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. Steve

    I love how "family values" really means racist and other discriminatory practices.

    August 15, 2012 at 9:00 am |
    • Mbane18

      There is no such thing as Christian familly values. Read the Bible and you will know what I'm talking about.

      August 15, 2012 at 9:13 am |
  2. Frank

    Ryan may have a stupid plan, but he is a much more honorable man than Biden. Yeah, his budget sucks, but at least he tried to solve the problems facing our country. All Biden does is incite racial hate and strife, hoping that will carry his party. Why doesent Obama dump that loser?

    August 15, 2012 at 8:59 am |
    • Tom (the second)

      Obama's democrat chair of his deficit reduction commission spoke pretty highly of Ryan's budget.

      August 15, 2012 at 9:00 am |
  3. JDub

    Mitt is now Catholic? I thought he was Mormon.

    August 15, 2012 at 8:59 am |
    • Honey Badger Dont Care

      If you read the article you would know that they are talking about the VPs.

      August 15, 2012 at 9:01 am |
    • tks123

      Can't read can you? Why not start again and read slower ! It said this is the first non-Protestant ticket, meaning neither is a Protestant. They never said Romney was Catholic, They said it will be a Mormom/Catholic ticket, the first ticket in history that did not have at least one candidate (Pres/VP) who was Protestant.

      If you can not read a very simple story like this, I hope you do not vote, or live alone for that matter.

      August 15, 2012 at 9:09 am |
  4. L. Johnson

    I used to come to this website for news, now I come here for comic relief...

    August 15, 2012 at 8:57 am |
    • boyamidumb

      Question is – which is funnier the news or the "discourse" here?

      August 15, 2012 at 8:59 am |
  5. RunfortheHills

    There is no such thing as "social justice" Christianity. There is nothing about Christianity that says everyone "deserves" to be wealthy. Christians who believe in this are not Christians.

    August 15, 2012 at 8:57 am |
    • Tex71

      You should try reading the book of James sometime. You know, the one at the end of the New Testament? For that matter, try reading the Gospels. Maybe you should just try reading for starters.

      August 15, 2012 at 9:01 am |
    • Willa45

      Christian Social Justice doesn't say everyone has to be wealthy! Christian Social Justice is about the rich helping the poor and the less fortunate (the sick, the blind etc.). It should go without saying that Christian Social Justice, (and Social justice in general) would also expect that the rich aren't going to gouge the poor, either. Those are good Christian values.

      August 15, 2012 at 9:07 am |
    • sqeptiq

      Why don't you address the point instead of your straw man? NO ONE is talking about everyone being wealthy except teapublicans in their fevered hallucinations.

      August 15, 2012 at 9:07 am |
    • Libsrtyrants


      Liberals can't seem to comprehend that God's words are directed at individuals. They tell me I should give. I should sacrifice.

      Liberals corrupt/perverrt that into we should forceOTHERS to give. We should force others to sacrifice (thru taxes).
      Liberals take something that's good and pure and make it pure evil.

      August 15, 2012 at 9:17 am |
    • Bibletruth

      Christian Social Justice: Love your neighbor as yourself. This for a poor (lets say the liberals idea of poor economically, etc.) believer means that he/she would never vote for a person who's speech is along the lines of class warfare or who's philosophy is the rich (or anyone better off) are so because they got that way at the expense of the poor.....likewise this for a rich (lets say the liberals idea of non-poor economically, etc.) believer means that he/she would never vote for a person who's speech is along the lines of class warfare or who's philosophy is the rich (or anyone better off) have no responsibility to do what they can to uplift the poor. Both types have equal liability to be honest and truthful and and supportive of rightousness to the extent they can in a sinful, unrightous world.

      August 16, 2012 at 12:13 pm |
  6. RJ

    honestly, for as far as humanity has come since the days of our "fore fathers," its baffling religion still has such a massive influence on government. if you want to believe teachings that were supposedly written hundreds of years ago and apply them to how our society is run today...i question your rationality and intelligence.

    unfortunately this country is full of so many brainwashed idiots who take the bible so literally, some politicians have no choice but use it as a way to gain votes.

    August 15, 2012 at 8:56 am |
  7. stlounick

    Perhaps there was some "civil" conversation about the Bible and slavery before the Civil War left civility to rot on the battlefields covered in blood and gore. Seems to me that was a failed conversation.

    August 15, 2012 at 8:55 am |
  8. rockysfan

    Biden embraces the teaches of the Catholic church to care for his lessor brethren. While Ryan on the other hand can't rip the money from their hands fast enough and was asleep at the wheel the the Priest was sermonizing on caring for your lessor brethren. Biden walks the talk and Ryan talks and takes. Pretty simple comparision actually.

    August 15, 2012 at 8:54 am |
    • Chunk a chunk

      Biden embraces abortion, which totally goes against Catholisism, no questions asked!

