08/14/2012 09:52 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Is Paul Ryan Romney's New Religion Problem? (Part I of III)

Does selecting Paul Ryan help or hurt Romney's chances with the highly important Catholic voter?

While Catholics do not vote as a bloc, for their economic distribution alone ranges from wealthy professionals and business executives to the far more modest earnings, especially in the west and southwest, of many recently admitted Hispanic families, the candidate who has merited a majority of Catholic voters over the last eight presidential contests has won the White House -- except. of course for Al Gore -- who won the popular vote, but not the electoral -- so he got to do TED talks instead.

Ryan's likeable, Midwestern, Catholic upbringing was surely a plus in the Romney strategy -- except now it turns out young Paul has long been paying homage at Mammon's altar in a manner highly incompatible with the teaching of Catholic Social Justice. Some of this is old news, as it was aired before when the bishops cautioned Congress about Ryan's budgetary plan to slash Medicare and Medicaid as well as privatize social security. This no doubt endears Ryan to the Tea Party folks who would have all that -- and the repeal of the health reform -- done before breakfast on Inauguration Day, but it is hardly a transcript of Christ's invitation to the rich young man to sell all his possessions and follow Him.

Ryan's rather extreme social re-ordering in his budget proposals, generally working against the poor for whom Catholics proclaim a preferential option, turns out to be traceable to the Congressman's affinity for a philosophy so starkly at odds with Catholic belief that the person Ryan proclaimed to have premised his life and governing philosophy upon -- Ayn Rand -- refers to the poor as "parasites" and "moochers." This, of course, is not in the Congressman's more polite demeanor, but his ideological pledge as recently as 2005 is squarely more in keeping with Rand rather than Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI). Ryan stated:

I grew up on Ayn Rand, that's what I tell people. You know everybody does their soul-searching, and trying to find out who they are and what they believe, and you learn about yourself. I grew up reading Ayn Rand and it taught me quite a bit about who I am and what my value systems are, and what my beliefs are. It's inspired me so much that it's required reading in my office for all my interns and my staff. We start with Atlas Shrugged. People tell me I need to start with The Fountainhead then go to Atlas Shrugged [laughter]. There's a big debate about that. We go to Fountainhead, but then we move on, and we require Mises and Hayek as well.

This is more than problematic. The Romney campaign struggles with religious issues in complex and awkward ways. In 2008 before I became convinced, as I remain today, that Barack Obama has a genuine grasp of the economic and political reforms necessary to return us to at least a semblance of representative democracy as well as a vital understanding of inter-faith sensitivities here and abroad, I urged Romney 2008 as its constitutional adviser to speak openly of his faith to both humanize his management demeanor as well as to answer the members of his own party that sought to use his faith as a wedge issue to defeat him. Those in league with McCain and Huckabee managed to do just that, even as Governor Romney articulated his faith compatibly and confidently with principles of religious freedom with remarks delivered at Texas A & M that substantively, but not in eloquence, eclipsed JFK's more ambivalent 1960 remarks on Catholicism to Houston Protestants. In the picture below, I am passing on some of this wisdom, but the photo also reveals another hidden problem if Romney somehow prevails in 2012 -- his height. Few people realize how gigantic Romney is making literally everyone of normal stature in a potential Romney cabinet a Robert Reich look-alike. It's lucky Reich wouldn't be caught dead in a Romney administration, since he might well suffer the fate of the cast of Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, which I suspect plays in a loop on the Romney campaign plane.


But I digress. Is Paul Ryan's apostasy a Catholic problem?

Maybe. The new Catholic leadership tends more toward the "seamless garment" side of Catholicism -- that is, a view made well known by the late, very beloved Cardinal Bernardin of Chicago that the Church see its pro-life mission as one seamless piece from its long-standing objection to abortion to its equal opposition to the death penalty, the insanity and inhumanity of war (Iraq and Afghanistan included) to those social and economic conditions that keep the poor systematically under foot. Many of us in the 2008 Obama campaign were delighted when President Obama praised the seamless life ethic of Cardinal Bernardin when he received an honorary degree at the University of Notre Dame in 2009. Of course, conservative Catholic bloggers who worked overtime to punish Notre Dame for its open-minded defense of the faith were distressed to say the least. but for Catholics who work hard to remove the hypocrisy of situational ethics, as well as the hidden face of Republican Faith Partisans from aspects of Church pronouncement, the logic of the seamless ethic is demanding, but unassailable.

Ryan's philosophical commitments will have a chilly reception by this measure and rightly so.
Tomorrow we will take a closer look at how, if at all, Congressman Ryan has sought to reconcile his Catholic faith with his startlingly different and somewhat extreme economic views which while not calling the poor parasitic, tends to treat those at the margins as if they were. Following that, in yet a third column, a closer look at how the Ryan economic philosophy is ideally suited to render the government of the United States both domestically small, but unfortunately, internationally insignificant as well.