With the choice of Paul Ryan as Romney's running mate, the 2012 presidential election will be the first in U.S. history with a Roman Catholic on both sides of the ballot. The contrast between the Catholicism of Vice President Joe Biden and Congressman Ryan perfectly represents the ongoing debate about the Catholic vote going back to the Reagan years.
Indeed, the choice between these two types of Catholic politicians could not be any more plain.
Biden is a “social justice” Catholic who claims to know how to connect with blue-collar Democratic Catholics, like those in his hometown of Scranton, Pa. During four of his last five years in the Senate, he received a 100 percent rating from NARAL. As vice president he supported federal funding for abortion, despite voicing opposition to it in 2008, and the Health and Human Services mandate requiring Catholic institutions serving the public to provide insurance coverage for contraception, including abortifacients and sterilization.
During the 2008 campaign, some of Biden’s remarks on NBC’s Meet the Press defending his position on abortion were publicly criticized by Bishop Robert C. Morlino of Madison, Wis., and Archbishop Charles J. Chaput, then of Denver, now of Philadelphia. Morlino’s diocese, by the way, includes Paul Ryan's hometown of Janesville, Wis.
Paul Ryan, it appears, never had a “progressive” phase in the development of either his politics or his Catholic faith. From a fifth-generation Wisconsin family, Ryan attended public schools, graduating in economics and political science from Miami University, Ohio, and developed a liking for the works of individualist philosopher Ayn Rand during his high-school years. His interest in politics led him to work as an aide in 1992 to Sen. Bob Kasten and as legislative director between 1995 and 1997 for Sen. Sam Brownback, both ardent pro-lifers. Ryan worked as a speechwriter for Jack Kemp during the 1996 campaign after spending a few years at Empower America, the think tank Kemp ran with Bill Bennett.
Since being elected to the House in 1998, Ryan has developed a solid reputation with the grassroots as a pro-life, pro-marriage Catholic, and among Tea Party and fiscal conservatives, he has attained hero status for his extraordinary grasp of economic and budgetary issues. At age 42, Congressman Ryan is now often referred to as the “intellectual leader” of the Republican Party, a description repeated by Mitt Romney in announcing his VP choice.
Biden’s vulnerabilities as the choice for Catholic voters are neither more nor less than those of President Obama; the sitting vice president will have to continue to defend the expansion of the abortion mandate and the violation of religious liberty at the heart of the HHS mandate. Unless Biden repeats the mistake he made in 2008 on Meet the Press, it is unlikely he will draw any direct fire from the bishops.
While the choice of Ryan will please the Tea Party as well as fiscal and social conservatives, it creates an opening for the Catholic supporters of Obama: Paul Ryan’s 2012 GOP budget has already been the subject of official criticism by some Catholic bishops for failing to meet certain “moral criteria” and cutting programs that “serve poor and vulnerable people.” The media coverage failed to note that the four letters to Congress in April came from two bishops: Bishop Stephen E. Blaire of Stockton, Calif., chairman of the Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development, and Bishop Richard E. Pates of Des Moines, Iowa, chairman of the Committee on International Justice and Peace, each speaking on behalf of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops in their respective roles.
The first letter arrived April 4 at the House Subcommittee on Transportation, Housing and Urban Development, and Related Agencies. On April 10, Ryan ably defended himself and his application of Catholic principles in an interview with David Brody.
“Those principles are very, very important,” Ryan said. “And the preferential option for the poor, which is one of the primary tenets of Catholic social teaching, 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.”
Ryan’s words were ignored amid the subsequent denunciations of social-justice Catholics, led by Rep. Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut, who after underscoring her Italian, Catholic upbringing charged:
"The Ryan budget does not address debt nor fiscal responsibility. What it does is take care of the very wealthy at the risk of the middle class and people who are poor. That is contrary to Catholic teaching."
In spite of the fact that DeLauro completely ignores the latitude allowed to prudential judgments based upon Catholic principles, her charge will be repeated ad nauseam against the Romney-Ryan ticket over the next 90 days.
DeLauro’s interview April 17 was prompted by the arrival of three more letters to Congress from two Catholic bishops, once again accusing the Ryan budget of hurting the poor and failing the measure of Catholic social teaching.
Ryan knew he had more explaining to do, so on April 29 he sent a four-page letter to the president of the USCCB, Archbishop Timothy M. Dolan of New York, explaining how his budget was guided by the principles of Catholic social teaching. Ryan argued that as a Catholic he was justified in taking into account the bigger picture of the entire economic situation facing the nation. He argued there was a moral obligation “implicit” in Catholic social teaching to address “difficult basic problems before they explode into social crisis.”
The supportive letter of May 18 Ryan received in response from Dolan was hardly noticed. But the major points Ryan made in both his Brody interview and his letter to the archbishop were clearly acknowledged: “The principles of Catholic social teaching contain truths that need to be applied,” wrote Dolan, by the application of “prudential judgment.”
The level of opposition to the Ryan budget among the bishops is not unsubstantial. At their June meeting in Baltimore, the bishops voted 171-26 to approve a proposal brought by Blaire, the chairman of the Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development, to begin drafting a message on the U.S. economy, entitled “Catholic Reflections on Work, Poverty, and a Broken Economy.” This draft will be presented to the entire body of bishops at their November 2012 meeting after the election.
But the fact that this document is in the works, and that it was prompted specifically by the Ryan budget, is indicative of criticism that will undoubtedly be leveled at the GOP, its ticket, and Congressman Ryan himself: the charges of “cutting programs,” “hurting the poor,” and “destroying the safety net” will reinforce the stereotype of the GOP as uncaring, heartless, and the “party of the rich.” (Blaire, it should be noted, is the bishop of Stockton, Calif., which just a month ago filed for bankruptcy protection.)
The bottom line is this: the Romney-Ryan campaign must acknowledge the Catholic concerns about the budget as a major obstacle to winning the election Nov. 7. It will make or break the GOP ticket’s appeal to Catholics in a state like Pennsylvania, where I am presently putting together a Pennsylvania Catholics Network. Romney, Ryan, and their surrogates need to be proactive and explain, before the criticism reaches a fever pitch, how Ryan’s budget does in fact satisfy the “moral criteria” of Catholic social teaching. The argument, I believe, can be made, but the campaign must have the will to make it.