      August 15, 2012 at 8:58 am |
    • Mbane18

      Wars also go against it, so does leaving the poor to fend for themselves while making the rich richer and the list goes on. Please show me the exact Biblical quote that is anti-abortion.

      August 15, 2012 at 9:07 am |
    • sqeptiq

      Executing the mentally retarded goes against catholicism too.

      August 15, 2012 at 9:09 am |
  9. Jim

    OK we dont need to make this race about religion. WE have more real world issues to deal with. WE need to fix our economy and our infrastructure. JOBS , no new taxes, illegals taking oour tax money. Russia rebuilt, we need to also.

    August 15, 2012 at 8:54 am |
  10. rand

    Considering Biden is for "social justice" yet gave a pitiful amount in donations in comparison to his income last year.........this ought to good!!

    August 15, 2012 at 8:54 am |
    • Chunk a chunk

      I'm all for helping the poor and our brothers in need... But that should come from individuals, not from the government!

      August 15, 2012 at 9:01 am |
    • Mbane18

      Donation only make charities and those who work for them richer.

      August 15, 2012 at 9:08 am |
    • Chunk a chunk


      And government is efficient and fair at helping the poor?
      There are a lot of good charities. If you critizise them, don't be lazy and help people yourself, directly.

      August 15, 2012 at 9:25 am |
  11. jim

    That's funny, I thought it was a choice between the really smart guy who can solve problems, and the really dumb guy who doesn't even know what state he's campaigning in.

    August 15, 2012 at 8:53 am |
    • rand

      Well maybe Biden will pull out the old "I can relate to you common folk because my family also sat around our little wooden kitchen table"

      Ryan is going to destroy him in a debate and the Obama team KNOWS IT!!

      August 15, 2012 at 8:56 am |
  12. john vance

    A specific religion or religious doctrine should not be the controlling factor for a leader of a diverse nation such as ours. A mainstream politician may hold to his religious views at all times. A true statesman must make peace with God before entering the door of a committee room, knowing compromise with his/her faith may be necessary to make progress. Some "principled" politicians attack a complex problem with a chainsaw, but a statesman with pruning shears.
    Abraham LIncoln abhored slavery but discarded strict abolitionist solutions because he understood that his job was to the best he could for the entire country and it's future and that slow progress is sometimes the best progress.

    August 15, 2012 at 8:53 am |
  13. L. Johnson

    More Obama propaganda from the online version of the Nationall Enquirer....

    August 15, 2012 at 8:50 am |
    • Libsrtyrants

      CNN wishes they were as respected as the National Enquirer.

      August 15, 2012 at 8:53 am |
    • sqeptiq

      The fallback position of teapublicans: when you have no cogent argument, DEMONIZE.

      August 15, 2012 at 9:11 am |
    • n222s

      "They want to put y'all in chains". Mitt Romney laid me off and doesn't care that my wife died 6 years later. Etc, etc.

      Yes, only Republicans deal in demonization.

      August 15, 2012 at 9:35 am |
  14. Matt

    This is the the most rediculous thing ever. We all know that Paul Ryan is really atheist! The only reason he pretends to be Catholic is to gain support of the unintelligent Republican base.

    August 15, 2012 at 8:49 am |
  15. Fred the Awesome

    More proof that religion is a distraction from reality.

    Your beliefs are whatever you want them to be. Ideology is pure fertilizer.

    August 15, 2012 at 8:46 am |
    • Matt

      Just based on how much religion props up in politics and affects politics we should tax the he** out of the stup** churches that are ruining our country. Religion has no place in the political arena, the only reason that any politician even mentions their religion is to win votes from the people that are too stup** to vote based on said candidate's record/platform.

      August 15, 2012 at 8:53 am |
  16. mjbrin

    Ryan voted for the Bush stimulus, along with the Bush tax cuts, the Bush wars, the Bush security spending binge, the Bush prescription drug benefit, the Bush highway bill that included the Bridge to Nowhere, and the Bush bank bailout.

    I thought he was a fiscal conservative......not!

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


      August 15, 2012 at 8:48 am |
  17. n222s

    Here's the problem with "social justice". You can't define it in absolute terms. Our poor live a better life that most people on the planet. Is it social justice to distribute any wealth to these people when others virtually live in open sewers in the world? Why do you think people in 3rd world countries come here to be our poor?

    August 15, 2012 at 8:44 am |
    • Tex71

      Let me see if I understand you. You think our country would be better off if our "poor" – in other words, the huge class of Americans who are unemployed, underemployed, or simply working their tails off for minimum wage – were starving in the streets? Yeah, sounds like an American conservative to me. Can you explain how that would improve anything, apart from giving people like you the pleasure of spurning ragged urchins with your heel as they fight for the privilege of polishing your jackboots for a penny..?

      August 15, 2012 at 8:58 am |
    • Libsrtyrants

      Amen. Your logic seems very strong.

      One could reasonably argue that it is morally wrong to spend a single penny on any of America's allegedly poor people. Instead, we should spend that money on actual poor people, none of which live inside the United States.
      This is a complicated issue and that is a valid moral argument.

