If Jesus walked the earth today, I predict he’d be pretty pissed off at the divide between rich and poor in this country. And God knows we’d hear about it.
Yet the descendants of the Rock of Peter seem to be having trouble taking tips from the Messiah when speaking about social justice issues, if they do so at all. Not so with the more in-your-face issues of abortion and birth control, where rabble-rousers do just fine wielding their pens and voices and staging protests.
Rep. Paul Ryan’s elevation to the Republican ticket at last has galvanized some progressive Catholic Church leaders, especially a minority band of loudmouth Jesuits at Georgetown University. They have been shoving their way into the political fray by decrying Ryan’s budget plan as insensitive to the poorest among us. Their mission: to raise the awareness of poverty to the decibel level of other hot-button media issues.
“Media categorize bishops and Catholics as only concerned about sex and abortion—especially political journalists,” says Father Thomas Reese, a senior fellow with the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University. He is one of 90 faculty members who wrote an open letter to Ryan criticizing his budget plan when the Wisconsin congressman came to speak three months ago. “It’s not just the journalists’ fault. The church will issue press releases to the Hill but doesn’t use a megaphone when talking about justice issues.”
When Mitt Romney picked Ryan—the chief architect of a plan that slashes domestic spending and trims $700 billion from Medicare by moving the program toward private insurance companies and giving recipients a certain amount to buy their own plans—the former Massachusetts governor did so while praising and stressing Ryan’s Catholic roots and his pro-life support, a cornerstone of the conservative platform.
And Ryan’s candidacy has drawn favorable reviews from Christian leaders who often seem to march in lockstep with the most conservative wing of the Republican Party.
But Ryan is Catholic, and there are those in his party, like the Georgetown Jesuits, who view him as ignorant of Catholic theology. To them, someone like Ryan who has sat through Mass after Mass for 40-plus years, listening to the words of Jesus, must intrinsically believe that the way to heaven is to follow Jesus’ path and serve the poor. And his words in the Bible speak of caring for those less fortunate:
Mark 10:21-22 “Sell what you own, and give money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven.”
Luke 14:12-14 “…but when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”
And the most often quoted: Matthew: 22:39 “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
Seems like Jesus may have been a liberal, not a Republican. Far from calling for tax cuts for the wealthiest Romans, Jesus told his followers to care for the homeless, the hungry, and the disenfranchised. Translated to 2012, that would most likely include Ryan giving up a $420,000 house and hundreds of thousands of dollars in investments. Or at least paying a higher tax rate than those in lower-income groups.
Many Catholics live in nice houses, have investments, and have not sold all their possessions to serve God better. They volunteer at shelters and tithe their earnings—not nearly enough. Like many of the one billion Catholics worldwide, especially those in America, I stand with the majority who do not follow Jesus’ teachings to the letter.
Are progressive Catholics picking on Ryan? Yes, the programs the congressman would slice or revamp, such as Medicare, also help the middle class. And yes, he is far from the only penny-pinching conservative in politics who also favors tax cuts for the wealthy. But Ryan is the party’s intellectual leader in arguing that government should get out of the way and the poor must learn to be more self-reliant.
Some on the right, meanwhile, aren’t shy about invoking the deity. Antony Davies and Kristina Antolin complained Saturday on The Wall Street Journal’s opinion page that bishops haven’t thought through their line of criticism, raising this question: “If God really did favor a top-down approach to poverty reduction, why wouldn’t He establish a government with the power to wipe away poverty on demand instead of leaving things to chance and the possibility that someone like Mr. Ryan would come along and mess up His plans?”
Reese is appalled: “Now they’re blaming God? People who are ignorant of theology try to bend theology into a partisan framework,” he says. “I don’t mind when people say, ‘Hey, Bishop, or hey, Pope, you’re wrong,’ but don’t say the budget is inspired by Catholic teaching when it isn’t.”
What’s more, he says, “people like these authors are trying to make Catholics the Republican party of prayer.”
And that brings us to their crucial importance as a voting bloc. Democratic presidential candidates have won the Catholic vote in every election since 1976, according to national exit polls, except when Ronald Reagan was on the ballot. Barack Obama carried 57 percent of Catholic voters four years ago to John McCain’s 43 percent. Romney, a Mormon, obviously hopes that Ryan’s presence on the ticket will help him close that gap.
Yet Catholics aren’t truly at home in either party. Many progressive Catholics believe Obama dropped the ball on immigration reform and hasn’t done enough to help the poor. Others believe the GOP has cynically exploited such issues as contraception.
The media too often present the church as a culturally conservative monolith, drowning out the voices of those who worry about tending to the less fortunate. If that is starting to change a bit, Catholics may have Paul Ryan to thank.