Paul Ryan's Holy War on Poverty

Paul Ryan's Holy War on Poverty
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Paul Ryan doesn't yet know if he is going to run for President, but his latest policy proposal looks like something he can campaign on.

"I realized we have an economy of exclusion not participation," the Wisconsin congressman told me from Capitol Hill last week. And since "it's clear that we're not going to get the debt crisis solved with this President," Mr. Ryan drew up perhaps the most serious anti-poverty plan put forward by a Republican.

But Ryan says this plan isn't just another white paper. It's a divine directive.

"This is what Pope Francis is asking the laity to do: get involved in helping the needy and help build a participatory economy." You won't find that in the media's dossier on Francis, however. "If you read past the headlines and read what he actually says or writes, he's encouraging us to have an economy of inclusion." The "refreshing" new pontiff inspires Ryan to "remove the barriers and have a true free market economy."

Conservatives, he says, "can do a better job of describing how our founding principles, which are in perfect keeping with Catholic social teaching, can make a difference in everybody's life -- especially the disaffected and the displaced." Some Catholic prelates say Ryan's policy schemes aren't so "perfect."

When the congressman submitted a budget in 2012, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops declared, "a just spending bill cannot rely on disproportionate cuts in essential services to poor and vulnerable persons." The bishops' so-called "just solutions" to the budget crisis included "raising adequate revenues" and cutting "unnecessary" military spending.

But bishops may not have the final say. "Catholic social teaching is a wonderful mosaic of principles and teachings that help lay Catholics, like myself, exercise prudential judgment in my application of these principles and my beliefs in my daily life." The budget, Ryan wrote to Cardinal Timothy Dolan in 2011, is a "subject of prudence about which there is a legitimate diversity of choice and judgment."

One of the casualties of the loss of diversity in the church, Ryan laments, is the long-held Catholic social principle of subsidiarity. Like federalism, subsidiarity instructs the faithful to first handle social problems at the most local level. This is not how the federal government has operated when it comes to poverty, Ryan argues. "The war on poverty has basically told the average taxpayer: this is the government's responsibility; pay your taxes and we'll take care of it."

As Ryan details in his "Expanding Opportunity in America" plan and his new book The Way Forward: Renewing the American Idea, anti-poverty reforms must "promote a culture of inclusiveness, customize aid to a person's need and tie personal responsibility with it, and revitalize subsidiarty, which is to get local groups reengaged in their communities in helping fight poverty."

This doesn't mean the Catholic congressman worships at the altar of noted objectivist and atheist Ayn Rand, as some "urban legends" suggest. "I enjoyed her novels when I was young and she was one person who triggered an interest in economics," and that's it, Ryan says. To wit, Ryan calls crony capitalism a "scourge" and emphasizes that the GOP be "pro-market, not just pro-business."

Ryan doesn't like to look back, but he does regret not having been able to make this a key component of Mitt Romney's failed run for the White House. "I wanted to do more on poverty in the 2012 campaign, but when you come in the fourth quarter to try and change the playbook, it's a little hard to do."

Even though the congressman has put off his own Presidential decision "until 2015," he's already got one supporter. Ryan's bishop, Robert Morlino of Madison, told me in December 2013 that Ryan is "is the one of the best at carrying out lay mission as a Catholic politician." That may be just the blessing Paul Ryan needs.

Nicholas G. Hahn III is the editor of RealClearReligion. Follow him on Twitter @NGHahn3.

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