      The question of whether it's right to murder innocent babies because it's convenient for someone, is not complicated.
      If a person fails that simple one, they shouldn't bother with the more difficult questions.

      August 15, 2012 at 9:00 am |
    • n222s

      No friend, you miss the point. It is the exact opposite. I don't want anyone to starve or polish our boots. Did you ever think that calls for social justice in this country is just a ploy to create dependency upon government for crumbs off the table? Why do you think Obama tried to eliminate tax deductions for charitable giving? Why do you think, for most of their adult lives, the Obamas and Bidens have given next to nothing to charities? Repubs and Dems should look to Tom Monaghan of Domino's and follow his lead. He has given away most of his wealth. Not after he dies. NOW. He did not wait for the government to force charity. And guess who he is supporting this November?

      And it is curious that the author omits any mention of abortion or the mandated coverage of birth control. Do you think Ryan or Biden is more in line with the Catholic teachings/beliefs on these subjects?

      August 15, 2012 at 9:12 am |
    • sqeptiq

      When you compare the US to some third world cesspool, you intimate that we should be more like a third world cesspool

      August 15, 2012 at 9:13 am |
    • n222s

      sqeptiq – how do you think a favorable comparison of the US to a 3rd world cesspool is an implication that we should be a 3rd world cesspool? Say you have a splinter in your finger and whine about it while the poor soul next to you has a cut to the bone. If I say your condition is better how is that hoping it should be worse? I don't want anyone to be worse off. I pray and give to charities hoping the 3rd world gets better!

      August 15, 2012 at 9:20 am |
  18. russ

    Paul Ryan credits Ayn Rand for shaping his social beliefs. Ayn Rand believed in taking care of only yourself and not giving charity to those in need, and that the uber-capitalists should run the world. Doesn't sound very Christian to me, much less Catholic.

    August 15, 2012 at 8:44 am |
    • Tex71

      Ayn Rand was in fact a rabid anti-Christian and took advantage of every opportunity to say so. Anybody who calls himself a Christian and adheres to Rand's philosophy has some explaining to do.

      August 15, 2012 at 9:05 am |
    • Libsrtyrants


      Rand was an atheist, but she understood Jeremiah 17:9 better than most Christians or Jews.
      Rand believed the best government was one that could actually harness people's selfishness for the greater good.
      It's a brilliant philosophy and one that has yet to be even slightly discredited.

      Rand, came from collectivism & communism. She understood that those philosophies fail because they don't recognize that people are selfish.

      Capitalism succeeds because it harnesses that selfishness and puts it to work – improving the whole society.

      It's not complicated:
      Produce goods or services that improve the lives of your fellow man and you'll be successful.

      August 15, 2012 at 9:11 am |
    • sqeptiq

      Well tyrants, that is a beautifully framed argument for putting all our economically challenged children and elderly to work. What age do you think kids should start, 2,3, 5? When do the aged poor get to rest, when they fall down in the traces? You would make a sweatshop owner blanch.

      August 15, 2012 at 9:17 am |
    • Libsrtyrants


      No one said anything about putting children (or anyone) to work.
      Intentional ignorance is usually bad.
      The argument is: Which system works better and why. The one that recognizes and harnesses selfishness or the one that pretends people aren't selfish?

      August 15, 2012 at 9:23 am |
  19. CanadaONE

    he looks SCARY – how has the USA gone SO WRONG!

    August 15, 2012 at 8:44 am |
    • Jen

      Not to defend Ryan, but Stephen Harper isn't exactly normal looking either.

      August 15, 2012 at 8:58 am |
    • Mbane18

      Stephen Harper, while a conservative prime minister in Canda, is still more liberal than the democrats in this country and his policies have kept Canada out of this recession and made their banks some of the strongest in the world. At the same time they still have free healthcare, heavilly subcidised education system, tons of social programs and very low crime. And here we say it can't be done! Really?

      August 15, 2012 at 9:02 am |
    • Jen

      Completely agree with you mbane. I'm a Canadian that lives in the US and the medical system is a joke here. And Harper has done a good job with the recession. But.....he is still creepy to look at....and I never voted for his party when I lived in Canada.

      August 15, 2012 at 9:23 am |
  20. lucy

    You can't be a Christian and subscribe to Ayn Rand's theories. The two idealogies completely contradict each other and she was 100% anti-religion. She said so many times.

    August 15, 2012 at 8:43 am |
    • Pat in IL

      I absolutely agree. Ryan is not a genuine Christian, he is a convenient Christian. That's disgusting and tells me how ingenuine he is and how he will probably always go with the flow, rather than stand on any one particular principal. It's the Ayn Rand philosophy of all for self, not for the collective.

      August 15, 2012 at 9:05 am |
    • Brooklyn Boy

      Of course you can!
      All you have to do is ignore all the scripture that doesnt' support your point of view. Religious folks pull this scam every day.

      August 15, 2012 at 9:09 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.