Mitt Romney's decision to include Catholic congressman Paul Ryan on the Republican ticket presents a challenge for the U.S. Catholic bishops. And, equally importantly, it has the potential to open up a new "religion problem" for the Romney campaign among rank-and-file Catholics. At the heart of this tension is Ryan's signature budget proposal, driven by a vision of economic austerity and small government, which aims to dramatically cut government spending and reshape the tax code.
Prior to the Ryan pick, the Romney campaign enjoyed a largely supportive relationship with the Catholic bishops. This was most prominently illustrated by the Bishops' "Fortnight of Freedom" campaign, which attacked Obama's health care plan as an infringement of religious liberty. The Romney campaign followed their lead with a hard-hitting ad that featured images of Pope John Paul II and accused President Obama of waging "a war on religion."
But the Ryan pick may complicate this warm relationship. Earlier this year, the bishops sharply repudiated the Ryan budget plan's cuts to hunger and nutrition programs that aid poor and working-class Americans, calling the proposed cuts "unacceptable," "unjustified" and "wrong."
The essentials of the Ryan budget, particularly the deep cuts to programs that address the needs of the poor, are also at odds with Catholics overall. While a majority (60 percent) of Catholics agrees with Ryan that shrinking the deficit is a critical issue facing the nation, they disagree sharply with him on the correct approach to this goal. Central features of the Ryan budget include striking cuts to social welfare programs like Medicaid and Social Security. When American Catholics, however, are asked about measures that could help reduce the deficit, nearly two-thirds (65 percent) of Catholics oppose cutting federal funding for social programs that help the poor. More than 6-in-10 (62 percent) Catholics also agree that protecting Social Security is a critical issue facing the country.
Rather than cutting social welfare programs, Catholics overwhelmingly believe that the government should ask the rich to pay a greater share, a strategy that clearly conflicts with the Ryan plan, which calls for lower taxes on the wealthiest Americans. Nearly three-quarters of Catholics (73 percent) believe that, to shrink the deficit, the government should raise taxes on Americans making more than $1 million a year. A majority (55 percent) also agree that tax breaks for large corporations should be eliminated.
Most strikingly, rank-and-file Catholics embrace the idea -- rooted in over a century of Catholic social teaching -- that it is both appropriate and necessary for the government to play a central role in reducing economic inequality in America, an idea that presents a clear contrast with Ryan's core philosophy. Nearly 7-in-10 (69 percent) Catholics believe that the government should do more to reduce the gap between the rich and the poor.
While Ryan's budget plan and economic philosophy may appeal to the conservative base of the GOP, it will at best complicate the Romney campaign's outreach to both the Catholic bishops as well as the laity. It remains to be seen how both the bishops and the campaign will handle this tension. But among the majorities of Catholics who align more closely with a vision of the U.S. economy that prioritizes reducing economic inequality, the appeal of Ryan's Catholic background is likely to be canceled out by his budget's failure to account for the moral priorities that American Catholics believe should be part of our country's economic plan.