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. albert

    Catholics and other religions influencing politics is nothing new. Forget the fact that what these religions are doing goes against Bible teachings. Jesus did not run for political office nor did he try to influence the governments of his day. These religions need to be taxed. Call it the "meddling in politics tax". or t"he anti-Bible tax".

    August 15, 2012 at 7:10 am |
  2. trex

    ........The difference is that the gop REQUIRES YOU to abide by and ACCEPT their sense of religion, and what is right. This country was FOUNDED ON RELIGIOUS FREEDOM, and the entire RADICAL RIGHT has NO MEMORY OF THIS.

    August 15, 2012 at 7:09 am |
    • Kevin

      Actually, if the left is pushing and legislating their social justice agenda, then they are requiring people to follow their sense of "what is right." There's little difference between how conservatives and liberals use the power of the state.

      August 15, 2012 at 7:17 am |
  3. Jesus would be pro-LIFE, pro traditional marriage!

    REAL Catholics would not support the Mr. Ryan is pro-life, Mr. Biden votes for abortion-pills and funding of the #1 abortion provider, Planned Parenthood to continue to KILL unborn humans-go to http://www.abortionno.org and view this atrocity!
    REAL Catholics also define marriage ONLY as the sacred union of 1 man and 1 woman, Biden/Obama support gay marriage, which according to the Church, is the SIN of sodomy COrinthians Ch6 V 9!
    Catholic Bishops join Ryan in protesting Obamacare which Biden supports to hand contraception/abortion pills, which the CHurch does NOT support!
    REAL CATHOLICS would support the pro-LIFE, pro, traditional marriage candidate-THAT WOULD BE MR. RYAN!

    August 15, 2012 at 7:05 am |
    • awasis

      "Jesus would be pro-LIFE, pro traditional marriage"

      Well speculation is just that, speculation. Where does Jesus talk about either of these things? But he does talk about the poor and how the rich don't stand a chance of getting into Heaven. So you can go and do what Christians like you do best, pick out of the Bible what you want to see and ignore the rest of what's in the Bible.

      August 15, 2012 at 7:10 am |
    • albert

      REAL Catholics have priest that are pedophiles. REAL Catholics practice pagan traditions and Greek Mythology. REAL Catholics put Hitler into power. Countries with REAL Catholic majorities have the highest crime rates, drug use, and corrupt governments. THAT is REAL Catholicism.

      August 15, 2012 at 7:21 am |
  4. Ryan M.

    "Family Values" Catholicism against "Social Justice" Catholicism, you say? How about "Orthodox Catholicism" against "Thinly Veiled Protestantism." That seems more appropriate.

    August 15, 2012 at 7:05 am |
    • Darth Cheney

      Ok, sort of...but which is which?

      August 15, 2012 at 7:20 am |
    • Meldoll

      As a Catholic, I was raised to believe that social justice is a family value.

      August 15, 2012 at 7:23 am |
  5. Kevin

    Great. I'll have to listen to the religious right and the religious left fight over who gets to legislate morality for the entire country.

    August 15, 2012 at 7:04 am |
  6. stankfinger

    Why not just invite the pope over for the next 4 years to run the country? He would make a good president riding around in the pope mobile!!!

    August 15, 2012 at 7:03 am |
  7. albert

    Jesus was not political. He did not ask his followers to be political. From a scriptural perspective, the Catholic church is out of touch anyway. They have introduced many man-made, and Pagan traditions. The Bible actually prophesies that "Babylon The Great" (the empire of false religion) will be destroyed. What we have been seeing over the past several years is no coincidence. The world governments are growing sick and tired of this religious plague. Revelation 18: 4 – 22

    August 15, 2012 at 7:03 am |
    • bellenoitr

      You got that right!

      August 15, 2012 at 7:10 am |
    • Darth Cheney

      You either don't understand the teachings of Jesus or don't understand the meaning of the word "political."

      August 15, 2012 at 7:21 am |
    • albert

      OK please tell me what politics Jesus was involved in. What office did he or any of his followers run for. One of the reason he was killed was that the Jews wanted him to end Roman oppression. Jesus spoke of and supported only one Kingdom. His fathers heavenly kingdom. What do you thing you are praying for when you recite the Lords Prayer?

      August 15, 2012 at 7:25 am |
  8. BigBird Johnson

    Hey liberals, you know how you think of Palin? That's how conservatives think of Biden. He is a complete joke.

    August 15, 2012 at 7:02 am |
  9. awdam

    joe kinda looks like his dead rotten granny but she doesn't look as dead as his face does

    August 15, 2012 at 7:01 am |
  10. Chad

    The problem here is that religion shouldn't even be an issue when running the country. Now this reported is boiling it down to types of Catholics? Come on! What about views on war, education, etc.? That's why this country is never going to make progress. We are still stuck on religion as a major issue.

