09/13/2012 08:42 am ET Updated Nov 13, 2012

Ryan vs. Ryan

Paul Ryan, meet John Ryan.

I imagine the two of you could have quite a conversation.

You are both Irish Catholics from the Midwest. You both rose to prominence in your late 30s and early 40s. You both care a lot about how to integrate your understanding of the Gospel with the economic realities of your time. You both have drawn some wisdom from a controversial author who achieved fame before you.

Having that conversation would be a challenge, since you are separated by a hundred years or so. But the conversation would really get to the heart of the differences between your narrow interpretation of Catholic teachings on social justice and the very deep and rich traditions of both Catholic and Protestant thinking on what Christianity has to say about the needs of our time.

Who was this John Ryan fellow that I'd like you to meet?

He was a Catholic priest who grew up a little bit south of Minneapolis. He was ordained a priest in 1898 and moved to Washington D.C. that same year to study at Catholic University. He had already been deeply influenced by the writings of Pope Leo XIII on the role both church and state have in protecting the rights of workers.

This was at a time of huge transformation in the American economy. The industrial revolution had drawn people to cities. Waves of immigrants had come from Europe. Former slaves were migrating in search of work. And working conditions in many places were terrible, wages were often tiny, children were working in factories.

Msgr. Ryan was writing about the value of labor unions, about the morality of risky financial transactions and the need to regulate them, about the need for a minimum wage for workers.

As Catherine Woodiwiss and Alexandra Scheeler wrote in an essay earlier this summer for the Center for American Progress, Msgr. Ryan "would be shocked at the religious and moral justifications being used to undermine the very causes to which he devoted his academic, spiritual, and political life."

Paul Ryan, you have said in the past how your views were shaped by Ayn Rand, the writer who articulated a philosophy of self-interest. She is surely a controversial figure on the American scene, but then so was one of the people who influenced Msgr. Ryan.

Richard Ely was an economics professor at the University of Wisconsin during the 1890s and early 1900s. After state schools superintendent for Wisconsin denounced him as a socialist, the UW Board of Regents investigated and ultimately issued a vindication of Ely that became one of the touchstones of academic life -- that a university should be "ever encouraging that continual and fearless sifting and winnowing by which alone the truth can be found."

But Ely was more than a controversial economist who helped provide the intellectual underpinnings for the progressive movement in this country. He was one of the Protestant voices that helped shape what became known as the "Social Gospel" movement that sought to apply the teachings of Jesus to the social problems of the era -- problems like exploitation of workers, child labor, unregulated speculation and racial prejudice.

While the best-known advocate of the Social Gospel movement was Walter Rauschenbush, a Baptist pastor, Ely was an Episcopalian layman. Msgr. Ryan added a distinctly Catholic voice to the mix in this pre-ecumenical era. He recognized the convergence of ideas to create a theological framework for social justice.

Eventually, Msgr. Ryan became head of the Social Action Department of the National Catholic Welfare Conference, the agency of the American Catholic bishops that addressed public policy. He was the principal author of the Bishops' Program of Social Reconstruction in 1919 that was one of the influences on Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal.

Ah, the New Deal. I can see where you might find these links a bit troublesome, Rep. Ryan. You are not a big fan of all this government action to regulate the moneyed interests and to give a boost to those on the margins of society.

You have drawn on your own interpretations of Catholic teaching that puts a premium on local, non-governmental help to the poor. You have won some support from your own bishop, Robert Morlino of Madison, who wrote in his own column in August that Ryan "is aware of Catholic social teaching an is very careful to fashion and form his conclusions in accord" with the Catholic principles that Morlino had enumerated. (Morlino was careful to say that he was not endorsing Ryan in the election.)

And you surely smiled when you read what Bishop Morlino said to the Wisconsin State Journal last week: "If people begin to look to government for everything, that's how we get toward a state-imposed socialism."

But the spirit of that other Ryan -- Msgr. Ryan -- surely shown through in the statements today's American bishops put out last spring when your budget plan was coming to a vote in the House. They said your budget plan that the House adopted failed to meet the moral criteria of keeping a circle of protection around the poor.

I know, I know, you won't really get a chance to have this conversation with Msgr. Ryan. But we might hear some echoes of it when you debate your fellow Catholic, Vice President Joe Biden, on Oct. 11. The questions that day may not be framed in terms of Catholic social justice teaching, but I'll bet you'll hear a bit of Msgr. Ryan's voice coming through when Biden talks about the role of government.

It's too bad you and your namesake never had a chance to meet. The philosophy you have adopted would have sounded very familiar to him. It was one he rejected. He and his colleagues in the Social Gospel movement could have provided some powerful antidotes to the self-interest of Ayn Rand and your selective reading of a century of Catholic theology.

It would have been a delightful conversation to overhear.

Phil Haslanger is pastor at Memorial United Church of Christ in Fitchburg, Wis., just outside of Madison, and is a columnist for The Capital Times in Madison.