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Catholic Bishops: Mixed Signals on “Ryanomics?”

August 24, 2012, 4:41 pm | By John Gehring

It’s no secret that many bishops, including Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York, are incensed with the Obama administration over contraception coverage requirements under the Affordable Care Act. Bishops have missed few opportunities to blast the president as hostile to religious liberty – a meme that Mitt Romney has eagerly picked up on in a campaign ad that depicts President Obama as waging a “war on religion.”

But the selection of Rep. Paul Ryan – an intellectual darling of the conservative movement who embraces Catholic teaching to defend his policies – has complicated the Catholic narrative during these final months heading into the election.

In April, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops sent a flurry of letters to the House of Representatives criticizing Ryan’s GOP budget proposal for its “unacceptable cuts.”  Bishop Stephen Blaire and Bishop Richard Pates, chairmen of the domestic justice and international justice and peace committees at the U.S bishops’ conference respectively, told Congress that “a just spending bill cannot rely on disproportionate cuts in essential services to poor and vulnerable persons.” The House budget proposal “fails to meet these moral criteria,” they wrote.

“Catholic bishops say GOP budget proposal fails moral test,” read a Religion News Service headline picked up in several national publications. Catholic theologians and justice leaders also weighed in with a strong critique of Ryan’s Tea Party-inspired ideology. When Ryan gave a major speech at Georgetown University, a letter from nearly 90 faculty and priests at the Jesuit university challenged Ryan for his continued “misuse of Catholic teaching” and said Ryan’s budget “appears to reflect the values of your favorite philosopher, Ayn Rand, rather than the Gospel of Jesus Christ.”

Since Mitt Romney tapped Ryan as his vice presidential pick there is renewed attention on Catholic voters. So what are bishops doing now that the stakes are raised, and the Catholic author of a budget blueprint they have denounced in unambiguous terms could be a heartbeat from the presidency? Three bishops, including the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, have essentially defended Ryan in glowing terms.

“A great public servant,” Cardinal Dolan gushed in the conservative National Review. Praising Ryan’s “solicitude for the poor,” the U.S. bishops’ president waxed eloquent about the lawmakers’ command of Aquinas and their intimate conversations over dinner. Cue the violin? Moderate and progressive Catholics who in recent years have worried that bishops are in danger of being perceived as the “Republican Party at Prayer” aren’t sure whether to chuckle or cry about Cardinal Dolan’s upcoming benediction at the Republican National Convention.

Bishop Robert Morlino, Ryan’s bishop in Wisconsin, defended him as a good Catholic family man victimized by those who have “unfairly attacked his reputation.”  A strange response given that Ryan’s many Catholic critics are challenging his policy ideas, not taking gratuitous swipes at his character. Bishop Morlino also went on to offer some curious interpretations of Catholic teaching by enshrining the “right to private property” as among the “most fundamental issues for the formation of a Catholic conscience.” Is this the Donald Trump version of Catholic teaching?

According to the Vatican’s Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church:

Christian tradition has never recognized the right to private property as absolute and untouchable. On the contrary, it has always understood this right within the broader context of the right common to all to use the goods of the whole of creation: the right to private property is subordinated to the right to common use, to the fact that goods are meant for everyone… this principle is not opposed to the right to private poverty but indicates the right to regulate it.

Bishop Morlino also throws in a favorite right-wing scare word – socialism! – to a list of “intrinsic evils” that voters must confront. Who besides the most reactionary of ideologues on the right consider socialism a grave threat to our nation today? (For a more detailed theological critique of Bishop Morlino see David Cloutier’s piece at Catholic Moral Theology).

Plenty of Democrats and President Obama are surrounded by former Wall Street titans who now serve as economic advisors. Despite conservative demagoguery over the Affordable Care Act, the law provides a vast new market for insurance companies. One expects Rush Limbaugh to hyperventilate about the bogeyman of socialism, but Catholic bishops should not be wading into these paranoid waters.

Don’t forget this is the same bishop who caused a stir back in April when he defended a group of ultra-conservative priests facing criticism from parishioners by warning the critics that they risked formal church censure unless they stopped spreading “rumors and gossip.”

Adding his voice to the Ryan fan club, Archbishop Aquila of Denver wrote that those who have corrected Ryan on the grounds of Catholic teaching are making claims that are “unfounded and unreasonable.”  The archbishop went on to conclude:

Paul Ryan is concerned that America will soon be bankrupt, and so we must make hard choices. If he is right, and we ignore the message because the consequences seem compassion-less, our sentimental affections may cripple the ones our Lord loves the most — our children.

