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. Pastor $ Dollar

    Sometimes I don't think these politicians really see the America that is in trouble and in need. Saying they are going to change things by legislation just won't happen. There will always be people that take advantage of any situation, which makes the ones really in need suffer, because of their reliance on welfare. It's a terrible cycle.

    August 15, 2012 at 6:35 am |
  2. Duh

    Hope and Chains.

    August 15, 2012 at 6:31 am |
  3. Dan

    CNN, keep the religious nonsense out of the headlines.

    August 15, 2012 at 6:30 am |
    • saggyroy

      The religious nonsense needs to be a headline everyday until people realize they have been wasting their time on, an quit religion altogether.

      August 15, 2012 at 6:43 am |
  4. Zaphod2010

    Ouch for the altar boy vp nominee. When the Catholic church, your own own church no less, is against your budget plan you know you are in trouble with the church!
    “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.”
    Try to spin this one bully bishop!

    August 15, 2012 at 6:28 am |
    • Dan

      The vatican should do the same.

      August 15, 2012 at 6:31 am |
    • Puppet

      agreed, shame the Republicans are able to control the Catholic vote with a single issue. An issue, by the way, they have zero intentions of addressing- that would be akin to shooting the goose that laid the golden vote.

      August 15, 2012 at 6:37 am |
  5. Howie76

    Ryan is not a Catholic he is a follower of Ayn Rand. The two do not mix.

    August 15, 2012 at 6:28 am |
    • n8r0n

      Sure they do. That's the recipe for basically every Republican in America.

      August 15, 2012 at 6:36 am |
  6. Katie

    Are we going to debate who is the most Catholic? Who is the most Christian? Seriously, does religion matter in politics anymore? Politicians lie, nearly all of them are unfaithful to their spouses, they propose and/or sign legislation that puts people out of work, denies them benefits, reduces their pay, or takes away their health care. They talk about ideals that they themselves rarely follow, and the worst of them use language meant to incite people into a frenzy against their opponents. Does any of that sound the least bit Christian???

    August 15, 2012 at 6:27 am |
    • Simran

      Someone forgot to add that they also support a woman's right to choose abortion!

      August 15, 2012 at 6:38 am |
  7. faberm

    Which brand of Catholicism favors borrowing money from the Chinese that you never intend to give back, or taking money from some at risk of incarceration and giving it to others who have not earned it? And all the while not contributing ANYTHING you personally have to charity t help with the problem. I think the answer is Biden.

    August 15, 2012 at 6:27 am |
    • n8r0n

      Huh? Taking money from some who are at risk of incarceration and giving it to others (who haven't earned it)? So, what is this, Robin Hood robbing drug dealers, to pay welfare queens?

      Who's advocating that?

      I love it when conservatives talk nonsense. It saves me having to make an explicit argument that they're morons.

      August 15, 2012 at 6:39 am |
    • Jax

      Maybe if Romney and his wealthy big business cronies followed the rules and paid their fair share of taxes, instead of hiding money in offshore accounts, this country would have enough to help our poor.

      August 15, 2012 at 6:39 am |
  8. Alan

    What a joke of a story. Comparing Ryan to Biden is like comparing a Porsche to an old, broken-down Chevette.

    August 15, 2012 at 6:25 am |
    • Katie

      Or like comparing a tiny, flashy new expensive car to a comfortable, reliable, roomier older car.

      August 15, 2012 at 6:28 am |
    • Howie76

      Whats a Chevete??

      August 15, 2012 at 6:29 am |
    • n8r0n

      Yep, if the Porsche is full of government handouts to the rich, the oil companies, Wall Street, and the military industrial complex. If that's what's in the Porsche, then it's just like Paul Ryan.

      August 15, 2012 at 6:41 am |
  9. flatbushfred

    The Tea Party fundamentalists love to talk about "personal freedom" yet are perfectly comfortable with allowing their version of "Christian family values" restrict personal freedoms of believers and non-believers via government policies, especially regarding women's health, letting government decide who can marry and who can't, and deciding that Biblical versions of human development take precedence over science in the schools. Yet one major "Christian value" they love to gloss over – "feed the hungry, clothe the naked." Did Jesus say, let them do it on their own?

