Paul Ryan Taking on (Holy) Water

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The reaction I am most awaiting to Mitt Romney's selection of Paul Ryan as his running mate hasn't come in yet:

What say you, United States Conference of Catholic Bishops?

I know that the bishops aren't exactly in the candidate-endorsing business. But Romney's selection of Ryan puts the national body in an interesting and difficult position. Ryan is a guy who has specifically tried to link his major policy initiatives to his understanding of his Catholic faith. And in some serious detail.

In some narrow cases, like Ryan's unwavering opposition to abortion, there's zero space between his position and the unambiguous official Catholic stance. But on his broadest policy idea -- a dramatic restructuring of the federal budget -- there's already been a powerful set of broadsides. Leaving Ryan taking on water.

And if Romney wants to describe Ryan on the campaign trail as a "faithful Catholic," the bishops might feel theologically obligated to disagree.

If you've forgotten the exchange from the distant political past of about five months ago, here's the recap:

Ryan released his ideas for how the federal budget should be transformed, including major shifts in social services spending and the way that Medicare operates. He went on with David Brody of the Christian Broadcasting Network to explain in some detail how his ideas comport with Catholic teachings:

"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?"

He explained his budget ideas using what is a pretty technical term from Catholic social teaching: "Subsidiarity," which Ryan said was equivalent to federalism. That is, the most local level of governance is the best to handle problems. As Ryan explained it:

"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."

But the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, speaking through the leadership of its Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development, responded with unusual directness to the budget Ryan proposed. The budget, the committee leaders said, was not in accord with Catholic teachings.

"The Catholic way is to recognize the essential role and the complementary responsibilities of families, communities, the market, and government to work together to overcome poverty and advance human dignity."

And "a central moral measure of any budget proposal is how it affects 'the least of these' (Matthew 25). The needs of those who are hungry and homeless, without work or in poverty should come first."

And "a just spending bill cannot rely on disproportionate cuts in essential services to poor and vulnerable persons."

Ryan's response back then was that "These are not all the Catholic bishops, and we just respectfully disagree."

The bishops fired back by explaining that "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."

So here is the rock and the hard place that both Ryan and the bishops are both squeezed between:

Ryan has set himself up as a distinctively Catholic candidate who is making a major effort to ensure that his policy decisions are in accord with the will of the Almighty as explained by the teachings of his Church. That's a high bar to set and, to Ryan's credit, he has not shrunk away from answering specific questions about how he sees that happening.

(Perhaps he should suggest to the fellow at the top of the ticket that it might be a good idea for Romney to do likewise and explain how his faith informs his governance. If he'd like some suggestions for questions to answer, I can toss out some possibilities.)

But a "faithful Catholic" is also supposed to follow the guidance of the Bishops. In the Catholic hierarchy, unless the Pope or the Vatican speaking in the Pope's name has weighed in, the Bishops are the designated authentic explainers of the official line.

If Ryan had remained just one of a bunch of conservative legislators, the Bishops might well have been happy to let their statements stand for a while. But as the putative GOP vice presidential candidate, Ryan's positions will get much more attention and will hold, at least for the next few months, much much more influence in the Republican party.

So if Ryan claims to be speaking in the name of his Church and the Bishops continue to have sharp and specific disagreements with much of what Ryan is saying, aren't the Bishops morally and theologically obligated to shoot Ryan down again? And with greater specificity?

But would that force the Bishops to get far more involved in partisan politics that most of their members have any interest in doing?

This is why I eagerly await their reaction.

And not that anybody needs my opinion, but I predict that Ryan will be to Romney as Palin was to McCain in this one regard: I think he will turn off enough of the relatively few swing voters in swing states that he'll turn out to have been a net negative for the ticket. Even as Palin proved to be a net negative for her ticket.

Yes, Ryan will energize the base. And I'm not addressing whether or not he's correct in any absolute sense on any issue. I'm just predicting that he'll end up pushing enough votes away so that it will show up on the electoral map where the margins are close.

The best and worst thing about making such a specific prediction is that there will be this test in November where I'll either be right or wrong. I'll be glad to bet anybody a virtual root beer on the outcome.

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