Appreciating Paul Ryan, and Catholic Social Teaching

Note: The following post originally appeared as an article in the Aquila Report on May 15. Given Mitt Romney’s selection of Paul Ryan as his running mate, I thought it appropriate to reprint it here (and print it for the first time on this blog) today.

Many Evangelicals are not very familiar with Catholic social teaching, though they do tend to like conservative Catholic leaders like Republican Congressman Paul Ryan. Yet it is worth paying attention to what makes Catholic conservatives like Ryan tick, as well as to what brings them criticism from left-leaning Catholics. Not only does the tradition of Catholic social teaching have an immense amount of wisdom to teach us; there is always much to learn from watching how politicians and pundits try to turn theological principles into concrete proposals of policy.

Ryan described the way in which Catholic theology shaped his budget plan in an interview with the Christian Broadcasting Network. Particularly noteworthy was his appeal to two very important principles of Catholic social thought, generally endorsed by both conservatives and liberals.

On the principle of subsidiarity:

Ryan said that the principle of subsidiarity — a notion, rooted in Catholic social teaching, that decisions are best made at most local level available — guided his thinking on budget planning.

“To me, the principle of subsidiarity, which is really federalism, meaning government closest to the people governs best, having a civil society … where we, through our civic organizations, through our churches, through our charities, through all of our different groups where we interact with people as a community, that’s how we advance the common good,” Ryan said.

And on the preferential option for the poor:

The Wisconsin Republican said that he also drew on Catholic teachings regarding concern for the poor, and his interpretation of how that translated into government policy.

“[T]he 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 onto life of independence,” said Ryan.

As the article says, the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Cardinal Timothy Dolan, has praised Ryan for his attention to Catholic teaching. On the other hand, Joe Knippenberg points out, the top bishop in the USCCB committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development disagrees.

This debate within the Catholic tradition is an old one, involving Catholic theology and politics at the highest level. It was only after Vatican II opened the doors to the Church’s engagement of culture and politics as a means of service to the world in witness to the Gospel that the American Catholic bishops began to enter into the political forum. In previous years, they had limited themselves to issues and causes of concern to Catholics, such as the freedom of Catholic schools and their access to public funding. Yet soon after Vatican II the bishops began to speak out against the collapse of American laws against abortion.

By the time of Roe v. Wade 1973 the bishops, operating as the National Conference of Catholic Bishops (NCCB, now the USCCB) had a lengthy paper trail of opposition to legalized abortion, and they had already founded the National Right to Life Committee. Yet Roe v. Wade catalyzed them into political action. They established a lobby group and called for a constitutional amendment that would protect the right to life. Since that day, Catholic organizations have formed the core of the pro-life cause in America. When Francis Schaeffer called Evangelicals to action on the issue, the alliance of Evangelicals and Catholics together on cultural and political issues became inevitable.

But the political significance of Catholic social teaching has long been contested. During the 1976 presidential election the bishops, headed by Archbishop Joseph Bernardin, were widely criticized for putting so much attention on abortion that they effectively endorsed Republican President Gerald Ford in his campaign against the Democratic candidate Jimmy Carter. The result was that Bernardin and many of his colleagues began to articulate Catholic social teaching as a “seamless garment” that involved opposition to abortion as only one of many uncompromisable positions, including positions on capital punishment, labor, nuclear weapons, and care for the poor. And it turned out that on virtually every issue except abortion, the bishops were closer to the position of the Democrats than they were to the position of the Republicans.

The 1980s were the high water mark of liberal Catholicism, as E.J. Dionne has argued. The bishops authored two statements that placed them in direct confrontation with the Reagan administration on its nuclear policy (The Challenge of Peace, 1983) and its economic and fiscal policy (Economic Justice for All, 1986). Conservative Catholic writers like Michael Novak and Richard John Neuhaus protested vehemently, pointing out that the American bishops were not representative of the older and more international Catholic tradition. Numerous bishops, appointed by the conservative Pope John Paul II, continued to act independently to highlight abortion as the most important issue at stake in political elections.

In fact, largely because of John Paul II’s work in appointing a stream of conservative bishops, the USCCB has shifted to the right since the 1980s. John Paul II condemned the Marxism of liberation theology and promulgated moderate statements on the economic implications of Catholic social teaching even as he continued to highlight the importance of opposing abortion. During the 2004 presidential campaign between the pro-life Republican George W. Bush and the pro-choice Catholic Democrat John Kerry, one of his leading cardinals, Joseph Ratzinger, head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, produced a public letter stressing the supreme importance of abortion as a political issue, calling Catholics to vote only for pro-life candidates, and urging priests to bar pro-choice politicians from the Eucharist.

The relation between the USCCB and the Obama administration highlights the rightward tilt of the Catholic Church in recent decades even more. The bishops almost single-handedly defeated Obama’s signature health care legislation, and since its passage they have clashed heatedly with the president on his policy requiring insurance companies to subsidize birth control, including abortifacients. Moderate Catholics who prominently supported Obama in 2008 have declared that they will oppose him in 2012.

It is in this context that Congressman Ryan’s appeal to the authority of Catholic social teaching should be evaluated. There are those among the bishops who genuinely fear that Ryan’s fiscal proposals will bring harm to the poor, but just as importantly, many Catholics see Ryan’s claims as just one more part of a long story of increasing conservative cooption of the church’s public image.

These concerns are genuine, and Evangelicals who are conservative politically should resist the temptation to take Ryan’s side just because he is a conservative Republican. One should always be suspicious of politicians when they claim theological authority for their actions. Nevertheless, I cannot help but think that it is a good thing that Ryan is highlighting principles like subsidiarity, and the preference for the poor, and introducing them to the national dialogue.

We would do well to pay careful attention to the debate over Catholic social teaching, not just as a political phenomena, but as a substantive conversation of Christian wisdom. Evangelicalism in America tends to be far more politicized than is Catholicism, and sometimes it helps to see the way in which another tradition seeks to bring its wisdom to bear on politics.

Even as Presbyterian and Reformed Christians we have no reason to be smug. Silence, apathy, or instinctive conservatism is no substitute for centuries of careful thought and tradition. And in fact, the roots and basic ideals of our own Reformed tradition are much closer to those of Catholic social teaching than we might imagine. We will only grow in our wisdom by paying attention to their struggle to work out their faith in difficult times.

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About Matthew J. Tuininga

Matthew J. Tuininga is the Assistant Professor of Moral Theology at Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Posted on August 13, 2012, in Politics, Roman Catholic Church and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on Appreciating Paul Ryan, and Catholic Social Teaching.

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