Funny, I don’t remember these dire warnings from bishops when debt ballooned under President George W. Bush as Iraq war spending rose.

In all of these cases, there is the obligatory reference that the bishops are not backing any candidate and would not dare engage in partisan politics. It seems that some bishops are either tone deaf to how their cheery defense of Ryan is interpreted by reporters and Catholic voters or their disgust with President Obama is so strong that they are comfortable making quasi-endorsements in this election. Either scenario is distressing.

It’s not unreasonable to ask if bishops will spend even half as much institutional energy educating Catholics about Ryan’s deeply un-Christian economic plans as they have on flogging the Obama administration over contraception coverage.

Letters to Capitol Hill are important, but most voters don’t read them. Unlike the two-week “Fortnight for Freedom” religious liberty campaign, launched with special Masses and great fanfare in dioceses across the country, I’ve seen little effort to amplify the bishops’ documented concerns about Ryan’s plans to slash government programs that protect the most vulnerable.

At the bishops last national meeting in June, they punted on a statement about the economy and poverty until after the election.  Catholic bishops have used parish bulletin inserts and national postcard campaigns to warn about perceived threats to religious liberty and a supposed expansion of abortion rights in recent years. How about one bulletin insert to educate parishioners about economic proposals that are deeply hostile to Catholic teaching? There is nothing pro-life or Christian about Ryan’s plans to slash programs that help pregnant women, feed hungry children and protect the elderly.

The chasm between the U.S. bishops’ conference clear moral critique of the Ryan budget and the cozy embrace some bishops are now giving Ryan is not unexpected given the hierarchy’s conservative drift and increasing reluctance among some prelates to speak boldly on matters besides abortion, same-sex marriage and contraception. However, it does send mixed messages to Catholic voters.

In 2008, Bishop Joseph Martino of Scranton, PA (now retired) stormed into a civil conversation about the election that focused on the U.S. bishops’ Faithful Citizenship election year statement and thundered: “No USCCB document is relevant in this diocese. The USCCB doesn’t speak for me.” Bishop Martino issued his own election year statement focused on abortion.

The “prince-in-every diocese” nature of episcopal politics makes it challenging for bishops to always speak in consistent tones. But those bishops now offering a veneer of political cover to Paul Ryan  – while helping to fuel a meta-narrative that President Obama is hostile to religious liberty – should think carefully about how they could be sacrificing the church’s moral credibility in public life on the altar of partisan politics.

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The GOP’s Catholic Problem?

August 17, 2012, 1:27 pm | By John Gehring

Mitt Romney’s selection of Rep. Paul Ryan as his vice-presidential choice is an insult to many Catholic leaders who have consistently challenged Ryan’s claims that coddling the rich while expecting the working poor and middle class to bear the burden of deficit reduction reflects the values of Catholic teaching. A presidential candidate aggressively courting Catholic voters – including with this scorching ad that accuses President Obama of waging a “war on religion” –  has now picked a running mate who is the most vociferous champion of an economic agenda that makes a mockery of Christian values. There is nothing Christian, “pro-life” or courageous about policies thatgut effective programs that help pregnant women, the hungry, the jobless and low-income children.

Catholics are steeped in a religious tradition that puts community and the common good before extreme individualism. Ryan’s libertarian love affair with Ayn Rand and his Tea-Party flavored anti-government zeal is alien to this Catholic worldview. His proposals find no endorsement from centuries of Catholic social teaching or the Gospel. I expect a sizable swath of moderate Catholic voters in key states to roll their eyes at Ryan’s lofty appeals to the wonders of the free market and privatization. Some of these working-class voters might not be staunch Democrats, but they know that Medicare helps their grandmother and food stamps are often the difference between paying the bills and sending the kids to bed hungry. They might ask why Ryan, who benefited from his deceased father’s Social Security survivor benefits to pay for college, now wants to pull the rug out from other families who can be given a hand up by effective government programs that for decades helped grow the middle class.

In a flurry of letters to House leaders, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has unambiguously denounced Ryan’s budget proposal – the ideological blueprint for the GOP’s economic agenda – as failing a basic moral test. Catholic nuns recently highlighted the immorality of the Ryan budget (now the Romney-Ryan budget) during a nine-state bus tour. These Catholic nuns recently joined theFranciscan Action Network  – an organization made up of priests, nuns and lay Franciscans – to invite Mr. Romney and Rep. Ryan to spend time at agencies that would be decimated by their policies.

