08/20/2012 02:37 pm ET Updated Oct 20, 2012

A Mormon-Catholic Ticket?

The presumptive Republican vice-presidential candidate Paul Ryan has been taking heat from Catholic groups, including dozens of nuns, priests and theologians, who issued a statement denouncing his budget proposal as "morally indefensible."

"A budget that turns its back on the hungry, the elderly and the sick while giving more tax breaks to the wealthiest few," they wrote, "can't be justified in Christian terms."

A related question is whether the Republican ticket's libertarian-leaning political philosophy can be justified in Christian terms. Certainly the anti-state, millionaire-friendly policies proposed by Romney and Ryan play fast and loose with the social ethics and economic prescriptions of their own churches.

As Mark Twain quipped, history does not repeat itself, but it rhymes. In their articulation of the ideal society, or "Zion" in Mormon parlance, Joseph Smith and Brigham Young included a strong element of wealth redistribution. An 1831 revelation to Smith, known as the "Law of the Church," commands that "thou wilt remember the poor, and consecrate of thy properties for their support." The entire senior leadership of the LDS Church, with Young at the helm, issued an "Apostolic Circular on the Economy" in 1875 that connected political liberty with the equal distribution of wealth and roundly condemned the "wonderful growth of wealth in the hands of a comparatively few individuals." The solution, the church leaders proposed, was an economy built not on individual interest but on cooperative effort.

A few years later, in his 1891 encyclical Rerum Novarum, Pope Leo XIII found both socialism and unbridled capitalism morally bankrupt. While defending the right to own private property, he denounced the concentration of wealth in the hands of a tiny minority. Rulers of the state, the pope proclaimed, should pass laws "to realize public well-being and private prosperity," but always with the "deeper consideration" that the interests of the wealthy do not outstrip the rights of the working classes. The primary economic consideration of governments is to create policies that are just "toward each and every class alike."

The updated version of this teaching is found in the Catechism of the Catholic Church promulgated under the late Pope John Paul II. This authoritative guide for all Catholics sets its starkest warning about abandoning the poor to unregulated capitalism under the subheading "Intentional Homicide": "Those whose usurious and avaricious dealings lead to the hunger and death of their brethren in the human family indirectly commit homicide, which is imputable to them" (para. 2269).

In defending his fiscal policies Congressman Ryan likes to pepper his prose with buzzwords such as "subsidiarity" and "solidarity." But that tactic won't succeed with millions of Catholics who recognize the difference between the Church's "preferential option for the poor" -- another phrase Ryan likes to toss around -- and his Tea Party-friendly plan that balances the budget on their backs.

As for the Republican candidates' views on the proper role of the federal government, there is more room for honest disagreement within Mormon and within Catholic ranks. But historically and still today these churches acknowledge a significant role for the state in managing the economy. Theologically, they accept that good government is ordained by God, and encourage their members to be civically engaged and even to run for political office. And both the Latter-day Saints and Roman Catholics have acknowledged the need for state intervention "for the common good," especially during times when the poor and working classes are particularly vulnerable.

The Roman Catholic Church is unequivocal on this point. According to the official Compendium of Catholic social doctrine, "The responsibility for attaining the common good, besides falling to individual persons, belongs also to the State, since the common good is the reason the political authority exists." As Ryan notes, Catholic teaching calls for the unceasing voluntary efforts of civil society and for the government not to interfere unnecessarily in these efforts. However, the Compendium also adds this dose of realism: "The individual person, the family or intermediate groups are not able to achieve their full development by themselves for living a truly human life" [para. 168].

Nineteenth-century Catholic and Mormon leaders initially pointed to the church rather than the government as the primary vehicle of social welfare. But the complexity of modern economies, including the injustices perpetrated under unregulated capitalism and the devastation of multiple worldwide economic depressions, led both churches to recognize the essential role of the state in creating and maintaining a broad safety net for the poor.

Mormons designed their welfare system as an ideological competitor to the New Deal "dole," but their robust commitment to "take care of their own" is only truly feasible in the context of a comprehensive safety net provided by the state. As a Mormon bishop, Mitt Romney would have encouraged any unemployed and financially struggling congregants to qualify for whatever government aid was available. He would have extolled the Mormon system for emphasizing work and accountability rather than handouts, but he also knew that when he cut someone off from church assistance, the government would take care of their basic needs.

Ryan deserves credit for articulating the connections between his religious convictions and his political philosophy -- a direct engagement of "the religious question" that Governor Romney has assiduously avoided. Perhaps the Congressman's attempt, however flawed, will spark a desperately needed national discussion of how our deepest values--not least those derived from our religious traditions -- should shape our fundamental economic as well as social policies.

R. Scott Appleby is the John M. Regan, Jr. Director of the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies and Professor of History at the University of Notre Dame. Patrick Q. Mason is the Howard W. Hunter Chair of Mormon Studies and associate professor of religion at Claremont Graduate University.