For a number of years national surveys have shown that religious Catholics and Protestants—usually defined as those who attend church once per week or more—tend to vote Republican. Therefore, the speed with which supporters of President Barack Obama's re-election moved to a discussion of GOP vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan's Catholicism was something of a surprise.
Typically, discussions of religion are avoided by those who write the narrative of national campaigns because they usually go against the electoral interests of the Democrats. The more orthodox religious positions on issues like abortion and same sex marriage cut against the party's interests. We can all remember the embarrassment Massachusetts Sen. John F. Kerry suffered when, during the 2004 campaign, a Catholic clergyman said Kerry should not be allowed to take Holy Communion because of his support for abortion.
So, while Vice President Joe Biden's adherence to church teachings are off limits, liberal Catholics allied with Obama are publicly challenging Ryan's commitment to them. Their focus is on the budget document he produced two years ago when he first assumed the chairmanship of the U.S. House Budget Committee. The Ryan budget, they say, goes against Catholic teachings on social justice and is an affront to "the common good." Yet according to Ryan's own bishop, they are wrong.
"The formation of conscience regarding particular policy issues is different depending on how fundamental to the ecology of human nature or the Catholic faith a particular issue is," Bishop Robert C. Morlino recently wrote in the Madison Catholic Herald. "Some of the most fundamental issues for the formation of a Catholic conscience are as follows: sacredness of human life from conception to natural death, marriage, religious freedom and freedom of conscience, and a right to private property."
"Violations of the above involve intrinsic evil—that is, an evil which cannot be justified by any circumstances whatsoever," Morlino continued. "These evils are examples of direct pollution of the ecology of human nature and can be discerned as such by human reason alone. Thus, all people of good will who wish to follow human reason should deplore any and all violations in the above areas, without exception."
Morlino defines those "violations" as: abortion, euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide, same-sex marriage, government-coerced secularism, and socialism.
"It is not up to me or any bishop or priest to approve of Congressman Ryan's specific budget prescription," Morlino continued. "Where intrinsic evils are not involved, specific policy choices and political strategies are the province of Catholic lay missions. But, as I've said, vice presidential candidate Ryan is aware of Catholic Social Teaching and is very careful to fashion and form his conclusions in accord with the principles mentioned above. Of that I have no doubt. (I mention this matter in obedience to Church Law regarding one's right to a good reputation.)"
To put it another way, the churchman who knows Ryan best has vouched for him. Yet Morlino's letter has received scant attention from the media, probably because it—unlike ones sent by two leaders of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops when Ryan's first budget was released—establishes that Ryan's public policy ideas do not conflict with the tenets of the Catholic Church.
This is unfortunate, say some religious scholars, because it allows Ryan's positions to be distorted.
"The importance of Bishop Morlino's letter regarding Congressman Ryan cannot be underestimated," said Deal Hudson, a noted Catholic lay scholar. "Bishop Morlino is the ordinary of the Madison, Wis. diocese. Since Paul Ryan and his family live in his diocese, Bishop Morlino's statement below should clear the air of any debate regarding Ryan's commitment to the principles of Catholic social teaching."
"Bishop Morlino's words echo those of Cardinal Timothy Dolan's May letter to the congressman commending him for treating the budget as a 'moral' enterprise,'" Hudson added. "Though Cardinal Dolan is the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Morlino's letter, coming as it does from Ryan's ordinary, carries not just more weight but actual ecclesial authority. Given that Bishop Morlino has now attested to Paul Ryan's good standing in the Church and his commitment to its social teaching the debate can be focused on the prudential issues involved rather than Ryan's Catholicism."
Morlino's words carry significant weight, so much so that they should—but will probably not be enough—to silence the congressman's ecclesiastical critics. The focus given Ryan's policy ideas in the context of the church subtly stress how important Catholics will be in determining the outcome of the upcoming election. Catholics constitute large numbers of the electorate in key states like Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, Iowa, and Florida—states Obama carried before and counted on carrying again with relative ease. With Catholics on both national tickets, Obama may have to fight for them, and with fewer resources than he had available four years ago. Thus the political need to discredit Ryan as a "true" Catholic arises, not out of principle but out of electoral desperation.