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Catholic Moment 2012

In the candidacy of Mitt Romney, Mormons are having their day in the sun, but election year 2012 has been much more of a Catholic moment. Romney himself added to this phenomenon with his “Be Not Afraid” TV ads featuring John Paul II and Lech Walesa, and his defense of Catholics’ rights vis-à-vis Obamacare’s controversial “contraception mandate.” Above these examples, though, is the political ascendancy of Congressman Paul Ryan, which has brought with it the happy occurrence of Catholic social teaching playing a prominent role in the national debate over economic policy. As with the Church’s teaching on human sexuality, brought to the fore by Obama’s mandate, the path of explaining — let alone implementing — Catholic wisdom as applied to societal matters is a long and complicated one. It helps to have authentic lay Catholics in high offices — dare we say even in the Oval Office. Win or lose, Paul Ryan is poised to be an influential and notably pro-life politician. And, as is to be expected, his proposals to overhaul the federal government’s massive programs have landed him squarely in the hot seat.

For many months before the Wisconsin conservative was picked as Romney’s running mate for the Republican ticket, liberal critics of his proposed economic policies vilified the man as a heartless hater of the poor. This summer, Ryan’s budget was slammed by the media’s Catholic darlings: the “Nuns on the Bus.” The left-leaning sisters toured middle America and were everywhere celebrated by reporters and activists for — you guessed it — embracing the status quo on federal entitlement spending. The nuns’ nine-state tour paused at Rep. Ryan’s Wisconsin office to promote their vision of justice and compassion. He wasn’t there. No matter, the tour chugged on to Charlotte, North Carolina, where the group’s chief organizer, Sr. Simone Campbell, delivered an address to the Democratic National Convention.

Weeks before the sisters began their road trip, a group of Catholic social-justice activists descended on Georgetown University to protest Paul Ryan’s speech there. As reported by the Washington Post (Apr. 27), they hoisted a fifty-foot sign that read, “Were you there when they crucified the poor?” The protest was organized by members of Catholics United, who argued that Ryan’s proposed cuts to Medicaid and other welfare programs contravene the teachings of the Church. Their message followed criticism from Bishop Stephen Blaire of Stockton, California, who, as head of the U.S. bishops’ Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development, claimed that Ryan’s budget failed to meet 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 later added that he was critiquing Ryan’s budget and not Ryan personally (San Francisco Chronicle, Aug. 23). The budget recommends “drastic cuts in services which are very necessary at this time for the poor,” the bishop added. Blaire lives in one of the nation’s most depressed regions and presides over a diocese in which two cities, Stockton and Mammoth Lakes, have declared bankruptcy. He may view the federal government as a last and only resort.

In his Georgetown speech, Ryan countered the arguments of his Catholic critics. His zeal to reduce the national debt, he explained, is based on moral and religious grounds that have support from Church teaching and the Pope: “The overarching threat to our whole society today is the exploding federal debt. The Holy Father, Pope Benedict, has charged that governments, communities, and individuals running up high debt levels are ‘living at the expense of future generations’ and ‘living in untruth.'” Acknowledging that relief of the poor will always be necessary, Ryan advocates allowing local organizations, among others, to play a bigger role. “We are a nation that prides itself on looking out for one another — and government has an important role to play in that. But relying on distant government bureaucracies to lead this effort just hasn’t worked.” Speaking directly to his liberal Catholic critics, Ryan said, “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.” His companion argument is that if further financial disaster strikes, if the federal government goes bankrupt, the poor will be the first to suffer.

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