Here’s my question for Catholic bishops. Will you expend even half as much institutional energy educating Catholic voters about Rep. Ryan’s deeply un-Christian economic plans as you have on flogging the Obama administration over contraception coverage? Letters to Capitol Hill are important, but most voters don’t read them. When will we see a parish bulletin insert about the devastating consequences of Ryan’s economic plans from the U.S. bishops’ conference? Unlike the recent two-week “Fortnight for Freedom” religious liberty campaign, launched with special Masses and great fanfare in dioceses across the country, I haven’t seen any bishop strongly challenge the GOP’s war on the poor and middle class. Bishops could draw some inspiration from their own history, and the example of another Ryan.

Back in 1919, Catholic bishops recruited Monsignor John Ryan, a Catholic priest whose thinking on labor and social inequality were widely read in the decades following World War I, to write theirProgram for Social Reconstruction. This was a bold plan for what at the time were visionary social reforms: minimum wages, public housing for workers, labor participation in management decisions, and insurance for the elderly, disabled and unemployed. The bishops’ proposal and Ryan’s rising star in Washington laid the groundwork for New Deal legislation proposed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in the following decades.

It’s tragic that nearly a century later influential Catholics like Rep. Paul Ryan, flush with cash frombillionaires funding the Tea Party movement, are now promoting Darwinian policies that betray this proud legacy.

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Rick Santorum’s Catholic Blues

March 6, 2012, 9:28 pm | By John Gehring

Rick SantorumI’m not surprised that Rick Santorum is failing to persuade Catholic voters in Ohio, a key Super Tuesday state with national political implications. As commentators have noted for a while, Santorum’s culture warrior style has been embraced more by conservative evangelicals than Catholics.

While Santorum’s focus on sex, the ‘60s and traditional families is gospel for a culturally conservative segment of the Catholic vote, his anti-government demagoguery and lecturing of low-income families and minorities sit uncomfortably with many Catholics whose religious tradition helped lay the moral groundwork for the New Deal.

Back in January, I argued that Santorum had a lot of nerve casting himself as a standard-bearer for Catholic values in politics given how frequently his conservative ideology clashes with traditional Catholic social teaching. Simply put, Santorum is out of step with Catholic bishops and Pope Benedict XVI when it comes to moral issues like immigration, torture, war, economic justice and environmental stewardship.

This has not stopped conservative Catholic commentators and influential media outlets from perpetuating a simplistic narrative that Santorum is a poster boy for traditional Catholic values. From a front-page New York Times profile on Sunday:

Unlike Catholics who believe that church doctrine should adapt to changing times and needs, the Santorums believe in a highly traditional Catholicism that adheres fully to what scholars call “the teaching authority” of the pope and his bishops. “He has a strong sense of that,” said George Weigel, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, where Mr. Santorum had a fellowship after losing his bid for re-election to the Senate in 2006. “He’s the first national figure of some significance who’s on that side of the Catholic conversation.” The Santorums’ beliefs are reflected in a succession of lifestyle decisions, including eschewing birth control, home schooling their younger children and sending the older boys to a private academy affiliated with Opus Dei, an influential Catholic movement that emphasizes spiritual holiness.

I don’t question the sincerity of Santorum’s spiritual journey and have little doubt that he takes his personal faith seriously. But home-schooling your children and denouncing birth control isn’t enough to qualify you as an orthodox Catholic. The “teaching authority of popes and bishops” also has a lot to say about the “idolatry” of the free market, the “intrinsic evil” of torture, the positive role of government and a consistent ethic of life principle that doesn’t reduce Catholicism to bumper-sticker platitudes on a few divisive social issues.

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Rick Santorum’s Cruel Conservatism

February 7, 2012, 5:29 pm | By John Gehring

As I’ve noted before, Rick Santorum frequently touts his Catholic values on the campaign trail despite holding many positions that are fundamentally at odds with his own Church’s social justice tradition.

While Catholic bishops made life miserable for Sen. John Kerry over the issue of abortion during the 2004 presidential election, so far we have not heard from any Catholic leaders challenging Mr. Santorum’s public disagreement with his Church on immigration reform, government programs that protect the most vulnerable, racial justice or his blind faith in free markets. Perhaps Santorum’s latest knife to the back of compassionate conservatism will wake up some religious leaders.

At a recent campaign stop in Colorado, a young boy asked Santorum what the candidate can do to make medicine more affordable, and he was also challenged by the a mother who was worried that parents in her child’s cancer ward can’t pay for life-saving treatment. Instead of taking a pause from scripted talking points, Santorum seemed annoyed and proceeded to lecture the family about the tough spot lucrative drug companies are in these days.

