many in other parts of the world. It is basically envy and covetousness that fuels some of the violence. Incorrect religious beliefs are also a part of the vilience, without a doubt.It is not a simple situation nor is there a simple solution.

      September 18, 2012 at 9:33 am |
    • Religion is Not Heathly for children or ANY living things

      Eric – You ATTEMPTED to "disprove" Bill's (correct) assertion that religious beliefs are to blame for current world conflict and instead, you have cofirmed exactly what he said to begin with! Did you not realize this when you started your flimsy "argument"
      ? Just curious...

      October 15, 2012 at 5:31 pm |
  18. Bill

    I fear that we all overestimate our closeness to God. This is especially true of religious leaders. We have not conducted ourselves as good people and there will be a price when we pass from this Earth alone. Religious leaders are making false claims as though were God himself. They are liars. Do the right thing and stick to science and higher learning. God will be on your side in the end!

    September 17, 2012 at 10:12 pm |
  19. jonat

    Correction: It will be the liberal state media stirring the pot as they always do to help their Messiah Obama

    September 17, 2012 at 7:20 pm |
    • Bill

      Obama is a good man and his disrespectful critics are not patriots.

      September 17, 2012 at 10:15 pm |
    • Religion is Not Heathly for children or ANY living things

      It is really sad, but still funny how all of you bigoted Obama-haters embrace every single NEGATIVE news story with foaming mouths and evil glee, and NEVER question the validity of the "story" unless it is a positive story! THEN, you suddenly accuse the very same media outlet of being a "liberal media outlet" !!! How funny!!! Apparantly any "positive" news is, by definition, a "liberal biased story", but any negative news must, by definition, be completely true! You fools are SO predictable...

      October 15, 2012 at 5:40 pm |
  20. Free Man in the Republic of Texas

    Debate on Catholic politics


    "You have to pass the bill to find out what's in it"

    "Get over your conscience"

    I am NOT a Catholic;
    when you attack the freedom of religion of one American
    you attack the freedom of religion of ALL Americans

    But Peter and John replied,
    “Judge for yourselves whether it is right in God’s sight to obey you rather than God. Acts 4:19

    Our "rights" come from God Himself NOT from government.

    Semper Fi

    September 16, 2012 at 5:20 pm |
    • Bill

      Then why are you only free in America?

      September 17, 2012 at 10:13 pm |
    • brian

      no offense, but you're a marine from texas. OF course you're a christian. You're a product of your environment.

      November 25, 2012 at 2:40 pm |
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About this blog

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.