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. d d d

    I am not Catholic – but this debate is simply common sense. What is more important, taking care of those who are less fortunate and need assistance or worrying about man-made issues the Catholic church has created like condoms and women's reproductive health? It certainly appears, for once, the broader Catholic church is on the correct side.

    August 15, 2012 at 8:05 am |
  2. God is a man made delusion

    This has nothing to do with Catholicism. It's politics, and using religion to convince the flock to line up behind one or the other is a sad use of a sad belief system.

    August 15, 2012 at 8:03 am |
  3. Johnny Brown

    All I can say is that the media and people are wasting their time worrying about the policies of Ryan or any person that holds or will hold the position of vice president. Bottom line (unless something happens to the president in office), there is not a single vice president that has had any material influence regarding anything related to leading this country.

    August 15, 2012 at 8:03 am |
  4. C4O

    The Bible teaches us that Jesus spent much of his time on this earth healing the sick and helping the needy. The Romney/Ryan plan to gut programs that help the poor, sick and the elderly flies in the face of Christian values.

    If you feel the same, come join us at Christians for Obama.

    August 15, 2012 at 8:02 am |
    • Sj

      No it doesn't. It is not the government's place I redistribute wealth. Instead, it is the place of all of us individually, and through the Catholic Church, to help the poor. As a Catholic, if I didn't have so much of my money taken from me by the government and redistributed (in socialistic style – which the Catholic Church opposes) to others, I would have more money to help the poor through the Church, charities, etc. Government is not the answer. It is the problem. The Catholic Church spends untold millions each year on missions to help the poor, sick and needy, as it should be. I am sorry, but you fundamentally misunderstand Catholic/Christian teaching. Christ did not mandate big government to tax working people to pay for charity. Instead, he taught that charity begins with each of us, and with the Holy Catholic Church.

      August 15, 2012 at 8:13 am |
  5. BOB


    August 15, 2012 at 8:01 am |
    • tarura

      Joe Biden, how dare you be white !

      August 15, 2012 at 8:08 am |
  6. chedar888

    Ryan, your party GOP are the main cause of the people to be jobless and now poor. With two unfunded wars (agreed and voted by you) without controlling subprime loan, and allowing Wall Street to wildly go their merry way, are the very reason many of the middle class becomes poor and will stay there for a long long time. Shame on you. You must analyzed that many poor would prefer to work instead of being in your seat doing nothing except to invent some wild imagination to blame no one but yourself.

    August 15, 2012 at 7:59 am |
    • huh?

      Typical ignorant comment from the left. No mention of the policies of Clinton, Frank, and others that started the easy money to begin with. The wars were funded, and agreed to by both dems and republicans. Perhaps you should refresh your memory with the approval votes.You should also take a good, hard look at main street before you place blame anywhere else. Your comment is complete nonsense, and you are a disgusting ignorant pig.

      August 15, 2012 at 8:06 am |
  7. smdonromney

    Re Ryan / Romney budget:

    I hope that you didn't require federally subsidized loans to attend college, and that your family won't need them, either, and that you have sufficient assets to buy private health insurance when you are 80, because under the Ryan plan, that's what you'll have to do, and I'm sure it will be really affordable individual coverage for old people, and if there is a fire at your house, I hope you intend to put it out yourself, and I am guessing you don't use the interstate highway system, or fly anywhere, because you couldn't do that without the government created by the taxes that we, the people, pay.

    Instead of joining the bandwagon of "personal freedom" versus government, perhaps you should make a list of the myriad ways in which you, and the rest of society, benefit from the government's role in our lives. You know that little thing called the internet, which enabled you to post your views, developed out of government supported research. In fact, most of high tech benefited enormously from government supported research in silicon valley in the 40s and 50s, you know, when real patriots were proud to pay taxes, and valued the government initiatives that improved all of their, and now our, lives. And I hope you never get cancer, because you couldn't possibly accept treatment that might have been developed through research funded by the federal government.

