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The Paul Ryan Catholic Dilemma

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Last April, the US Catholic Bishops sent a blistering message to the House Ways and Means Committee saying that any federal budget must be judged by the way it protects the 'least of these.' In Bishop Blaire's words: "The House-passed budget resolution fails to meet these moral criteria."

The architect of the budget the Bishops deemed immoral was Rep. Paul Ryan, a Catholic, who has now joined Mitt Romney as his running mate on the GOP ticket.

Much has already been said about how Gov. Romney's choice of Rep. Ryan will turn the presidential election into a substantive debate on policy. But the choice will also provide Catholic voters with a choice in the November election that will serve to highlight internal tensions and conflicting priorities.

The Catholic Church is already under immense stress. Just Friday (August 11), the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR), which represents most Catholic nuns in America, formally rejected the Vatican takeover of their organization and its accompanying Bishop overseers.

These nuns have been accused of emphasizing work with the poor and not focusing enough on issues such as abortion and gay marriage. Some of them participated in the media-friendly Nuns On A Bus tour, during which they traveled to nine states protesting the budget proposal of Rep. Paul Ryan. Sister Simone Campbell was quoted as saying that Ryan's budget "rejects church teaching about solidarity, inequality, the choice for the poor, and the common good. That's wrong."

Their months-long critique of Rep. Ryan's budget is unlikely to lessen in the coming months.

Another show of Catholic concern with Rep. Ryan came when he was invited to speak at the Jesuit affiliated Georgetown University. Before he arrived, Ryan was sent a letter signed by more than 90 faculty, including over a dozen Jesuit priests. In the letter, the vice presidential candidate was again taken to task by Catholics: "Your budget appears to reflect the values of your favorite philosopher, Ayn Rand, rather than the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Her call to selfishness and her antagonism toward religion are antithetical to the Gospel values of compassion and love."

So, on the one hand you have a rare show of Catholic unity in condemning what is considered Paul Ryan's major asset to the Romney campaign -- namely his radical fiscal conservatism.

However, Rep. Ryan is certainly in line with the Catholic Bishops on questions of religious freedom (as understood as exemption from the contraception mandate), gay marriage and abortion. And these three, especially abortion, will rally many 'pro-life' Catholics to the Romney/Ryan ticket.

Interestingly, the match-up between Obama/Biden vs. Romney/Ryan offers a good illustration of the tension within the church. Both the current vice president and the recent addition to the Republican ticket are Catholics from heavily Catholic states.

Yet they represent opposing views on virtually every issue.

Much is made about the Catholic vote. According to the Pew Study, in the 2000 election, Catholics preferred Gore to Bush; in 2004 they preferred Bush to Catholic candidate John Kerry; and in 2008 Catholics preferred Obama to McCain 54 percent to 45 percent.

This year, Catholics will have a clear choice, as will all Americans, but how this disperate group will vote is unclear.

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