He argued that “free people going out there and competing against one another” will solve the problem and warned that patients who advocate for lower prices for medicine will ultimately “freeze innovation.” And adding insult to injury, he whined that people are willing to pay $900 for iPads but complain about paying $200 for pharmaceuticals. (If he knows any such people, he declined to name names.)

Watch Santorum’s exchange on Rachel Maddow:

Visit for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

Later in the week at an event with Religious Right leader James Dobson, Santorum further demonstrated his lack of concern for the details of health policy by perpetuating the inexcusable lie that the new health care law includes death panels and brazenly inventing an HHS ruling that stroke victims older than 70 will be denied care.

The idea that drug companies are victims and parents of dying children need a lesson in free-market economics is as outrageous as it is insulting. It’s also an affront to centuries of Catholic social teaching. Bishops and several popes over the years, including Pope Benedict XVI, have insisted that health care is a basic human right and warned that unfettered free markets – focused solely on profit margins – often trample on human dignity.

Will conservative Catholic organizations that have endorsed Rick Santorum defend his comments? Do they disagree with Cardinal Peter Turkson of the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace who recently said: “People who suffer from the way the financial markets currently operate have a right to say, ‘Do business differently. Look at the way you’re doing business because this is not leading to our welfare and our good.’”

GOP presidential candidates courting Catholic swing voters should take a break from polishing their stump speeches and read the powerful Vatican statement released a few months ago on the need for a moral economy. You can’t read this without considering how powerful drug companies and insurance companies dictate the terms of health care by denying coverage to sick people or making life-saving drugs so expensive that even middle-class families struggle to afford medical bills. “We should not be afraid to propose new ideas, even if they might destabilize pre-existing balances of power that prevail over the weakest,” the Vatican urged.

The health care reform law that Republicans want to overturn address many of these egregious abuses, of course, but it’s more politically convenient to demonize and distort “Obamacare” on the campaign trail than give real answers to a scared parent.

Santorum sees himself as the ideal choice for “values voters” in this election. He has every right to worship at the altar of radical individualism and put his faith in the salvation of the free-market. This will surely be greeted with hallelujahs from the conservative choir. But it’s a posture that’s hard to square with bedrock Catholic values and a message preached by a prophet from Nazareth who healed the sick and threw the money changers out of the Temple.

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The Catholic Case Against Rick Santorum

January 4, 2012, 12:42 pm | By John Gehring

Rick SantorumGOP presidential candidate Rick Santorum, a proud Catholic who often speaks about his faith on the campaign trail, is attracting some formidable buzz from pundits who view his strong showing in the Iowa caucuses as a sign that the former Pennsylvania senator might have enough mojo to rally a coalition of religious and blue-collar voters.

New York Times columnist David Brooks waxed poetic Monday about Santorum’s Catholic conservative sensibilities and touted the candidate as an authentic antidote to “the corporate or financial wing of the party.”

Evangelicals are also taking notice. Writing on CNN’s Belief blog, Chris LaTondresse, the founder and CEO of Recovering Evangelical, calls Santorum a post-religious right candidate “whose concern for poor and vulnerable people” is “firmly rooted in his Catholic faith.”

It’s easy to see why Santorum might appeal to some culturally conservative Catholics and moderate evangelicals who are wary of Democrats but also turned off by the Republican Party’s cozy embrace of economic libertarianism and tireless defense of struggling millionaires. Santorum is more comfortable with communitarian language, has been a strong supporter of foreign aid to impoverished countries and connects with personal stories of his blue-collar upbringing.

But it’s a political delusion to think Rick Santorum is a standard-bearer of authentic Catholic values in politics. In fact, on several issues central to Catholic social teaching – torture, war, immigration, climate change, the widening gap between rich and poor and workers’ rights – Santorum is radically out of step with his faith’s teachings as articulated by Catholic bishops and several popes over the centuries.

Catholic bishops, priests and women religious have been at the forefront of the fight for comprehensive immigration reform. Catholic leaders have called for an earned path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants and consistently oppose draconian policies that break up families. Santorum has publicly challenged the Catholic bishops on this issue, telling the Des Moines Register: “If we develop the program like the Catholic bishops suggested we would be creating a huge magnet for people to come in and break the law some more, we’d be inviting people to cross this border, come into this country and with the expectation that they will be able to stay here permanently.”

While promising he doesn’t want to “break up families,” Santorum recently justified massive deportations that do, in fact, separate parents from children. He blithely said of those facing deportation to Mexico (a country currently ravaged by grinding poverty and gang violence) that “we’re not sending them to any kind of difficult country.” Tell that to the student brought here as a young child who doesn’t remember the country of her birth and doesn’t even speak the language.

