Paul Ryan’s election as the 66th Speaker of the House last week represents continued Catholic dominance in the US Congress. Ryan now leads a body that’s nearly one-third Catholic.
He’s the sixth Catholic Speaker out of the past eight (seventh if you count Newt Gingrich, who converted a decade after he left office). That’s impressive, given that no Catholic was elected Speaker until 1962. He’s also the third consecutive Catholic, following Nancy Pelosi and John Boehner.
And like his predecessors, Ryan will run into some problems with the Church on certain social policies. In fact, only a few days into his term, Ryan has already done so. The 45-year-old Wisconsin Republican indicated last weekend that he’d ignore the Church’s pleas to pass immigration reform as long as Barack Obama is president. This will likely aggravate US bishops, who have devoted significant time and resources to passing comprehensive immigration reform.
This will likely displease Pope Francis even more, given his push for changes to immigration policy while visiting the United States in September. Ryan would do well to remember Francis’ words to Congress:
We must not be taken aback by [the numbers of immigrants], but rather view them as persons, seeing their faces and listening to their stories, trying to respond as best we can to their situation. To respond in a way which is always humane, just and fraternal. We need to avoid a common temptation nowadays: to discard whatever proves troublesome. Let us remember the Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” (Matthew 7:12).
Reforming immigration has been at the heart of Francis’ agenda since his election in March, 2013. In fact, his first visit outside of Rome was to the Italian island of Lampedusa, where hundreds of North Africans have died in recent years trying to immigrate into Europe. There, he blasted the “globalization of indifference” that he says causes us to struggle to have compassion for the plight of immigrants and the marginalized.
Immigration certainly won’t be Ryan’s only Catholic problem during his tenure. He’s already a veteran of a lengthy dispute with the Catholic Church over domestic welfare programs.
During his four years leading the House Budget Committee, Ryan’s cuts to food stamps (the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program, or SNAP) and the social safety net ran afoul of the American bishops, who said his budgets “failed a basic moral test.” The bishops were also concerned with Ryan’s proposal to eliminate tax credits for undocumented families.
“I reiterate our strong opposition to an unfair proposal that would alter the Child Tax Credit to exclude children of hard-working, immigrant families,” wrote Bishop Stephen Blaire at the time. “Denying the credit to children of working poor immigrant families — the large majority of whom are American citizens — would hurt vulnerable kids, increase poverty, and would not advance the common good.”
Ryan responded to the criticism by giving a speech at Georgetown, the nation’s oldest Catholic university, in April, 2012. There he claimed his budget didn’t fly in the face of the social doctrine of the Church: “I suppose that there are some Catholics who, for a long time, thought they had a monopoly of sorts … on the social teaching of our Church. Of course, there can be differences among faithful Catholics on this. The work I do as a Catholic holding office conforms to the social doctrine as best I can make of it.”
Ryan’s efforts to assuage his critics didn’t work. The controversy climaxed that summer, when Sister Simone Campbell led a 2,700-mile “Nuns on the Bus” tour through nine states to protest Ryan’s budget.
“We agree with our bishops, and that’s why we went on the road: to stand with struggling families and to lift up our Catholic sisters who serve them,” Campbell said at the 2012 Democratic National Convention. “Their work to alleviate suffering would be seriously harmed by the Ryan budget, and that is wrong.”
However, shortly after his failed vice presidential bid in November, 2012 and Pope Francis’ election in March, 2013, Ryan began to change his tune. Media reports suggested that Francis’ election changed Ryan’s view on poverty in particular.
In an August 2014 Wall Street Journal opinion piece, Ryan apologized for using the language of “makers and takers” in the past to describe the relationship between the rich and the poor:
The phrase gave insult where none was intended. People struggling and striving to get ahead — that’s what our country is all about. On that journey, they’re not “takers”; they’re trying to make something of themselves. We shouldn’t disparage that.
Ryan has acknowledged his language problem. Now he has the opportunity to acknowledge his policy problems.
The Catholic Church is right on this issue: We cannot balance the federal budget on the backs of the poor. While Ryan is right to be concerned about the effectiveness of federal programs, he must acknowledge the fact that programs like SNAP are effective at getting people out of poverty.
It’s time for Ryan to fulfill his promise to “wipe the slate clean,” set aside the old way of doing things, and create policies that serve the poor and the excluded.
He has asked the American people to pray for him, and we should. We should pray most especially that he takes Pope Francis’ words to heart and becomes a politician “who is genuinely disturbed by the state of society, the people, the lives of the poor!”