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. Christine

    Interesting how "family values" has become synonymous with "trying to force one's interpretation of the Bible down the throats of others".

    August 15, 2012 at 8:41 am |
    • DJones

      Who is trying to force whom? Consider the Chick-fil-a episode recently. You didn't see CFA down at the local gay club trying to intimidate them, but you did see gays trying to offend and intimidate Christians. If they would honestly go by the "live and let live" motto they pretend to live by there would be no problem. The problem is they want to force Christians to accept their agenda, force Christians to allow them access to their children, and even to dictate doctrines in our churches.

      August 15, 2012 at 9:32 am |
  2. Consequence

    i got a kick out of that "social justice" nun on fox's o'reilly who thinks romney is so out of touch that he should spend a day with the poor. her blinded pomposity ignores the fact that as a former Mormon Bishop, Romney had many encounters with the poor and with mormon church welfare recipients. in fact, he was a direct channel to their welfare, not to mention his welfare role as governor of massachusetts – including romneycare which has brought better health to the poor of his state. if only the nun was so "in-touch". .

    August 15, 2012 at 8:40 am |
  3. L. Johnson

    Biden opened his mouth and as usual a Bidenism came out. Though I don't think that Romney is the answer to America's leadership right now, anyone could do better than the Obama circus...

    August 15, 2012 at 8:36 am |
  4. chill

    A century and a half ago that "civil" conversation ended in Civil War. Hope that's not the result this time.

    August 15, 2012 at 8:36 am |
  5. Miguel

    Now, I don't usually respond to these opinion pieces, but I feel compelled to in this case. And here is why: "A century and a half ago, Americans engaged in a collective conversation about the Bible and slavery that was both civil and informed." – What alternate reality are you referring to? Because I seem to recall this nation tearing itself apart a century and a half ago over the issue of slavery and the Bible.... Didn't you ever hear of the Civil War?

    August 15, 2012 at 8:34 am |
    • aCriticalEye

      That is exactly what I thought. The conversation at the time was anything but civil. Unfortunately I believe we are heading towards civil war again. In my humble opinion MONEY is the root of all evil, and BIG MONEY is the devil. Mr Mit Rolling-In-Money and the entire Greed Over People Party has got to go. We definately DO NOT need a tax cheat in office.
      We need to get back to a government Of the people, For the people, and By the people.
      OBAMA '12

      August 15, 2012 at 8:52 am |
  6. Universal Unitarian Woman

    I was raised as a social justice Christian.

    August 15, 2012 at 8:34 am |
    • Consequence

      Face it, you are just a democrat – if you are a universal unitarian, christianity has rather little to do with it.

      August 15, 2012 at 8:43 am |
    • aCriticalEye

      I'm a UCC christian, and I believe in the people. Big money and GREED are bad (seven deadly sins), and I live by the tennent, what so ever you do unto the least of these my brothers, you do unto me. I'm not afraid to fight, I'n not afraid to stand up for the poor and helpless.

      I am fiscally conservative, but socially liberal. I will not allow the poor to be abandoned.
      I'm employed, pay my taxes, give to my church, and participate in my community.

      August 15, 2012 at 9:00 am |
    • iminim

      Me too, and I still adhere to those beliefs. There are social justice Christians across the spectrum of Christianity. Christianity is NOT a political party. Many in the Republican power structure would like you to think the 2 are synonymous and that a vote against a Republican in a vote against Christ. Sadly, many Christians have bought into that false teaching, often supporting distinctly nonChristian policies in the process.

      August 15, 2012 at 9:11 am |
    • Idol Girl

      @Universal Unitarian Woman,

      I was raised as a social justice Christian as well.

      August 15, 2012 at 9:13 am |
    • Universal Unitarian Woman


      Most of us Unitarian Universalists refer to the denomination as “post-Christian” – that is, coming out of a fully Christian heritage (both the Unitarians and the Universalists were Christians, though not quite “orthodox” ones) but no longer as a group identifying with any particular Christian message about Jesus or God or salvation.

      We Unitarian Universalists take such labels as Christian and Buddhist as identifiers of PERSONAL belief, philosophy, theology, practice, or committment – rather than as identifiers of the denomination, which can include many different personal identifiers.

      August 15, 2012 at 10:03 am |
    • Universal Unitarian Woman


      Before I became a member of our local Univeral Unitarian church, I had previously attended a Methodist church.

      August 15, 2012 at 10:42 am |
  7. linda

    social justice is a family value

    August 15, 2012 at 8:33 am |
  8. Ron in SC

    Give to Caesar what is Caesars and give to God what is Gods. In other words, keep religion out of politics. But, if you want to go there, love thy fellow man, feed the hungry, clothe the poor, sell all your possessions and give to the poor, and on and on. If you have any knowledge about what God asks us to do then it should be obvious that the GOP policies go completely against what God asks us to do.

    August 15, 2012 at 8:33 am |
    • L. Johnson

      LOL! Yeah, then how come most of the Democratic stances are against the Bible? Abortion, gay marriage, etc...

      August 15, 2012 at 8:38 am |
    • Matt

      Really? And how many of the poor from biblical times had free public education, cable TV, internet, food stamps and a monthly welfare check?

