[This post was originally published at Faith in Public Life Action blog.]
It’s no secret that many bishops, including Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York, are incensed with the Obama administration over contraception coverage requirements under the Affordable Care Act. Bishops have missed few opportunities to blast the presidentas hostile to religious liberty – a meme that Mitt Romney has eagerly picked up on in a campaign ad that depicts President Obama as waging a “war on religion.”
But the selection of Rep. Paul Ryan – an intellectual darling of the conservative movement who embraces Catholic teaching to defend his policies – has complicated the Catholic narrative during these final months heading into the election.
In April, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops sent a flurry of letters to the House of Representatives criticizing Ryan’s GOP budget proposal for its “unacceptable cuts.” Bishop Stephen Blaire and Bishop Richard Pates, chairmen of the domestic justice and international justice and peace committees at the U.S bishops’ conference respectively, told Congress that “a just spending bill cannot rely on disproportionate cuts in essential services to poor and vulnerable persons.” The House budget proposal “fails to meet these moral criteria,” they wrote.
“Catholic bishops say GOP budget proposal fails moral test,” read a Religion News Service headline picked up in several national publications. Catholic theologians and justice leaders also weighed in with a strong critique of Ryan’s Tea Party-inspired ideology. When Ryan gave a major speech at Georgetown University, a letter from nearly 90 faculty and priests at the Jesuit university challenged Ryan for his continued “misuse of Catholic teaching” and said Ryan’s budget “appears to reflect the values of your favorite philosopher, Ayn Rand, rather than the Gospel of Jesus Christ.”
Since Mitt Romney tapped Ryan as his vice presidential pick there is renewed attention on Catholic voters. So what are bishops doing now that the stakes are raised, and the Catholic author of a budget blueprint they have denounced in unambiguous terms could be a heartbeat from the presidency? Three bishops, including the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, have essentially defended Ryan in glowing terms.
“A great public servant,” Cardinal Dolan gushed in the conservative National Review. Praising Ryan’s “solicitude for the poor,” the U.S. bishops’ president waxed eloquent about the lawmakers’ command of Aquinas and their intimate conversations over dinner. Cue the violin? Moderate and progressive Catholics who in recent years have worried that bishops are in danger of being perceived as the “Republican Party at Prayer” aren’t sure whether to chuckle or cry about Cardinal Dolan’s upcoming benediction at the Republican National Convention.
Bishop Robert Morlino, Ryan’s bishop in Wisconsin, defended him as a good Catholic family man victimized by those who have “unfairly attacked his reputation.” A strange response given that Ryan’s many Catholic critics are challenging his policy ideas, not taking gratuitous swipes at his character. Bishop Morlino also went on to offer some curious interpretations of Catholic teaching by enshrining the “right to private property” as among the “most fundamental issues for the formation of a Catholic conscience.” Is this the Donald Trump version of Catholic teaching?
According to the Vatican’s Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church:
Christian tradition has never recognized the right to private property as absolute and untouchable. On the contrary, it has always understood this right within the broader context of the right common to all to use the goods of the whole of creation: the right to private property is subordinated to the right to common use, to the fact that goods are meant for everyone… this principle is not opposed to the right to private poverty but indicates the right to regulate it.
Bishop Morlino also throws in a favorite right-wing scare word – socialism! – to a list of “intrinsic evils” that voters must confront. Who besides the most reactionary of ideologues on the right consider socialism a grave threat to our nation today? (For a more detailed theological critique of Bishop Morlino see David Cloutier’s piece at Catholic Moral Theology).
Plenty of Democrats and President Obama are surrounded by former Wall Street titans who now serve as economic advisors. Despite conservative demagoguery over the Affordable Care Act, the law provides a vast new market for insurance companies. One expects Rush Limbaugh to hyperventilate about the bogeyman of socialism, but Catholic bishops should not be wading into these paranoid waters.
Don’t forget this is the same bishop who caused a stir back in April when he defended a group of ultra-conservative priests facing criticism from parishioners by warning the critics that they riskedformal church censure unless they stopped spreading “rumors and gossip.”
Adding his voice to the Ryan fan club, Archbishop Aquila of Denver wrote that those who have corrected Ryan on the grounds of Catholic teaching are making claims that are “unfounded and unreasonable.” The archbishop went on to conclude:
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 compassion-less, our sentimental affections may cripple the ones our Lord loves the most — our children.
Funny, I don’t remember these dire warnings from bishops when debt ballooned under President George W. Bush as Iraq war spending rose.
In all of these cases, there is the obligatory reference that the bishops are not backing any candidate and would not dare engage in partisan politics. It seems that some bishops are either tone deaf to how their cheery defense of Ryan is interpreted by reporters and Catholic voters or their disgust with President Obama is so strong that they are comfortable making quasi-endorsements in this election. Either scenario is distressing.
It’s not unreasonable to ask if bishops will spend even half as much institutional energy educating Catholics about Ryan’s deeply un-Christian economic plans as they have on flogging the Obama administration over contraception coverage.
Letters to Capitol Hill are important, but most voters don’t read them. Unlike the two-week “Fortnight for Freedom” religious liberty campaign, launched with special Masses and great fanfare in dioceses across the country, I’ve seen little effort to amplify the bishops’ documented concerns about Ryan’s plans to slash government programs that protect the most vulnerable.
At the bishops last national meeting in June, they punted on a statement about the economy and poverty until after the election. Catholic bishops have used parish bulletin inserts and national postcard campaigns to warn about perceived threats to religious liberty and a supposed expansion of abortion rights in recent years. How about one bulletin insert to educate parishioners about economic proposals that are deeply hostile to Catholic teaching? There is nothing pro-life or Christian about Ryan’s plans to slash programs that help pregnant women, feed hungry children and protect the elderly.
The chasm between the U.S. bishops’ conference clear moral critique of the Ryan budget and the cozy embrace some bishops are now giving Ryan is not unexpected given the hierarchy’s conservative drift and increasing reluctance among some prelates to speak boldly on matters besides abortion, same-sex marriage and contraception. However, it does send mixed messages to Catholic voters.
In 2008, Bishop Joseph Martino of Scranton, PA (now retired) stormed into a civil conversation about the election that focused on the U.S. bishops’ Faithful Citizenship election year statement and thundered: “No USCCB document is relevant in this diocese. The USCCB doesn’t speak for me.” Bishop Martino issued his own election year statement focused on abortion.
The “prince-in-every diocese” nature of episcopal politics makes it challenging for bishops to always speak in consistent tones. But those bishops now offering a veneer of political cover to Paul Ryan – while helping to fuel a meta-narrative that President Obama is hostile to religious liberty – should think carefully about how they could be sacrificing the church’s moral credibility in public life on the altar of partisan politics.
John Gehring is Catholic program director at Faith in Public Life Action Fund.