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Cardinal Dolan’s Paul Ryan Problem

In the weeks since Mitt Romney selected Paul Ryan to be his running mate, there has been a lot of talk about whether Ryan will face problems with Catholic voters over the fact that church leaders have repeatedly criticized his budget for its extreme cuts to social programs and “fail[ure] to meet moral criteria.” But there has been very little discussion about the much bigger problem Ryan poses for the U.S. Catholic bishops themselves, especially the man who offered the benediction Thursday night after Romney’s acceptance speech—Cardinal Timothy Dolan.

Dolan is both the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and head of the Archdiocese of New York, a role sometimes referred to as “America’s Pope.” He came to his post in New York from Milwaukee, where he got to know Ryan, who is a Catholic and a Wisconsin congressman. On his radio program two weeks ago, Dolan talked about his friendship with Ryan:

"We go way back, Congressman Paul Ryan and I. I came to know and admire him immensely. And I would consider him a friend. He and his wife Janna and their three kids have been guests in my house; I’ve been a guest at their house. They’re remarkably upright, refreshing people. And he’s a great public servant." 

That admiring relationship must make it awkward for the Cardinal when Ryan does things like misrepresent Catholic social teaching or insist that health care is not a right but a privilege or refer to social programs that the bishops conference itself helps run as a “safety hammock.” After all, when a Catholic Democrat publicly dissents from church teaching or misrepresents it to a large audience, church leaders are quick to call out him or her for the transgression. 

In the last presidential campaign, for instance, the Catholic running mate on the Democratic ticket spoke on “Meet the Press” about church teaching regarding conception. Joe Biden said that he was “prepared as a matter of faith to accept that life begins at the moment of conception,” but that it would be “inappropriate in a pluralistic society” to impose that belief on others through law. In response, Bishop Robert Morlino of Madison—who happens to be Ryan’s bishop—devoted his homily to addressing the problem of people who “claim to be Catholic.” When someone has high-profile as Biden talked about his faith in ways that did not appropriately reflect church teaching, argued Morlino, it was confusing for other Catholics. “Prominent Catholics,” he said, “should not be violating the separation of church and state by teaching the wrong thing.” 

Morlino insisted that he was not singling out Democrats for criticism. “If Republican candidates were doing precisely that, I would speak out with exactly the same determination.” The Bishop of Madison was joined by Charles Chaput, then the Archbishop of Denver, who put out a statement saying that Catholic politicians in high-profile roles expose themselves to “legitimate scrutiny” when they talk about Catholic beliefs and teachings. “Meet the Press has become a national window on the flawed moral reasoning of some Catholic public servants,” said Chaput.

Four years later, have those church leaders taken Ryan to task for using Catholic social teaching to defend draconian cuts to social welfare programs? Hardly. These days, Morlino is busy protecting Ryan from those who have “unfairly attacked his reputation” by criticizing his enthusiasm for slashing social programs and foreign assistance. The current archbishop of Denver, Samuel Aquila, has written a defense of Ryan’s argument that the best way to help the poor is to reduce our national debt. “Paul Ryan is concerned that America will soon be bankrupt, and so we must make hard choices,” wrote Aquila two weeks ago. “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.”

Neither prelate addressed Ryan’s role in killing plans to address the debt problem or his record in voting for budget-busting measures during the Bush Administration that exploded the deficit.

Meanwhile, Dolan praises Ryan as a “great public servant” and praises his “solicitude for the poor.”That solicitude was not on display Wednesday night, when Ryan devoted just two sentences of his speech to the poor: “And the greatest of all responsibilities, is that of the strong to protect the weak. The truest measure of any society is how it treats those who cannot defend or care for themselves.” But wait! Even there, Ryan wasn’t talking about the poor—social conservatives use the language of "the strong protecting the weak" to refer to the unborn when talking about abortion. (See: George W. Bush and Sam Brownback)

Earlier this spring, Ryan explained in an interview with the Christian Broadcasting Network why he believes his budget plans do conform with Catholic social teaching, especially the principle known as the preferential option for the poor. “The preferential option for the poor, which is one of the primary tenants of Catholic social teaching,” said Ryan, “means don’t keep people poor, don’t make people dependent on government so that they stay stuck at their station in life, help people get out of poverty onto a life of independence.” That is a worthy goal, but not a definition of the preferential option, as nearly 90 Georgetown faculty members and priests wrote to remind Ryan after that interview. “We would be remiss in our duty to you and our students if we did not challenge your continuing misuse of Catholic teaching to defend a budget plan that decimates food programs for struggling families, radically weakens protections for the elderly and sick, and gives more tax breaks to the wealthiest few,” read the letter.

