Cong. Paul Ryan is a politician, not a theologian, and complaining that politicians are not theologically sound is a little like complaining that carrots are not purple. Seek joy where joy may be found.
In this instance, however, Cong. Ryan chose to justify his budget proposals as consistent with Catholic moral teaching. He could have said, as Churchill did, “The Sermon on the Mount is the last word in Christian ethics. Everyone respects the Quakers. Still, it is not on these terms that Ministers assume their responsibilities of guiding states.” Instead, Ryan asserted that, mindful of the principle of subsidiarity and his strange understanding of the “preferential option for the poor,” his economic proposals amounted to the Catholic baptism of Hayek and von Mises. The lion had lain down with the lamb.
Alas, Ryan’s timing was off. Within a week of his interview on the Christian Broadcasting Network, the USCCB released the texts of four letters that they had sent to members of Congress regarding Ryan’s budgetary proposals. Having laid out their three pronged moral criteria for evaluating the budget – the promotion of human dignity, protection of the poor, and serving the common good - the bishops’ verdict on the budget cuts the Ryan budget demanded was succinct and clear: “The House-passed budget resolution fails to meet these moral criteria.”
Yesterday morning, Ryan said, as is his right, “We just respectfully disagree.” Fair enough. But, it was what he said before that which caught my attention. Here is the video.
“Um, these are not all the bishops.”
For months, conservative Catholics have been accusing the White House of trying to create a breach between Catholics in the pews and their bishops in the pulpit on the issue of contraception. The White House, too, consists of politicians, and politicians consult polls, not Aquinas, when they want to get to the heart of the matter. For politicians, the fact that the vast majority of Catholics disagree with the bishops on the issue of contraception is the most salient point, even though it says nothing about the truth of the matter.
Still, the idea that politicians would try to turn one group of Catholics against other groups of Catholics for partisan advantage is frightening. One of the distinguishing characteristics of a well-ordered society, certainly one that honors freedom, it to keep politics from swallowing up everything. This works both ways: In my biography of the Rev. Jerry Falwell, I point out that only after Falwell’s Moral Majority spent ten years coarsely conflating politics and religion did you begin to see a significant rises in the number of “nones” in America, those who, when asked their religious self-identification, reply “none.” If religion gets too cozy with politics, people who reach different political conclusions are likely to throw the baby out with the baptismal water.
In Ryan’s case, he is not only recognizing a demonstrable difference of opinion between the hierarchy and the laity on the issue of contraception, he seems actually to be pitting one group of bishops against another group of bishops. He is suggesting that the elected officials of the USCCB, elected by their peers, have no real authority to speak for the Church because, he implies, some other bishops are winking and nodding at him behind the scenes. This view of how and who gets to speak for the Catholic Church in any official capacity was quickly rebutted by the bishops’ conference. A spokesman, Don Clemmer, told The Hill, “Bishops who chair USCCB committees are elected by their fellow bishops to represent all of the U.S. bishops on key issues at the national level. The letters on the budget were written by bishops serving in this capacity.”
Of course, it is emphatically not a politician’s job to try and sow discord within any religious community, which can be tricky because their job is to draw distinctions, look for allies, create a narrative, etc. But, they should show some restraint when they reach the doors of a church and say to themselves – no, the cost of sowing discord within a religious community is very high, too high to achieve virtually any policy objective. You would think this would be especially apparent to a self-styled conservative like Ryan, but I fear his brand of conservatism has less to do with Edmund Burke and more to do with Ayn Rand, for whom self-restraint was not the virtue it was for Burke.
The irony is that the person most jammed up by Ryan’s comment is his old friend from Wisconsin, the former Archbishop of Milwaukee who is now the Archbishop of New York and President of the USCCB, Cardinal Timothy Dolan. It is not inconceivable that Ryan could have quietly reached out to Cardinal Dolan and asked for a letter, as he did last year, that would give Ryan some cover. Now, if Dolan were to write such a letter, he would be undermining the very USCCB he leads. If some statements from the conference can be ignored, if it is perfectly alright to try and pit one bishop against another, then what is the future of the USCCB? Maybe Ryan is secretly one of those who hate the USCCB, condemn the CCHD because, you know, they are all Alinskyites. Maybe Ryan is a distant descendant of Cardinal William Henry O’Connell whose detestation the of bishops’ conference was absolute.
More likely, Ryan, like most politicians, can’t see much beyond tomorrow, and thought he could undermine the USCCB criticism of his budget by usefully pointing out that the bishops, like any other group of 200+ individuals are less than univocal in their views on policy. But, that is not his place. If the bishops – to say nothing of the Vatican – are distressed when the USCCB comes down on one side of an issue and, say, the Catholic Health Association comes down on another side, how much more distressing to think of a politician inviting open warfare within the ranks of the hierarchy! He has over-stepped and over-stepped badly. But, again, what should we expect from a politician. We knew Ryan did not really understand subsidiarity. Now we know he doesn’t understand ecclesiology either.