Paul Ryan in the Catholic Weeds

By Jeffrey Weiss

So two weeks ago, I offered religion-themed questions I'd ask Mitt Romney about governance. And last week, I showed how President Obama has nibbled substantially around the same sorts of questions.

This week, let's look at a political official who has straightforwardly explained how his understanding of his faith has informed his governance. And we'll see what happens when a politician gets his theology wrong.

The official is U.S. Rep Paul Ryan, primary author of the budget plan offered by the Republicans in the House of Representatives. In an interview with David Brody of the Christian Broadcasting Network, he explained how his Catholic faith informed his policy choices. Herewith a few key nuggets:

"A person's faith is central to how they conduct themselves in public and in private. So to me, using my Catholic faith, we call it the social magisterium, which is how do you apply the doctrine of your teaching into your everyday life as a lay person?"

Which is clear enough. How about an example?

"To me, the principle of subsidiarity, which is really federalism, meaning government closest to the people governs best, having a civil society of the principal of solidarity 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. By not having big government crowd out civic society, but by having enough space in our communities so that we can interact with each other, and take care of people who are down and out in our communities."

So his proposed budget, with its deep cuts to social service programs, is simply a reading of how Catholicism would limit the role of the federal government.

I'm guessing most of us are not so familiar with the idea of subsidiarity. Shall we dig?

The Catholic catechism provides the definitive definition of "subsidiarity" for this context: "A community of a higher order should not interfere in the internal life of a community of a lower order, depriving the latter of its functions, but rather should support it in case of need and help to coordinate its activity with the activities of the rest of society, always with a view to the common good."

Let's drill down one level further, to the official Vatican "Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church: Chapter Four." Which helpfully explains the root meaning of the word while offering guidance as to its application:

"On the basis of this principle, all societies of a superior order must adopt attitudes of help (‘subsidium') -- therefore of support, promotion, development -- with respect to lower-order societies."

The document offers a small list of examples of when support from the state may be necessary: stimulating the economy, redressing issues of social imbalance or injustice, and the creation of conditions of greater equality, justice and peace. But always with the admonition that the higher-level support go on no longer than is needed for the common good.

But defining "common good," "need" and "coordinate" are left as an exercise for the faithful.

So was Ryan right to wrap his policy choices, metaphorically speaking, in the Shroud of Turin? Apparently not. And that's not my evaluation.

Ryan's problem is his choice of faith traditions. Were he Baptist, Jewish, Muslim, or one of many other flavors of faith, he would have found plenty of room for dispute as to who has the accurate reading on God's will. Catholicism, however, is a lot more hierarchical. The Pope has the absolute final say, with Vatican officials speaking in his name as the next level. And then there are bishops.

As it was explained last week in a Vatican slap-down to American nuns who, among other offenses, were seen to be insufficiently enthusiastic in their opposition to abortion, gay marriage, and the U.S. health care reform law: "...the Bishops...are the Church's authentic teachers of faith and Morals..."

In America, that means the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. Which responded to Ryan's claims with a resounding "not so much." While the USCCB didn't mention Ryan by name, it did release a critique of parts of his namesake budget plan.

A couple of the bishops, chairmen of the relevant USCCB committees, sent out letters last week. They measured the Ryan budget against their by-definition authoritative understanding of Catholic teaching. Here's a nugget from the official news release:

"In April 16 and April 17 letters to the House Agriculture Committee and the House Ways and Means Committee addressing cuts required by the budget resolution, Bishop Blaire said 'The House-passed budget resolution fails to meet these moral criteria.'"

Ryan responded on FOX News: "These are not all the Catholic bishops, and we just respectfully disagree."

To which the bishops responded through a spokesman: "Bishops who chair USCCB committees are elected by their fellow bishops to represent all of the U.S. bishops on key issues at the national level. The letters on the budget were written by bishops serving in this capacity."

Are the bishops actually right, in some absolute sense? Is Ryan actually wrong? It's a lot like asking if an umpire called a third strike properly. We can argue up and down for years, but the batter is still going to be out. For Catholicism, each bishop is the designated umpire for his diocese -- subject only to correction from Rome.

That's not to say that Catholics aren't allowed to disagree with their bishops. Consider the death penalty, which the Vatican and American bishops are pretty unified in opposing it almost all cases. Some U.S. politicians whose Catholic bona fides are high on their resume disagree. What they don't claim, however, is that their own position represents unambiguously authentic Catholic thinking.

The other potential mud in the water is that a USCCB statement is not binding on any bishop. A bishop answers only to the Pope, and his authority within his diocese cannot be disputed by any other bishop or organization. But unless a bishop publicly disagrees with a USCCB statement, which happens betimes, it is considered representative of the position of American bishops.

Ryan can disagree with the ruling. He can even appeal it. But unless he gets the equivalent of an override by the first base umpire from his own bishop or from Rome, that swing, theologically speaking, is a strike.

Which surely means that, as a famously faithful Catholic, Ryan will stop claiming his budget is clearly in accord with the teachings of his faith, right? Anybody want to take that bet?

Look, I'm not suggesting that a politician not use his or her faith to help inform ideas of governance. Religion is a wellspring of all kinds of human inspiration. To deny its appropriateness here would be to deny something that seems essential to the nature of many people.

And I'm not even suggesting that a politician can't be theologically specific about his understanding of the demands of his faith, as Ryan is trying to be. In fact, I applaud that, if it truly helps explain his decision-making process.

But theologians risk stepping into cow patties when they wander deeply into politics. And politicians run the same risk when they head off too far into the theological weeds. The two realms often represent, shall we say, different magisteria.

Jeffrey Weiss is a RealClearReligion columnist from Dallas, Texas. Follow him on Twitter @JeffreyWeissRCR.

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