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Candidate Paul Ryan: Is he a bad Catholic?

August 14, 2012|By Michael McGough
  • Rep. Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) waves to supporters at a campaign rally in Lakewood, Colo., on Tuesday.
Rep. Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) waves to supporters at a campaign rally in Lakewood,… (Jack Dempsey / Associated…)

Forget about whether he should be elected vice president. Should Rep. Paul D. Ryan be excommunicated?

I have been perusing blogs and comments thereon that suggest the prospective Republican veep candidate is not only a bad man but also a bad Catholic.  It’s the latest installment of a tiresome debate between liberal and conservative Catholics about which faction’s favored politicians are truer to the teachings of Mother Church.

As columnist Michael Sean Winters points out, Ryan’s claim that his political philosophy is conversant with Roman Catholic social teaching is hard to swallow. Winters nicely deconstructs, in both senses of the word, Ryan’s assertion that his opposition to federal social spending reflects the Catholic doctrine of “subsidiarity” -- the notion that issues should be resolved “at the level of social organization closest to the individual.” Problem is, Winters writes, Ryan is not advocating innovative anti-poverty programs at the local level.

PHOTOS: Paul Ryan's past

Touche, but does that make Ryan a worse Catholic than politicians who favor abortions rights like Rep. Nancy Pelosi and Secretary of Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, whose appearance at a graduation-related event at Georgetown University incurred the anathema of the archbishop of Washington? Some liberal Catholics would say yes; most conservative Catholics would say no.

Who’s right? If you accept the proposition that the hierarchy is the determinative source of Catholic teaching -- and a lot of liberal Catholics prefer (sometimes) to locate that authority in the sensus fidelim of the laity -- the conservatives have the better of the argument. Much as they may support universal health coverage or oppose the death penalty, the bishops and the Vatican place more emphasis on abortion and, recently, on same-sex marriage.  Whether those priorities are faithful to Catholic tradition, let alone the teachings of Jesus recorded in the Gospels, is another question.  

Catholic liberals are of two minds about whether dissenters from church teaching should be censured. Where some subjects are concerned, they favor a more congregational and dissent-friendly concept of church authority. But when conservative Catholics take issue with episcopal pronouncements on poverty or economics, their liberal brethren can’t resist the temptation to accuse the conservatives of being disloyal -- or at least “cafeteria” -- Catholics. To which the conservatives reply, essentially: “I know you are, but what am I?”

COMMENTARY AND ANALYSIS: Presidential Election 2012

It’s not only a tiresome debate; it’s a distraction from what should be an ecumenical conversation about the wisdom and morality of the policies of the two parties.

Is Ryan a bad Catholic?  There are more important questions in this election.

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