The selection of Catholic Paul Ryan as running mate to Mormon Mitt Romney has done more than create the G.O.P.’s first non-Protestant presidential ticket, it has dramatically altered the Romney campaign’s cautious course and highlighted the importance of the Catholic vote to Romney strategists. Having lost that crucial demographic by a significant margin to Candidate Obama in 2008 (53 to 46 percent), Republicans perceive that the Catholic vote is at play this cycle because of general disappointment with Obama and the rippling negativity generated by his administration’s frequent antler-locking with U.S. bishops. A Romney ad immediately following the Ryan announcement drew attention to the Catholic connection by directly accusing the president of engaging in a war on religion and including, one presumes, the unapproved use of an image of Pope John Paul II, even quoting his famous "Be not afraid."
The telegenic Catholic from Wisconsin does come with some cumbersome Ayn Randian baggage he has already tried, somewhat ineffectually, to drop off, but his pro-life, limited government and anti-gay marriage positions will attract Catholic conservatives while the Romney camp may be betting that his faith, charisma and the bishops’ persistent religious liberty complaints will turn the heads of waffling center-left Catholics. Persuading U.S.C.C.B. President Cardinal Tim Dolan to leave the Big Apple for the big G.O.P. party in Tampa is the latest, logical extension of Romney’s Catholic strategy. (See Michael Sean Winter's interesting take on this at NCR.)
One presumes the Obama camp has noted this line of attack, given the fragility of their lead over the G.O.P. team, but so far there has been little indication that the president’s re-election strategists have decided upon a meaningful response aimed at preserving support among Catholic Dems and wooing Catholic independents. A dramatic move now, say retreating on the administration’s overreach on the H.H.S. contraception mandate, may go far in taking the steam out of the Catholic incursion planned by Romney’s team. Clearly Romney's team is betting it will not take much poaching of Catholic votes in battleground states like Pennsylvania, Florida and Ohio to put Romney-Ryan over the top. Obama’s strategic capitulation over contraception in health care last winter, throwing Catholic progressives under the bus to appease his pro-choice supporters, is beginning to look like a poor political calculation.
The Ryan choice provoked some notable commentary, including a jaw-dropper in the Wall Street Journal that was the target of a full-Gallicho (a neologism I am promoting meaning “sardonic take down”). The WSJ piece was also ably picked apart by Jana Bennet at Catholic Moral Theology.
On the other side of the pew Deal Hudson has some free advice to Romney’s handlers about how best to capitalize on their Catholic candidate. And Andrew Sullivan offered a devastating critique of Ryan’s adolescent Libertarian idealism and unhappy weakness for the perennially discredited supply side economics while unthreading the cultural impulses straining against his Catholicism. Closer to home, our Kerry Weber explored some Ryan-ish themes right here.
Perhaps most remarkable of the online commentary during Ryan-palooza were two apologias for the Janesville, Wis., construction scion delivered by two U.S. bishops which appear to undermine the authority of U.S. bishops’ committee statements.
Taking great pains to describe his apparent endorsement of Ryan as, well, not an endorsement, a somewhat unconvincing path followed by Cardinal Dolan in explaining his decision to appear in Tampa, Denver Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila defended Ryan’s attempt to deploy Catholic social teaching as a justification for cutting back on government social services, including food stamps, TANF, “reforming” Medicare, etc. The archbishop used the homey analogy of a too-indulgent father spoiling his children thus leaving them ill-prepared for life in the real world, concluding, “Governing by sentimental affection can impede the hard choices required by compassion—by real love.”
Lamenting the “insidious” criticism Ryan has received, the archbishop says, “Ryan is a Catholic and a fiscal conservative. [Some, remembering his support of Bushian profligacy, may take exception to that observation]. His fiscal perspective has been roundly condemned as being somehow anti-Catholic—even by a few American bishops.” Indeed Ryan’s budget proposals have been roundly criticized on behalf of all the U.S. bishops by Bishops Pate, Hubbard and Blaire. It is interesting that in this instance the archbishop appears to endorse Ryan’s previous suggestion, in dismissing the criticism of his proposals by “some bishops,” that Bishops Blaire, Hubbard, et al only speak for themselves, not the U.S. Bishops conference. A conference spokesperson was forced to clarify that when committee chairs issue statements or write to Congress on such matters they are standing in for the entire body.
Ryan was also strongly supported by his hometown bishop Robert Morlino of Madison, Wisconsin, who adds violations of the right to private property, “government-coerced secularism” and socialism to the list of intrinsic evils right-minded Catholics should be on the lookout for come November.
