When the US Conference of Catholic Bishops issued its statement on religious freedom this month, critics complained the bishops were being inappropriately partisan. The bishops’ statement portrayed the Obama Administration’s contraceptives mandate as a major threat to religious freedom. Critics argued that the bishops shouldn’t have taken sides in an election year.
This week, there was evidence that Catholic social teaching cuts both ways. Yesterday, House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wisconsin) gave a speech at Georgetown University. Ryan is famous, of course, for proposing a budget that cuts the growth in federal benefits programs, like Medicare and Medicaid. Earlier this month, the Bishops Conference wrote Congress to oppose the proposal. The Ryan budget inappropriately burdens the poorest Americans, the bishops argued, and fails to meet “moral criteria.” At Georgetown, where 90 faculty members and priests signed a letter admonishing him for misunderstanding Catholic social teaching, Ryan defended himself on religious grounds. “I suppose that there are some Catholics who for a long time thought they had a monopoly of sorts, not exactly on heaven, but on the social teaching of our Church,” he said. (Ryan was perhaps referring to the Catholic bishops). “There can be differences among faithful Catholics on this.”
As an outsider, I’m not in the best position to evaluate whether Ryan is correct in suggesting that Catholic social teaching allows more room for debate about how best to assist the poor than about the need to avoid cooperation with the distribution of contraceptives. I’ve certainly heard people make that argument. For me, the interesting thing is how quickly the rhetorical positions switch. Politically liberal Catholics often argue that Church teaching, properly understood, allows latitude for dissent on sexuality; politically conservative Catholics argue that Church teaching allows latitude on economics. What this indicates, perhaps, is that Catholicism, like other traditional Christian confessions, represents a political third way: conservative on social issues, especially sexuality, but liberal on fiscal issues. Given contemporary American politics, that doesn’t seem a winning combination.