Poverty, Inequality and Financial Regulation
Pope Benedict XVI has decried the “scandal of glaring inequalities” between rich and poor, and Catholic social teaching supports a more just distribution of wealth.  Santorum, in contrast, told the Des Moines Register: “I’m for income inequality. I think some people should make more than other people because some people work harder and have better ideas and take more risks, and they should be rewarded for it. I have no problem with income inequality.” As a Senator, Santorum voted for massive tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans, which greatly exacerbated the gap between the top 1% and the rest of us.

The Vatican also recently released a major document on the need for more robust financial regulation of global markets to protect workers and the common good. Santorum clings to the thoroughly debunked lie that regulation caused our nation’s financial collapse. He told MSNBC’s Ed Schultz that “it wasn’t deregulation…it was government regulation” that in part led to our current economic problems. In Congress, Santorum also voted for the Commodity Futures Modernization Act, which deregulated risky financial schemes that led to the economic crisis of 2008.

While Catholic bishops defend vital government programs that protect the most vulnerable, Santorum recently voiced support for Rep. Paul Ryan’s immoral federal budget plan—a plan the bishops expressed deep concern about because it would cut life-saving programs while spending trillions on massive new tax breaks for the rich. Even worse, Santorum said that the poor who receive government aid could learn by suffering more. When questioned about how his economic views clash with the Catholic demand for a “preferential option for the poor” in public policy, Santorum was completely unfamiliar with this bedrock Church teaching.

Workers’ Rights
The Catholic Church has defended the vital role of unions since 1891, when Pope Leo XIII released Rerum Novarum, an encyclical that puts the dignity of work and labor rights at the center of Catholic social teaching. The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church clearly states that workers have a right to “assemble and form associations” and that unions are “a positive influence for social order and solidarity, and are therefore an indispensable element of social life.” Rick Santorum, on the other hand, has argued that all public sector unions should be abolished. In a presidential candidates’ debate, Santorum said he would “support a bill that says that we should not have public employee unions for the purposes of wages and benefits to be negotiated.”

Climate Change and the Environment
Pope Benedict XVI, who has been dubbed the “Green Pope” for his attention to environmental justice and climate change, recently urged world leaders meeting for climate talks in Durban, South Africa, to “reach agreement on a responsible, credible response” to the “disturbing” effects of climate change. Catholic dioceses across the country have encouraged Catholics to limit their carbon footprint, and national advocacy organizations like the Catholic Climate Covenant work to educate Catholics about their faith’s teachings on environmental stewardship. Santorum must not be listening. In an interview with Rush Limbaugh, he described the fact that climate change is caused by humans as “patently absurd” and a “beautifully concocted scheme.” Just this week, Santorum blasted a new Environmental Protection Agency rule limiting emissions of mercury and other air toxins from coal-fired power plants. Catholic bishops hailed the ruling as “an important step forward to protect the health of all people, especially unborn babies and young children, from harmful exposure to dangerous air pollutants.”

Torture and War
Many Catholic conservatives ignore the Church’s teaching about “a consistent ethic of life” and excuse a candidate’s position or record on the economy, immigration and the environment by downplaying their moral importance compared to the issue of abortion. Catholics can disagree in good faith on some issues, they assert, but not over “intrinsic evils.”  Unfortunately, even under this standard, Santorum fails. When it comes to torture, which the Church calls an “intrinsic evil,” Santorum is a proud proponent.

The Catholic bishops describe the barbaric practice as an assault on the dignity of human life. “The use of torture must be rejected as fundamentally incompatible with the dignity of the human person and ultimately counterproductive in the effort to combat terrorism,” they wrote in Faithful Citizenship, a political responsibility statement released before every presidential election.  But Santorum eagerly endorsed  “enhanced interrogation” techniques during the first Republican primary debate.

Santorum’s predilection toward pre-emptive war also clashes with mainstream Catholic theology. When the late Pope John Paul II warned against the invasion of Iraq, Santorum vocally championed the war. And while the Catholic bishops repeatedly called for a responsible withdrawal, Santorum remained a staunch defender of the occupation – blasting the “media” and “liberals” for undermining support for the war.

Catholic politicians across the spectrum will all find aspects of Church teaching that challenge their ideological agendas in discomforting ways. But for too long Catholics in public life have only been scrutinized when it comes to abortion and same-sex marriage. This does a disservice to voters, ignores the Catholic social justice tradition’s broad moral agenda and lets Catholic candidates like Rick Santorum off the hook even when they consistently disregard their faith’s teachings on key moral and political issues.

Photo credit: Gage Skidmore, Flickr

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