      I seriously doubt that Jesus would have been for a society where 50% of the population lives off the backs of the other 50%, mainly because they can get away with it. Don't get me wrong, we SHOULD help the poor. ...but not by treating them like helpless children.

      There's nothing noble about the type of "social justice" that those on the left demand. In the end, it does nothing for the people they claim to be helping. Instead, it guarantees ongoing failure and poverty. It's a system of hand-outs designed to keep liberal politicians in power and allow liberal voters to feel good about themselves. It accomplishes nothing for the poor.

      Perhaps one day we'll get serious about REALLY helping the poor by showing them how to succeed in a society where opportunity abounds. Now that would be truly noble.

      August 15, 2012 at 9:01 am |
  9. DJones

    It is impossible for a Christian, if they are actually a Christian, to vote for anyone who supports abortion and the gay agenda. A Christian is supposed to follow the teachings of the Bible and the Bible doesn't mince words on these two issue but squarely and soundly calls both of them sin and states that those who do them AND those who support them will be condemned. Any one who doesn't have a problem with them and who says they are a Christian are fooling themselves. They are "Christian" in name only, not really believing there is a God and therefore seeing themselves as under no compulsion to honor his word. To them being "christian" is like being a Democrat or Republican, or an environmentalist or Caucasian, a label to wear with no real meaning or bearing on their lives.

    August 15, 2012 at 8:32 am |
    • Jenny Sills

      We are all God's children and he made and loves each one of us. Gay or straight. I will let God be the judge and I will be the best Christian I can be my modeling the behaviors of Jesus Christ to the best of my ability.

      August 15, 2012 at 8:45 am |
    • Mbane18

      So you don't support abortion but you support Republican wars? You support tax cuts for the rich and the removal of all social programs? How about working on Saturdays? After all, the Bible does say that you should be stoned to death if you work on a Saturday.The Bible is about social morality and helping those in need. The fact that you focus on 2 issues, one of them never even mentioned in the Bible, goes to show that you don't even know what you are talking about.

      August 15, 2012 at 8:52 am |
    • DJones

      Mbane18... Which one of these two issues do you think the Bible fails to mention? Have you ever even read the Bible? You obviously don't have a clue as to its content.

      August 15, 2012 at 9:26 am |
    • Bibletruth

      A Chistian loves everyone that Christ loves....that means everybody....but it certainly in not the slightest way means enabling sin...in fact to enable sin is the clearest way to show you have no real love at all.

      August 16, 2012 at 12:38 pm |
  10. JerseyGeorge

    As Mahatma Ghandi once said: "I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ".

    August 15, 2012 at 8:32 am |
    • Jenny Sills

      Well put. My grandmother said many times that we may be the only Bible some people read. Christians need to act decidedly more Christian.

      August 15, 2012 at 8:42 am |
  11. Matt

    Speaking of Matthew 25, what about the "Parable of Talents", were three men were given bags of money to do as they please. Two of them took risk and gained the master money back in return to his original amount. The third did not take a risk and burried the money, and only gave back what he he was given. The Master took his money and casted him out.

    What does it say about the poor or those who recieve charity and all they do is stay in poverty, not using what they are given to gain more.

    Thats the problem here, we want to help people, but we forget that God said to them who are given such gifts which be there own talents, or come upon a new source of income, or opportunity in life, do not squander it. Do not go buy that big screen TV, do not wallow in welfare. You can not fund the life of another, you can only help them if they are willing to help themselves.

    August 15, 2012 at 8:29 am |
    • Jenny Sills

      Perhaps it says that God gave each one of us talents and abilities and expects us to use them not just sit around.

      August 15, 2012 at 8:47 am |
    • Mbane18

      You are taking that out of contest. That is the problem with you nutcases. You can't take one phrase on it's own. Fact is that many of us work hard but our parents were not rich to send us to Ivy League schools and be employed in higher positions because of our parent's connections. WHat talent dos Romney's wife have? She never worked a day in her life, yet some people work like dogs for minimum wages. The world is not about talent but about how much your parents inharented and what connections they have.

      August 15, 2012 at 8:56 am |
  12. 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 anyone's 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 8:29 am |
    • Billy

      Where did this 'Surah' come from, I read the Bible everyday!

      August 15, 2012 at 8:45 am |
    • Jenny Sills

      Not familiar with this book the the Bible. Where is it located?

      August 15, 2012 at 8:49 am |
    • Misty222

      Remember that in the bible, Deuteronomy 17 to be exact, it states that non-Christians should be killed. Do you believe this?

      August 15, 2012 at 8:56 am |
    • Reality

      More for Stevie P to address before he is allowed to prepare any more commentaries:

      origin: http://query.nytimes.com/gst/abstract.html?res=F20E1EFE35540C7A8CDDAA0894DA404482 NY Times review and important enough to reiterate.

      New Torah For Modern Minds

      “Abraham, the Jewish patriarch, probably never existed. Nor did Moses. The entire Exodus story as recounted in the Bible probably never occurred. The same is true of the tumbling of the walls of Jericho. And David, far from being the fearless king who built Jerusalem into a mighty capital, was more likely a provincial leader whose reputation was later magnified to provide a rallying point for a fledgling nation.

