In a town hall meeting hosted by CNN in Racine, Wisconsin last week, a Dominican nun got the chance to ask a question of Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (R-WI). On the heels of Ryan’s work to pass a measure that would have effectively ended the Affordable Care Act (ACA), the nun asked how Republicans’ apparent refusal to stand with the poor, “as evidenced in the recent debates about health care,” squares with his faith as a Catholic.
“So I’d like to ask you how you see yourself upholding the church’s social teaching that has the idea that God is always on the side of the poor and dispossessed, as should we be,” the nun continued.
Ryan’s response was a meandering soliloquy about bootstraps and how the welfare state creates dependents instead of empowering people to make the decisions that are best for their lives. To support his actions, he cited the Catholic social doctrine of the “preferential option for the poor,” a much-misunderstood theological tenet. According to Ryan’s theory, his work to gut medical options is engaging in this Catholic social principle, because it gives impoverished people in the United States choice and freedom about their taxes and care.
Part of Ryan’s struggle in representing and following Catholicism as a Randian conservative is that Catholicism’s social doctrine runs contrary to Ryan’s instincts as a politician. The doctrine of the preferential option for the poor is a relatively simple idea: In all that Catholics do, they must consider the effect their actions will have upon people in poverty.
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It is this social teaching that has formed the groundwork for anti-dictatorial, anti-racist, and feminist Catholic belief. Catholics traditionally interpret the preferential option, at the very least, as the need to take care of the impoverished, whether it be through personal charitable giving or by connecting them to resources. Catholic teaching also expects that those in positions of power will follow the guiding principles of the Church, including its social teachings.
Thus, Paul Ryan is failing his own tradition when he argues that cutting Medicaid and other services that aid people in poverty are somehow an expression of Catholic doctrine.
In responding to the nun in his town hall, Ryan argued that his policies give impoverished people choice and control over their lives and their tax burdens, supposedly empowering them to move out of poverty. However, he fails to note that choice is impossible when poverty prevents any and all access to care. For Ryan, what really matters are the taxes the wealthy pay to support the poor—and he’d apparently rather that those payments were cut in order to teach the poor a lesson.
At the town hall, he cited a common myth used by anti-welfare Republicans that claims there are people who refuse to get jobs or increase their income because they would otherwise lose their welfare. (Ryan has, in the past, apologized for using the trope.) But Ryan’s solution for that seems to be to make things even harder for those who rely on them, rather than loosening requirements of welfare as an aid to help people get on their feet.
The association of Catholics with Republicanism is a relatively new development—after all, the first major Catholic in the United States government was John F. Kennedy. His election caused much consternation amongst Protestants in America, who tend to view Catholics as non-Christian. Democrats have for decades been the party for Catholics, and Republicans the party for Protestants, after the 1950s and 60s civil rights movement caused many white evangelicals to move from political apathy rightward into Republicanism. For Protestants, the diversity in denominational heritage and belief mean that beliefs about the poor are less unified than Catholic social doctrine.
Many Catholic Democrats have used Catholic social teaching, including about the preferential option, as part of the reasoning behind their political stances. Catholic Democrats like Joe Biden often argue that their faith motivates them to prioritize the effect of policies on the impoverished, while still recognizing the potential harm from other Catholic tenets. Biden himself claimed in the 2012 vice presidential debate (against Paul Ryan) that he accepts the Catholic Church’s position on abortion, for instance, but that he refuses to take public stances to impose that position upon others. He views his faith as important to his political ideas, but also maintains that policy needs to allow room for other people’s beliefs.
Ryan’s interpretation of Catholicism, on the other hand, is seemingly not only about imposing his beliefs about issues of bodily rights onto others, but also ignoring one of the most important teachings of the Church. His hardline stance on the budget, on abortion, on LGBTQ rights, disproportionately marginalize and negatively impact the poor.
Currently, Catholics make up nearly one-third of Congress: 24 in the Senate, 144 in the House. Of those, Catholic Democrats outnumber Republicans. Although he is the most prominent Republican Catholic, Ryan isn’t alone in supporting strict, Randian budgets and policies that strip care from the poor. For example, one of his fellow Catholics, Iowa’s Rep. Steve King—who has a Confederate flag on his desk—has suggested that money from programs that benefit the poor should be cut and used to build the wall between the United States and Mexico, which is not exactly an embodiment of the preferential option.
A few of Ryan’s fellow Catholics seem to have a hard time with the ways in which his budgets and plans for the future of health care harm the poor. Catholic Sens. Susan Collins (R-ME) and Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) both were strong “no” votes on a repeal of the ACA, both citing a desire to do best for their individual states and for those who are hurting. This kind of Catholic conscience doesn’t appear to be affecting Ryan, however, who continues to argue that his faith is in line with his politics.
It seems Ryan should look around him and see what lonely company he is in with this argument. He is one of the most prominent Catholics in government right now. Is he really the best representative of the faith’s social teaching?