Prominent Catholic leaders criticize Paul Ryan on social justice issues

08/23/2012 5:00 AM

08/23/2012 10:51 PM

GOP vice presidential pick Paul Ryan will be formally introduced to the nation at next week’s Republican National Convention, and his Catholicism will emerge as an issue. The Wisconsin congressman says his faith informs his policy decisions, such as the House version of the federal budget that he authored and which is his signature accomplishment.

But some of his most prominent fellow Catholics — including the bishop of Stockton, Stephen Blaire, a national leader on social justice issues — say that while Ryan, 42, is in lockstep with the church in his absolute opposition to same-sex marriage and abortion, his House budget fails “a basic moral test.”

“The moral failing is that (the budget) did not adequately provide for the care of the poor and the vulnerable,” said Blaire, who explained Thursday that he was critiquing the budget Ryan shepherded and not Ryan personally.

Blaire initially made the critique this spring as chairman of the Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development for the politically powerful U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. The bishops often scold the federal government for not doing enough for the poor, a cornerstone of Catholic social justice work.

The budget “was making drastic cuts in services which are very necessary at this time for the poor,” Blaire said. According to a Gallup Poll released this week, 18 percent of Americans say there have been times over the past year where they couldn’t afford to buy the food their family needed.

Blaire, who lives in the heart of one of the nation’s most-depressed regions, presides over a diocese where two cities — Stockton and Mammoth Lakes — have declared bankruptcy. He sees the region’s food banks depleted and the lines for help growing at Catholic Charities outposts.

Before Ryan delivered an address at Georgetown University earlier this year, 90 Catholic theologians and staffers at the Jesuit institution wrote to Ryan saying that his budget “appears to reflect the values of your favorite philosopher, Ayn Rand, rather than the Gospel of Jesus Christ.”

Ryan pushed back against such critics in his speech, saying “there are some Catholics who for a long time have thought they had a monopoly of sorts — not exactly on heaven, but on the social teaching of our church. Simply put, I do not believe that the preferential option for the poor means a preferential option for big government,” he said in referring to the Catholic social principle that the interests of the poor should be primary.

To Catholic voters who look to the church for guidance, Ryan presents a political dilemma.

His “Catholicism guides him on moral issues — like his absolute stance on abortion,” said the Rev. Gerald Coleman, an adjunct professor of ethics at Santa Clara University who has advised California’s Catholic bishops on ethical matters. Ryan opposes abortion even in cases of rape or incest.

But on social justice issues, Coleman said, Ryan “is weak. There, his positions are not authentically in line with official church teaching.”

Then again, scholars say Vice President Joe Biden, who is also Catholic, presents an inverse sort of dilemma. While Biden supports same-sex marriage and abortion rights, he is more in line with the church on providing for the poor. This is the first time in history that two Catholics have been on the major party tickets.

“It’s a very good example of how it’s hard to find a politician who irrevocably matches everything the Church teaches and holds,” said Daniel Finn, a professor of theology and economics at St. John’s University in Minnesota.

Ryan offered further evidence of how his faith informs his policy in a May letter to New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan, who leads the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Dolan will offer a benediction at the Republican National Convention next week on the night Mitt Romney accepts the GOP nomination.

He informed Dolan that he had a moral obligation, “implicit in the church’s social teaching,” to try to cut the budget deficit before it exploded into “a deeper social crisis.”

Ryan said his effort to reform Medicaid “is also informed by the (church’s) principle of subsidiarity,” which says that the rung of an institution closest to the people it serves should oversee a particular service. In his budget, Ryan proposed to reform Medicare by offering a block grant to the states.

But Coleman said Ryan’s interpretation is “a skewed understanding of what the church means by the principle of subsidiarity. It gets too simply translated that the lowest authority on the pole should be making the decisions.”

“The principle itself supports that, but people forget that the principle also says that if that lowest wrung of authority isn’t doing the job it should be doing, then it becomes the responsibility of a higher level to do it,” Coleman said.

Added Blaire, the Stockton bishop, “it does not excuse the government from taking its responsibility where it is necessary.”

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