    The list goes on. Maybe you should consider living on a deserted island somewhere. Lots of personal liberty there.

    August 15, 2012 at 7:56 am |
    • chedar888

      Don't forget that the only highway available are for the rich..The private company will be building them like the turnpike and you want a highway, you'll to pay for it. That is the GOP way. Maybe better yet if they don't want government, then they should not vote for a president or VP aren't they representing the government.

      August 15, 2012 at 8:17 am |
  8. boyamidumb

    R & R= Rest and Relaxation for the Rich - Road to Ruin for the rest

    August 15, 2012 at 7:54 am |
  9. John the Baptist

    Catholics...?...Good-bye common sense, The U.S is doomed.

    August 15, 2012 at 7:50 am |
    • Tom

      Yeah, we have so many examples of Catholics who ran this country into the ground.

      JFK, John Boehner, Nancy Pelosi, Ted Kennedy, John Kerry, Newt Gingrich, Pat Toomey, Rudy Guliani, Dennis Kucinich, Chris Dodd, and that's just a quick list.

      August 15, 2012 at 8:00 am |
    • Geeeez

      This is good?

      August 15, 2012 at 8:02 am |
    • Will of God

      Hey JOHN THE BAPTIST, "common sense" says if people in this country lived their life according to the TEN COMMANDMENTS, rather than being doomed, this country would be renewed and the world would be a better place than this current mess we find ourselves in under this current administration.

      August 15, 2012 at 8:04 am |
    • Joe

      WOW!! What prejudice!!! Tell me what you think of Jews, African Americans, and Asians. How can you say that because of a persons religion that they are a bad person or that our country is doomed? Let me guess, you are the same religion as your parents. So you did not choose what religion you are but you were raised that way. How can you make a blanket statement about a religion? I am Catholic (because my parents are) and I was raised to believe that it does not matter what religion you are but that you are a good person. I was not taught to hate others because of their religion (or skin color, or nationality ect). I am sorry you have so much hate! And one more thing, can you tell me when you had God personally talk to you and tell you that your beliefs are the only right one?

      August 15, 2012 at 8:25 am |
    • May Fiat

      Tom – those people you named are not catholic in thier deeds – they give being catholic a bad rap – in reality they could do so much good for our nation but they choose to not uphold catholic teaching.

      August 15, 2012 at 8:31 am |
  10. hazel steward

    jesus said give ceasar what is ceasar and god what is gods. beleive or not give us jobs and we will spend follow the ten commandments and crime will go down.

    August 15, 2012 at 7:49 am |
    • Lilith

      ... then use those jobs to BUY US made goods, know where it's made and support your own economy or YOU are responsible for our economic woes!

      August 15, 2012 at 8:06 am |
  11. end grants now!

    Hey religions!! pay you fair share of taxes and get off mine.

    August 15, 2012 at 7:49 am |
  12. Sarah

    What is all comes down to, is a definition of who your God is. Is your God, God with your face, or God with His face? These days, too many people have thrown God into the back seat of their lives. Most American catholics forgot about God a long time ago.

    August 15, 2012 at 7:49 am |
    • albert

      Yes, they replaced God with the Pope and his hierarchy which are far removed from anything the Bible teaches.

      August 15, 2012 at 7:51 am |
  13. Greyhound37

    "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.”"

    Just think if the Catholic church alone was to pay taxes. Perhaps a vast number of those hungry, poor and vulnerable could be better accommodated. But hey, as long as they get to keep wearing cool hats and vacuum sealing the pope in the pope-mobile, it's all good.

    August 15, 2012 at 7:48 am |
  14. Larry

    What if the worst happened and Biden had to take the President position? He is not mentally competent for it. He is the first openly retarded VP we have had.

    August 15, 2012 at 7:48 am |
    • Bill

      Did you forget Danny " potato head" Quayle?

      August 15, 2012 at 7:59 am |
    • vancouverron

      That's "Potatoe head". Can't you spell?