    August 15, 2012 at 7:01 am |
  11. cn

    "it's usually wise when promulgating eternal law to be clear on what you mean." - christopher hitchens

    August 15, 2012 at 6:55 am |
  12. Dave T

    Two of the Catholic cardinal sins include gluttony and greed. Then why is it the Republicans want even more tax cuts for the rich? Another Catholic sin includes sloth. Mr Romney was shown standing in front of coal miners. Then why is it those who mine coal pay higher (payroll) taxes than those who do a simple capital gains transaction without any work?

    August 15, 2012 at 6:52 am |
    • Jeeper

      I just looked "sloth" up in the dictionary, and it shows obama's picture there.

      August 15, 2012 at 6:57 am |
  13. hans

    In 2011 Joe Biden and his wife gave less than 2% of their income to charity, while Mitt Romney and his wife gave 17% of theirs. Joe Biden is all about social justice and helping the poor as long as its being accomplished with funds other than his own (preferably from such ghoulish villains as "the rich" and "business owners")

    August 15, 2012 at 6:50 am |
    • nom nom

      No one knows if/how much Romney really gives to charity because he won't release a tax return. I don't see why anyone would vote for this crook.

      August 15, 2012 at 7:01 am |
    • danita

      Thanks for saying the name "Joe" I often forget he exist.. He had the nerve to tell people they were going to be put back into chains the other day.

      August 15, 2012 at 7:24 am |
  14. AaronT3

    Hmmm two Catholics were in a . . Sounds like the beginning of a joke but this is real life people. One of them wants to take form people who have little to nothing and give tax breaks to the wealthy. The other wants to induce an amicable Society mindset that we all can do better with everyone working together. I choose the later, The wealthy did very well under President Clinton as well as the rest of America! President Obama just want to return to a tax structure that has proven to work, unlike Willard (Etch-A-Sketch) Romney wanting to "Double Down" on Bush tax cuts for the wealthy which caused ALL of America near financial ruin.

    August 15, 2012 at 6:49 am |
  15. Hieronymous

    For far too long the Catholic Church has aligned it's self with the Pro-Life movement and the Republican Party because of one issue – abortion. Yet, far too many of those who call themselves "Pro-Life" are really NOT Pro-Life. They are Anti-Abortion, in that they support the death penalty and are against health care for all Americans. To call one's self Pro-Life when you favor the taking of life, I.e., the death penalty and hold the opinion that all children have a right to life BUT the moment they enter the world they are on their own with no right to health care is hypocritical. I hope this hypocricy is exposed in the debates.

    August 15, 2012 at 6:49 am |
  16. One one

    It's interesting that different people find that their religion is aligned with their world views no matter how different they may be.

    August 15, 2012 at 6:47 am |
  17. saggyroy

    Magic underwear and transubstantiation....awesome

    August 15, 2012 at 6:45 am |
  18. johnmenacherjr@rocketmail.com

    There is no comparrison when one follows someone like Ryan. He went to school on his social security, has been a washington insider almost his entire adult life and is a practicer of Rand philosophies. The add that showed him pushing Grandma off a cliff is so real now. He with his selfishness would do that to anyone to get ahead. Catholic if he is then the church in the US has totally sold out for a fast buck. Its not sad its almost predictable. A Mormon bishop and a Rand follower! Come on bishops quit being such a capitalist disgrace U to America.

    August 15, 2012 at 6:42 am |
  19. Stephen

    Really, religion should not come into any part of a politicians thought process. Any decision should be made upon rational thinking and surveying the evidence.

    Wow, think I'll laugh now, politicians are not rational, and there are <.01% of politicians who are not religious. People who are religious are not rational.

    August 15, 2012 at 6:38 am |
    • sim namore

      Rand says that only reason matters–nothing else. Her reason, not yours. You only function as an impediment to her rational fulfillment. It is abundantly clear that both of these men are slaves to riches–neither has the faintest interest in you or me. They consider themselves as our superiors and our overlords. We must teach them differently.

      August 15, 2012 at 6:51 am |
  20. sim namore

    Rand and Jesus don't mix, can't be made to harmonize, and they certainly can't be construed into some new system of predatory capitalism as both Ryan and Romney would have it. One cannot serve God and Mammon. I don't know exactly when Ayn Rand became the darling of the right wing, but we needn't look back very far to discover what the Catholic church had and has to say about Rand's philosophy. The Christian faith maintains that we are our brothers' keepers, not his persecutors; money is the root of all evil, not the source of all good as both these Rand disciples maintain. "When I was in prison, you came to visit me," cannot be transformed into "you built many more privatized prisons for me." The right will certainly not give up this hypocrisy until they discover it won't work politically. Someone both these men claim to honor and use as model for their lives once said, it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven–that goes for dancing horses too. The aged, the infirm, the poor mean nothing to men of this ilk, and we cannot hope that they will change their tune once they're in office. Neither of these men who drink the blood of the lamb every Sunday will fail to drink our blood for the rest of the week.

    August 15, 2012 at 6:35 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.