Now, according to the letter of the law, in these statements neither bishop has issued a definitive express endorsement of the Romney-Ryan ticket that would jeopardize the church’s tax-exempt status, but they make it pretty clear that a vote for the other partly Catholic team would be pretty much unthinkable.
Morlino’s comments in particular on private property and socialism touch on hair-trigger memes in perpetual circulation in G.O.P and right wing circles. He adds for good measure: “A Catholic conscience can never take exception to the prohibition of actions which are intrinsically evil. Nor may a conscience well-formed by reason or the Catholic faith ever choose to vote for someone who clearly, consistently, persistently promotes that which is intrinsically evil.”
But that’s not exactly what the church teaches regarding the requirements of Catholics in participating in the political arena through voting. The bishop’s statements seem to undermine instruction included in Faithful Citizenship on prudential judgments and Pope Benedict’s (then Cardinal Ratzinger) clarification on the issue. Benedict wrote in 2004: "A Catholic would be guilty of formal cooperation in evil, and so unworthy to present himself for Holy Communion, if he were to deliberately vote for a candidate precisely because of the candidate’s permissive stand on abortion and/or euthanasia. When a Catholic does not share a candidate’s stand in favor of abortion and/or euthanasia, but votes for that candidate for other reasons, it is considered remote material cooperation, which can be permitted in the presence of proportionate reasons."
The letters also provide some spiritual cover for a regular Ryan theme: that the best way to demonstrate a preferential option for the poor is to do as little for them as possible in the richest nation on earth. According to this line of reasoning, the working or non-working poor under the Obama regime are choosing this status because of all the federal goodies they are receiving like food stamps, Medicaid, housing and heating support. This idea can surely only be persuasive among people who have never had the misfortune to have to get by on things like food stamps or unemployment benefits and it persists somehow in the face of the flat reality that public aid rolls, i.e., unemployment benefits, food stamps, etc., have surely been increasing since 2008, not because Obama came into office, but because of a market meltdown and resulting economic dislocation on a scale unseen since the Great Depression. There are more hungry children qualifying for food stamps not because of the nature of the man in the White House, but because of the drastic nature of the collapse of the economy.
Ryan, and his episcopal supporters, seem to endorse the belief that the best way out of our current economic crisis is to get government, its regulatory authority and minimal social supports, out of the way and allow the free market to work its magic, ignoring the plain fact that it was the free market and a too-indulgent federal regulatory regime which got us into this mess in the first place. And under a parade of popes over the last century and a half and including the current papacy, the church has expressed deep reservations about an over-reliance on market forces and the market’s inhuman and inhumane tendencies.
Bishop Aquila likewise endorses Ryan’s persistent suggestion that the U.S. is lurching toward Greece and Spain unless something is done immediately about the federal budget deficit. It is fair to wonder if the Archbishop Aquila were as concerned with paternally living within our means when the nation first dug deeply into the hole with overspending on defense by Reagan, Bush the elder and Bush the younger. He writes: “Paul Ryan is concerned that America will soon be bankrupt, and so we must make hard choices. If he is right, and we ignore the message because the consequences seem compassionless, our sentimental affections may cripple the ones our Lord loves the most—our children.”
Of course many have pointed out that Ryan is, in fact, not right about the state of the U.S. fiscal crisis, that wholesale social service cuts are not only unwarranted but counterproductive and that in fact the best course of action in the short term is to get the economy moving again with more federal stimulus to avoid the austerity/recession trap now being experienced by Greece, Spain and Great Britain. Ryan's plans, which bishops Aquila and Morlino pretend they lack the expertise to judge themselves, offer even more generous tax cuts for the rich and more bloating for the defense budget in the belief that upper class indulgence will somehow revive the economy (haven’t we been doing that for decades as the middle class continued to languish?)
But beyond the likelihood of Ryan’s proposals simply not working as he imagines they will is the troubling spectacle of Catholic bishops even entertaining the idea that a tough-love cutting off of the poor was the “best thing” for them, that in fact the United States did not suffer from a lack of solidarity and compassion but from an overindulgence in it. That perspective is wrong on the facts, just compare the level of U.S. social supports and outcomes with virtually any O.E.C.D. peer, and surely represents some kind of a failure in a Christian imagination, which might dictate running the risk of overindulging the vulnerable during periods of deep economic uncertainty. Surely, as the U.S.C.C.B. and Catholic teaching persistently have pointed out, their cry for assistance should be attended to with a tenderness at least as deeply felt and expressed as that reserved for defense contractors, tax accountants or Wall Street lobbyists.