Even Dolan has made clear that he and Ryan disagree about this. On his radio program, Dolan reported that the two had a heated conversation about Ryan’s belief that entitlement programs only coddle the poor. In his convention speech, Ryan introduced a new topic of disagreement—the question of whether health care is a right or a privilege. Referring to the Obama health care plan as “an entitlement we didn’t even ask for,” Ryan firmly placed himself in the “privilege” camp. The Catholic church, however, has long considered guaranteed health care a universal right. As recently as 2010, Pope Benedict XVI wrote that it was one of the “inalienable rights” of man.

Finally, Ryan has recently broken with church teaching on abortion, telling reporters that he was“comfortable” with Romney’s position of allowing abortions in cases of rape and incest or if the life of the mother is at risk. No one could accuse Ryan of supporting abortion rights—he has a solid anti-abortion voting record and has cosponsored a so-called personhood bill in the House. But the church’s position holds that abortion is murder and that there are no exceptions for murder. Surely, Catholic leaders cannot be happy about Ryan claiming that he is “comfortable” with murder under the right circumstances.

Let me state here clearly that I don’t believe any politician should have to heed the orders of her religious leaders in her public role. But the Catholic church has spent much of the past three decades making clear to Catholic Democrats that if their voting records or public statements or policy proposals come into conflict with church teaching, then they no longer have the option of calling themselves Catholics. When I interviewed Rosa DeLauro for my book on Democrats and religion, she told me about going to see her archbishop when she first ran for Congress. At the time, she was a trustee for the Catholic high school she had attended, but the archbishop had threatened to decertify the school as a Catholic institution if she remained on the board. DeLauro met with the archbishop to ask him why. “Let me be perfectly clear,” she remembers him telling her. “You, Kennedy, Dodd, Moynihan—you are not welcome in the Church.”

It is not unreasonable to ask if Catholic bishops are playing favorites if they are content to sit back and let the GOP vice presidential nominee proudly call himself a Catholic and attempt to square his positions with church teaching while taking stands that are at odds with that teaching. Yes, the USCCB has written letters to Congress criticizing the Ryan budget. But Ryan has wrongly characterized those letters as representing the views of just a few bishops instead of the entire conference without being publicly corrected by church officials. And the vast majority of Catholics do not read the letters bishops send to Congress in any case.

Catholic parishioners cannot help but notice, however, when the church holds a two-week teach-in on religious liberty, or instructs every parish to preach on the threat to religious liberty posed by a certain current administration. Romney has happily signed onto that effort, accusing Obama of waging a “war on religion” and running a television ad with the same charge. At the beginning of Obama’s term, the Catholic church launched a campaign to urge Catholics in every parish to send postcards to the White House, telling the president not to sign abortion rights legislation that hadn’t even been introduced (and still hasn’t) in Congress. At the very least, the bishops could approve onemeasly bulletin insert educating their flock about Catholic teaching on the economy and poverty.

When the Vatican issued its report rebuking the group representing most U.S. nuns earlier this year, among the complaints was the accusation that the sisters spend all their time talking about social justice, to the exclusion of focusing on issues like abortion and gay marriage. In the unlikely event that the Vatican ever investigated the U.S. bishops, it would find that the church's most visible leaders doing the opposite. The bishops don't completely ignore social justice nor do the sisters ignore abortion. But they can only blame themselves if high-ranking Catholic Republicans ignore church teachings with impunity. 

As for Cardinal Dolan, he has found himself outplayed by the GOP this week. Convention organizers can't be faulted for breaking with the tradition of asking a local Catholic leader to pray and instead inviting Dolan--but the Cardinal would have been wise to send his regrets. He is helped by the fact that the Democrats have asked him to offer the benediction at their convention next week as well.

But if there was any question that Republicans hoped to use Dolan's presence to implicitly bless their peculiar way of caring for the poor, it was erased with John Boehner's introduction of Cardinal Dolan: "He's a man who knows that the preferential option for the poor doesn't translate into a preferential option for big government." Maybe not. But it is government grants to the tune of more than half a billion dollars that allow Catholic organizations to do their charitable work of helping the poor. It's a shame Dolan didn't go off script in his prayer to gently remind Boehner and Ryan of that fact.