      August 15, 2012 at 8:06 am |
  15. end grants now!

    The religious can't even control their own population and they are trying to tell US what to do? We might take them more seriously 1).when we see large expensive funerals for miscariages from these christians. 2). when no christian ever undergoes another abortion.

    Until you guys can control and set example for yourselves, shut up and stop trying to control others, 'cause that's what you are doing. Why do you do that? 'cause you are trying to convince yourselves there is a god. Just like alcholics who deny each other as one, you need brainwashed believing buddies.

    August 15, 2012 at 7:48 am |
    • Tom

      I think you have some personal issues you need to work through.

      I'm Catholic, and in fact, I know of at least two incidences of people close to me who had funerals for miscarried babies. And no, not all Christians have the same strength of conviction.

      August 15, 2012 at 7:52 am |
    • end grants

      wow two.. my very point.. all don't do it. Stop telling everyone else what to do because you guys can't even control yourselves. Just like little kids.

      August 15, 2012 at 7:57 am |
  16. ken

    Biden out of control extremist!!!

    August 15, 2012 at 7:46 am |
  17. DFB

    Biden is as much a Catholic as Obama is a Republican. He believe in abortion for goodness sake

    August 15, 2012 at 7:43 am |
    • chunk a chunk

      Most catholics don't believe in their church's dogma.

      Where have you been?

      August 15, 2012 at 7:45 am |
    • Greyhound37

      And up to 98% of Catholic women use contraception. Is being a hypocrite a requirement for Catholics or is it just that the Catholic leadership doesn't have a clue as to what their followers want and do?

      August 15, 2012 at 7:52 am |
  18. 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 then as now, the teachings of the bible were rejected in the conversation. It took a war and an unpopular Presidential proclamation to end slavery – not a coming together of religious thinking.

    Biden was right to say what he said... this Republican ticket would rather see minorities in chains (jail) – than see them be successful in America. It was a racist, hateful agenda that drove the original 'Tea Party'. That same agenda is being reintroduced – 150 years later, and championed by the new GOTP.

    August 15, 2012 at 7:42 am |
    • Robert

      What a pathetic series of comments. You are a dope.

      August 15, 2012 at 8:10 am |
  19. Kyle Carney

    What ever happened to the separation of church and state? Why should we allow a debate on religion, Catholicism to boot happen for a political debate. What about the Jews in America, What about the Muslims, Hindu's, Atheists, Sikh's, Buddhists, Mormons, JW's etc. Keep religion out of politics for the sake of decency. No one cares about it. Religion is a personal matter.

    August 15, 2012 at 7:41 am |
    • albert

      That is part of the problem. We have people that claim to be Christians, but they are willing to drop their beliefs (Separation of Church and state) while they work?. What does that say about their integrity? Religion has absolutely no place in politics. Jesus was not political, did not run for any kind of office, did not participate in or try to influence Roman governmental affairs. Those claiming to be Christian and politicians, are hypocrites, just like the churches they come from.

      August 15, 2012 at 7:49 am |
    • Geeeez

      What about people who don't give a rat's behind about supernatural fantasies?

      August 15, 2012 at 8:11 am |
  20. chunk a chunk

    Ryan – Radical idealist catholic

    Biden – Moderate pragmatic catholic (still crazy for believing in another of that sh|t)

    August 15, 2012 at 7:41 am |
    • Tom

      It's sad when people consider the idea of a balanced budget as "radical". It used to be the norm – in fact, the founding fathers were vehemently against running deficits.

      August 15, 2012 at 7:48 am |
    • Daniel

      Nice. Now you have used profanity to make your point (classy), AND you have made a broad, generalizing statement that you have not backed up with any facts ("Most Catholics don't believe in their church's dogma").

      I am a Catholic. Do not know or care If you are. But with the Catholics I associate with, we DO believe in the Church's teachings. So before you paint in a broad brush, please know what you are talking about first.

      But silly me, this is the Internet!!

      August 15, 2012 at 7:57 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.