      Such startling propositions - the product of findings by archaeologists digging in Israel and its environs over the last 25 years - have gained wide acceptance among non-Orthodox rabbis. But there has been no attempt to disseminate these ideas or to discuss them with the laity - until now.

      The United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, which represents the 1.5 million Conservative Jews in the United States, has just issued a new Torah and commentary, the first for Conservatives in more than 60 years. Called "Etz Hayim" ("Tree of Life" in Hebrew), it offers an interpretation that incorporates the latest findings from archaeology, philology, anthropology and the study of ancient cultures. To the editors who worked on the book, it represents one of the boldest efforts ever to introduce into the religious mainstream a view of the Bible as a human rather than divine doc-ument.

      The notion that the Bible is not literally true "is more or less settled and understood among most Conservative rabbis," observed David Wolpe, a rabbi at Sinai Temple in Los Angeles and a contributor to "Etz Hayim." But some congregants, he said, "may not like the stark airing of it." Last Passover, in a sermon to 2,200 congregants at his synagogue, Rabbi Wolpe frankly said that "virtually every modern archaeologist" agrees "that the way the Bible describes the Exodus is not the way that it happened, if it happened at all." The rabbi offered what he called a "LITANY OF DISILLUSION”' about the narrative, including contradictions, improbabilities, chronological lapses and the absence of corroborating evidence. In fact, he said, archaeologists digging in the Sinai have "found no trace of the tribes of Israel - not one shard of pottery."


      Adverb: Almost certainly; as far as one knows or can tell.

      August 15, 2012 at 5:15 pm |
  13. AJ

    Unfortuantely, we cannot separate religion and policits because both of them affect the American people.

    August 15, 2012 at 8:29 am |
  14. May Fiat

    Might be useful to read what EWTN has posted from the Catholic News Agency – much more credible than CNN


    August 15, 2012 at 8:29 am |
  15. Scott

    Liberal Catholic is an oxymoron. You must personally follow traditional moral principles before your good works have meaning. A personal relationship with God based on the Commandments comes before good works. This is Catholic dogma. Period. There is no debate on this point – only obfuscation by those who wish it were not so. Get a copy of the Catechism and verify it for yourself.

    August 15, 2012 at 8:29 am |
  16. Mike

    Biden is an idiot. I wonder if he and Pelosi are sharing the same chalice.

    August 15, 2012 at 8:28 am |
    • aCriticalEye

      WOW, I see your a deep thinker. Did you hear that on Faux Noise.

      August 15, 2012 at 9:13 am |
  17. DPGW

    This is just precious. Country is 15+ trillion in debt, unemployment over 8%, housing in the toilet, (etc., etc., etc.) and CNN would like to start a debate over what kind of catholics the vice presidental candiates are (as lead story no less). Well done.

    August 15, 2012 at 8:28 am |
    • aCriticalEye

      I believe it to be relevant. "Greed Over People" or Christianity, very contradictory.

      August 15, 2012 at 9:15 am |
  18. melvin polatnick

    There is little chance that the Romney-Ryan ticket can get more than 30% of Hispanic or 10% of black votes. Their only hope for a win is to convince white voters that they will become politically and physically threatened if Obama is elected. Nothing is as important as personal safety; the largest fear of white voters is home invasion and street crime. The issues of more taxes, cuts in Medicaid or Medicare are secondary.

    August 15, 2012 at 8:27 am |
  19. Bruce McAllister

    Is Prothero an amnesiac? A"civil... debate"? More like mutual slaughter.

    August 15, 2012 at 8:27 am |
  20. J. Davis, Knoxville, TN

    I don't know why VP Biden's comment about "putting us in chains" was considered bad. If Romney is elected, the average person will be in chains, at the bidding of the rich in America. Biden's comment was not related to slavery in the 19th Century. I'm sick of these big banks and Wall Street running and ruining America.
    Also, Joe Biden practices the real mission of the Catholic Church and that is social justice. I cannot believe Ryan's take on Catholicism–he's got it all wrong. The Catholic Church's major focus is helping the poor–how can Ryan take away Medicare and Social Security–the only way some people can survive in today's world.
    I'm proud to be a supporter of Obama/Biden and a Yellow Dog Democrat!

    August 15, 2012 at 8:26 am |
    • n222s

      When you make a comment that you wouldn't when addressing a predominantly white audience (that one was black) that is bad. When you speak to one segment of the population in a dialect bigots like Biden ascribe to that segment, that is bad. When you do not, yourself, speak in that dialect, that is bad. Remember Biden making the crack about Indians and 7/11? That was bad. Remember comments by Reid and Biden and others about how "clean" and "articulate" Obama was, that was bad because they never make that comment about white politicians.

      August 15, 2012 at 8:34 am |
    • Tmabry

      The comment by Biden was Putting y'all (non inclusive of his ilk) back in chains, like, duh return to slavery. If you missed the implied meaning there it is for you. Trying to defend it is as offensive as saying it. Get real.....

      August 15, 2012 at 8:47 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.