Even before Gov. Mitt Romney made his vice presidential selection last week, Catholic voters were at the center of this year’s presidential election. President Barack Obama’s controversial contraceptive mandate — and his refusal to brook any meaningful compromise for religious institutions that object to it — had sparked a fierce backlash among many Catholics and their bishops. Their religious-liberty concerns, combined with Obama’s unswerving support for abortion on demand and, now, gay marriage, threatened to erase what remained of the president’s 2008 lead with Catholic voters. By some lights, all Romney had to do to win the Catholic vote was coast: convince Catholics to back him simply by noting that he is not the candidate at war with their bishops.
Yet Romney opted to do something bolder and riskier. In choosing U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan as his running mate, he has invited Catholics to engage in a long-overdue debate about how best to apply the principles of Catholic social teaching to decisions about the proper role of government.
Most on the Catholic left consider that debate unnecessary, because it’s obvious what Catholic social teaching commands: lockstep allegiance to the Democratic agenda of an ever-expanding social welfare state. For many such self-described ‘social justice Catholics,” the Gospel imperative to love thy neighbor is an unambiguous summons to support expanded government assistance programs of every kind, along with the higher taxes, state-mandated income redistribution and ballooning government bureaucracy that tend to accompany them. Balancing the budget is a nice goal, too, as long as you can do it by raising taxes, preferably on the vaguely defined “rich.” But a focus on weaning citizens off government dependence or cutting spending — at least, on anything other than national defense — is generally regarded as proof of unbiblical miserliness and a malformed social conscience.
For Catholics of this persuasion, Paul Ryan is a source of bewilderment as well as outrage. Not only does this committed, Mass-going Catholic articulate the principles of limited government and fiscal conservatism in moral language, he makes his case — when asked — in explicitly Catholic terms. And when challenged to defend that case by those who claim to have the sole legitimate interpretation of Catholic teaching in the realm of economics, he does so joyfully, powerfully and without apology.
“I do not believe that the preferential option for the poor means a preferential option for big government,” Ryan said, when defending his budget at Georgetown University in April.
Quoting Pope Benedict XVI’s criticism of profligate spenders who are “living at the expense of future generations,” Ryan argued that our current trajectory of reckless borrowing and spending threatens to unravel our social safety net for the very citizens who need it most. He posited that a solution to America’s fiscal problems must respect the twin pillars of Catholic social teaching: solidarity, which reminds us to care for the weakest, and subsidiarity, which cautions against government doing for its citizens things they can and should do for themselves.
As Ryan himself has noted, people of good will can reach different conclusions about the best way to apply Catholic principles to economic debates. Indeed, Ryan’s budget cuts provoked several critical letters from representatives of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. When Ryan responded with a letter explaining his plan’s rationale to conference president Cardinal Timothy Dolan, Dolan responded with a letter that reiterated the bishops’ concern for the poor and commended Ryan for taking Catholic teaching seriously. He also affirmed Ryan’s right, as a Catholic politician, to “exercise prudential judgment” in applying Catholic social teaching to the nitty-gritty of fiscal policy.
That last point is crucial. As Election Day nears, liberal partisans will attempt to equate Ryan’s prudential differences with some bishops on economic matters with the dissent of Catholics such as Vice President Joe Biden on abortion.
It’s a false equivalence, one that church leaders repeatedly have denounced in recent decades. As the U.S. bishops noted in their 1998 statement, “Living the Gospel of Life,” the right to life of the innocent and unborn is fundamental to all other rights, and “being right” on other issues “can never excuse a wrong choice regarding direct attacks on innocent human life.” Or as Pope Benedict put it in a 2004 letter to Washington Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, “There may be a legitimate diversity of opinion even among Catholics about waging war and applying the death penalty, but not however with regard to abortion and euthanasia.”
Unlike Biden, who repeatedly earned perfect scores from NARAL as a senator and nudged Obama onto the gay marriage bandwagon this spring, Ryan has remained true to his Catholic faith on the moral issues that the church labels non-negotiable, including defense of the right to life and traditional marriage. Ryan’s pro-life, pro-family stands will not endear him to all Catholics. But for those who take their church’s hierarchy of values seriously, Romney’s surprising choice may prove to be a winner.