Mitt Romney named Paul Ryan as his running mate this month, drawing even more attention to the man whose name, even before the GOP nod, was on the lips of Catholics around the country. While Ryan’s pro-life views and his stance against same-sex marriage have been praised by some Catholics (bishops included), his plan for the budget has long drawn strong criticism from many (bishops included), who view the drastic cuts to services for the poor as immoral and short-sighted.
According to the Rasmussen Reports, having Ryan on the ticket already has helped Romney gain favor, and a slight lead in the polls, in Wisconsin, Ryan’s home state. However, a Marquette Law School poll found that while Ryan's presence resulted in a two-point gain for Romney, the GOP presidential candidate still trails Obama by three percent in the state. What Ryan’s new role will mean to Catholic voters across the United States remains to be seen.
Though both are Catholic, neither Ryan nor Biden can count on the “Catholic Vote.” (Although both candidates are receiving prayers.) Once seen as a united front, today's Catholic voters can be divided into three distinct groups, says Steve Schneck, Director of the Institute for Policy Research & Catholic Studies at the Catholic University of America and a national co-chair of Catholics for Obama.
According to Schneck, the three groups include Latino Catholics (about 70 percent of whom favor Obama); Intentional Catholics, who tend to be more traditional (50-60 percent of whom favor Romney), and the Cultural Catholics, who are evenly split between Romney and Obama. This last group, Schneck says, are the Catholics for whom the two candidates will be competing.
Both candidates have backgrounds to which many in this third group may relate, Schneck said. Ryan’s Irish heritage and well-known Wisconsin Catholic clan will resonate with some, Schneck said, but perhaps no more than Biden’s stories of his Catholic boyhood in Scranton, Penn.
But the reason that Catholics’ opinions of Ryan differ so drastically goes deeper than stories of the candidate’s hometowns. Many Catholic issues are at the core of the current divide in American politics. “The fundamental difficulty between Catholics who think Ryan is taking a Catholic point of view and others who do not has to do with a complicated connection between principles of Catholic morality and everyday practice,” said Dan Finn, a professor of economics and theology at St. John’s University in Collegeville, Minn. “One needs a theoretical framework for applying those principles in particular situations.”
Finn said that Ryan’s “individualistic economic analysis” leads the candidate to believe that reducing payments for welfare is actually good for people in poverty, because welfare makes them dependent. However, this view fails to see the larger framework necessary for an accurate analysis. “While there is some truth there, that is a terribly incomplete story,” Finn said. “There are many causes of poverty. Dependency is certainly a problem for some, but for many it is not, and they’re working trying to make ends meet. What’s missing is the debate about the social and scientific analysis that undergird anyone’s position on this matter.” The Republican Party, in general, tends toward an "overly simplified" view of poverty, which leads to budget cuts, Finn said, adding that Catholics are obliged to help people who can’t meet their own needs, whether those needs are related to food, medicine or education. “Reducing welfare is inconsistent with the Catholic view of life,” he said.
Romney’s choice of Ryan is a “fascinating selection” which brings many Catholic issues to the fore, said Schneck. He said the so-called Ryan budget proposes drastic cuts that raise concerns about the well-being of the elderly, the poor, and those in need of housing and education in the United States. “As Catholics we have to be concerned about those devastating results,” he said. “And what gets to me are the cuts that are proposed to the programs that deal with the poor. As a pro-life Catholic I have to wonder what that means for the abortion rate in the U.S. The long-term debt problem is scary, but the way we address it isn’t by shredding the minimal safety net. It’s finding other sources of revenue. It’s asking the wealthy to pay their fair share of taxes.”
Schneck expressed regret that “the partisan ideologies that have characterized American politics over the last 20 years have invaded Catholic participation in politics too.” If the church hopes to heal, political candidates aren’t the only ones who need to reach out to the Cultural Catholics, he said. “One of the things that I’m excited about is the New Evangelization,” Schneck said. “It needs to go after those cultural Catholics while incorporating the Latino Catholics. I’m hopeful that the New Evangelization can help to bridge divides.”
The question of Catholic identity is one that has become increasingly prominent during this election. Despite a shared faith, Ryan and Biden hold opposing views on abortion, same-sex marriage, and the level of government assistance given to the poor. The debate surrounding these issues has caused some voters to make judgments not just on who is a better candidate but on who is a better Catholic.
The current political climate is an important in American politics, but it is also a “moment of truth” for the church, one which could present Catholics with tough questions, said the Rev. Bryan Massingale, a professor of systematic theology and ethics at Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wisc. “Is there more to Catholic public identity than opposition to abortion and same-sex marriage?” said Massingale. “Everyone on the right and left would say, ‘Of course.’” But he argues that the question must be furthered to ask: Is there more to it in reality than merely in rhetoric? “Paul Ryan represents group of Catholics who believe that as long as they’re with the church on abortion then they get a pass on the rest of Catholic identity,” he said. “And I think there are some statements of our bishops that have fed into that. But we need to ask: How does our commitment to the poor and vulnerable factor into Catholic public identity and witness? The question goes deeper than Paul Ryan. He becomes a symbol of something that has been an ongoing conversation in the church and that we need to engage more forthrightly.”
These days Catholics are solidly in the mainstream of American life, Massingale said, but that comes with its own unique challenge: “It is that much more difficult to be countercultural when you’re at the heart of culture,” he said. Given the church’s changing demographics, Catholic identity cannot be and will not be what it once was, he said. But he believes that drawing Catholic questions into the wider dialogue could help the church to continue to have an impact. “We have an opportunity to shape the wider society in a good way,” Massingale said. “Catholicism at its best makes a reasoned case for our positions and appeals to others’ sense of common good. That calls for shared sacrifice as well as the sharing in the blessings of this country. But the Catholic public presence is speaking less to the concern for the common good and seen more publically as one more partisan voice, one that speaks to the fragmentation of the county rather than the unity.”
In a world of endless blogs and 24-hour news, it is not difficult to find a partisan voice to support one’s own pre-formed opinion. But voters, Catholics included, must be careful not to get caught up in the crowd and simply buy into the general framework of a political party they like, said Finn. “We may chose a perspective or party because of one issue that we may know a lot and care a lot about, but there’s a tendency to adopt a range of perspectives from a group and to simply take their word on how to read things,” he said. “We think, ‘My friends or a Web site or a political party see things this way, and I believe them.’ It’s difficult to stay self-critical on a whole range of issues. And most people don’t put much thought into it in the first place.”