    August 15, 2012 at 6:23 am |
    • faberm

      The Tea Party is a economically based movement that favors not spending money you do not have. Do you spend money you don't have? If so your finances must be a wreck. Wake up and find out what the Tea Party is about. It's about the economy stupid.

      August 15, 2012 at 6:31 am |
    • Jax

      faberm, have you ever charged anything on a credit card? Did you ever have student loans? Do you have a mortgage? Then you've spent money you don't have.

      August 15, 2012 at 6:42 am |
    • n8r0n


      I can't speak for the person to whom you address your question, but your question itself identifies you as an ignoramus. Yes, most people do spend money they don't have. It's called a loan. The government takes them out, private individuals take them out, and so do corporations. The vast majority of the money in our system is money created via loans (or things like bonds, that are essentially the same as loans). It's not what you think of as "cash" that's already in your wallet.

      Get used to it.

      August 15, 2012 at 6:43 am |
    • bigpicture1

      "A century and a half ago, Americans engaged in a collective conversation about the Bible and slavery that was both civil and informed."

      Seems like the result of that conversation was that the Bible would now have to support a watered down version of slavery. One that would include some members of all races – to prevent accusations of discrimination.

      August 15, 2012 at 7:07 am |
    • john willow

      Tea partiers don't follow the Bible. They follow the mythology that the bulk of people on welfare are chronic loafers taking advantage of the system. There is no evidence to support this. Let someone here show it, if they dare.

      "The Tea Party is a economically based movement that favors not spending money you do not have"
      No, it's a "movement" created by certain rich right-wing white men who want to undermine many of the programs that clueless Tea Party followers use, such as Medicare and Social Security.

      August 20, 2012 at 10:43 am |
  10. krehator

    Ryan is a Catholic from the 1300's.

    August 15, 2012 at 6:15 am |
  11. Jokesterer

    Which catholicism would Jesus favor?

    August 15, 2012 at 6:10 am |
    • Puppet

      amen brother, follow the money

      August 15, 2012 at 6:26 am |
  12. Andrew

    Why does it make me want to vomit every time I hear "traditional christian values" in politics?

    August 15, 2012 at 6:09 am |
    • truth be told

      I do not believe you, in fact it is doubtful you have regurgitated even a minimum of bile on the issue.

      August 15, 2012 at 6:12 am |
  13. Bill

    They're not so different. Neither one of them gives a d@mn about the voters, and thinks we don't know enough to make decisions for ourselves. That's why they both believe they ought to be running this country, much like Potentate Obama.

    NEVER trust a person who's perfectly willing to dedicate their life to politics. Only a FOOL would do so!!

    August 15, 2012 at 6:02 am |
    • Puppet

      ah yes, nothing like absolute wisdom

      August 15, 2012 at 6:27 am |
    • Calvin

      Well said. You have two choices: BAD vs. WORST.

      I would immediately switch to other channels or turn off TV whenever I see Obama-Biden facts in the last 3 1/2 years.
      Can not wait some CHANGES in Nov 2012.

      CNN, liberal media and liberals are playing the hated games versus religious...Why would I care about Biden 's "liberal Catholic", it is his personal and faith, no one business so Ryan's or Obozo's/ ......

      August 15, 2012 at 6:30 am |
  14. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer really changes things

    August 15, 2012 at 5:46 am |
    • Jax

      Atheism is the most logical belief system when you really think about it.

      August 15, 2012 at 6:29 am |
    • Katie

      As long as you are willing to understand and accept that the answer you receive is often NO

      August 15, 2012 at 6:30 am |
    • Simran

      A country preacher decided to skip services one Sunday and head to the hills to do some bear hunting. As he rounded the corner on a perilous twist in the trail, he and a bear collided, sending him and his rifle tumbling down the mountainside.

      Before he knew it, his rifle went one way and he went the other, landing on a rock and breaking both legs. That was the good news. The bad news was the ferocious bear charging at him from a distance, and he couldn't move.

      "Oh Lord," the preacher prayed, "I'm so sorry for skipping services today to come out here and hunt. Please forgive me and grant me just one wish.... please make a Christian out of that bear that's coming at me. Please, Lord!"

      That very instant, the bear skidded to a halt, fell to its knees, clasped its paws together and began to pray aloud right at the preacher's feet.

      "Dear Lord, bless this food I am about to receive... in Jesus' name... Amen."

      August 15, 2012 at 6:39 am |
    • Simran

      One day, Joe, Bob and Dave were hiking in a wilderness area when they came upon a large, raging, violent river. They needed to get to the other side, but had no idea of how to do so.

      Joe prayed to God, saying, "Please God, give me the strength to cross this river."

      Poof! God gave him big arms and strong legs, and he was able to swim across the river in about two hours, although he almost drowned a couple of times.

      Seeing this, Dave prayed to God, saying, "Please God, give me the strength and the tools to cross this river."

      Poof! God gave him a rowboat and he was able to row across the river in about an hour, after almost capsizing the boat a couple of times.

      Bob had seen how this worked out for the other two, so he also prayed to God saying, "Please God, give me the strength and the tools, and the intelligence, to cross this river."

      Poof! God turned him into a woman. She looked at the map, hiked upstream a couple of hundred yards, then walked across the bridge

      August 15, 2012 at 6:42 am |
    • DFZ

      Try praying in one hand while crapping in the other; let us know which hand fills up first.

      August 15, 2012 at 1:01 pm |
  15. tallulah13

    I don't think his catholicism is the problem. I think his neo-con conservatism is.

    August 15, 2012 at 2:09 am |
  16. Reality

    Only for the new members of this blog:

    And there goes Stevie P. again chattering away about other people's beliefs never disclosing his own beliefs which taint anyones chatter. Once he did admit to loving all the gods which then begs the question does he support Allah's dictates as noted below ???????????????

    o "Believers, take neither Jews nor Christians for your friends." (Surah 5:51)
    "Believers, when you encounter the infidels on the march, do not turn your backs to them in flight. If anyone on that day turns his back to them, except it be for tactical reasons...he shall incur the wrath of God and Hell shall be his home..." (Surah 8:12-)

    "Make war on them until idolatry shall cease and God's religion shall reign supreme." (Surah 8:36-)

    "...make war on the leaders of unbelief...Make war on them: God will chastise them at your hands and humble them. He will grant you victory over them..." (Surah 9:12-)

    "Fight against such as those to whom the Scriptures were given [Jews and Christians]...until they pay tribute out of hand and are utterly subdued." (Surah 9:27-)

    "It is He who has sent forth His apostle with guidance and the true Faith [Islam] to make it triumphant over all religions, however much the idolaters [non-Muslims] may dislike it." (Surah 9:31-)

    "If you do not fight, He will punish you sternly, and replace you by other men." (Surah 9:37-)

    "Prophet make war on the unbelievers and the hypocrites and deal rigorously with them. Hell shall be their home." (Surah 9:73)

    "Believers, make war on the infidels who dwell around you. Deal firmly with them." (Surah 9:121-)

    "Say: 'Praise be to God who has never begotten a son; who has no partner in His Kingdom..." (Surah 17:111)

    "'How shall I bear a child,' she [Mary] answered, 'when I am a virgin...?' 'Such is the will of the Lord,' he replied. 'That is no difficult thing for Him...God forbid that He [God[ Himself should beget a son!...Those who say: 'The Lord of Mercy has begotten a son,' preach a monstrous falsehood..." (Surah 19:12-, 29-, 88)

    "Fight for the cause of God with the devotion due to Him...He has given you the name of Muslims..." (Surah 22:78-)

    "Blessed are the believers...who restrain their carnal desires (except with their wives and slave-girls, for these are lawful to them)...These are the heirs of Paradise..." (Surah 23:1-5-)

    "Muhammad is God's apostle. Those who follow him are ruthless to the unbelievers but merciful to one another." (Surah 48:29)

    "Shall the reward of goodness be anything but good?...Dark-eyed virgins sheltered in their tents...They shall recline on green cushions and fine carpets...Blessed be the name of your Lord..." (Surah 55:52-66-)

    August 15, 2012 at 12:12 am |
    • ....


      August 15, 2012 at 6:13 am |
    • Puppet

      religion 0
      secularism 1

      August 15, 2012 at 6:29 am |
  17. agemegos

    "A century and a half ago, Americans engaged in a collective conversation about the Bible and slavery that was both civil and informed", you say. Some did, but don't forget that at the same time many of them engaged in violent conflict over those things. There was Bleeding Kansas for a start, and John Brown wasn't hanged for civil conversation.

    August 14, 2012 at 8:20 pm |
    • Bootyfunk

      the bible supports slavery throughout. there are rules for selling your own daughter into slavery. that book is disgusting.

      August 14, 2012 at 9:57 pm |
    • Alpha Wolf

      Amen. I was going to make a similar comment, but I thought SOMEONE else surely must have caught that, save me the time. My take on the author's conclusion: yes, respectful exchange of ideas is where we should all be by now, no doubt. But even reading comments on most articles you get people disrespecting each other, we're nowhere near that noble goal. Granted, a lot of the disrespectful comments I read obviously come from teenagers or college students, you can tell by their writing style (and I'm not implying that all teenagers and college students are disrespectful). Of course it doesn't mean that we don't keep trying, but in parallel we need to be fully aware that we are trying to have a civil discourse while many people are experiencing real, live abuse (i.e. slavery, poverty, crime, etc.)

      I think what we need is more than a collective civil conversation: we need a collective civil sense of urgency. And by the way, when it comes to poverty, I don't think the solution is "handouts". They need to pull themselves up, we just need to facilitate, or at the very least stop getting in their way.

      August 15, 2012 at 6:47 am |
    • Alpha Wolf

      My comment above is not to "Bootyfunk", it is to "agemegos". I hate it when the comment system does that, makes it seem like you're agreeing (or disagreeing) with something totally different. As for your comments Bootyfunk, we get it, you despise the Bible. The Bible is not where I get most of my values from, although there a few good things in there. Yes it is a contradictory book, written by contradictory humans. But for crying out loud, let it go. We get it.

      August 15, 2012 at 6:55 am |
  18. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer changes things

    August 14, 2012 at 7:05 pm |
    • kindless

      Oh dear, you are crazier than a crawfish trying to get back out of the pot! my oh my – are you taking your meds, dear?

      Of course atheism is fine and dandy for kids and grown-up folk, too. If you're bringing imaginary characters into your meditation, that the sign of a weak mind and can lead to all kinds of things like hiding your misdeeds with some charlatan organization, instead of being strong minded and responsible to society. You need to calm down dear, get some tea and think about all this hogwash you are spreading around.

      August 14, 2012 at 9:42 pm |
    • Bootyfunk

      actions cause change; prayer wastes valuable time.

      August 14, 2012 at 9:55 pm |
  19. Jack

    Hello folks. Everyone is cordially invited to visit – thestarofkaduri.com

    August 14, 2012 at 6:59 pm |
    • Bootyfunk

      ^ spam troll ^

      August 14, 2012 at 9:56 pm |
  20. gerald

    I do agree with the bottom line of this article. This pick will certainly bring to the forefront conservative Catholicism. What an opportunity for Catholics to discuss there faith with all that is going on concerning obomacare, the supreme court, ryan, etc.

    August 14, 2012 at 6:48 pm |
    • Charlotte

      I just hope Ryan remembers that he is a CATHOLIC and tells us the TRUTH – God is watching, all the time. He keeps lying to us regarding Medicare and taxes. Please Republicans take care of the poor and your rewards will come both hear on earth and in heaven.

      August 15, 2012 at 6:29 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.