Paul Ryan, the presumptive U.S. Republican nominee for vice-president, has been on the firing line for his use or abuse of Catholic social teaching to justify a draconian proposed budget that would cut both benefits to the poor and taxes paid by the rich.
The attacks on Ryan have become so fierce that even his own bishop has come to the defence, not of his policies, but of his reputation. At the very least, Ryan is a thoughtful, intelligent Catholic who has tried to bring Catholic principles into the public square. He has opposed abortion and has defended the principle of religious freedom now under attack by the Obama administration's health-care proposals.
His faith commitment invites comparison with that of Joe Biden, the current vice-president and also a Catholic, who favours legal abortion and, from what we can see, has failed to stand up for religious freedom in the health-care controversy.
Ryan advocates a reduction in the enormous U.S. government debt and he believes civil society should play a greater role in bringing aid to the poor. A progressive tax system stifles economic growth, and growth, he maintains, is the best social program for it creates jobs for the unemployed.
Some of this could indeed be seen to be line with Catholic social teaching. Ryan, however, is naïve if he believes the voluntary sector can provide anything more than a minor supplement to government programs that are essential to giving people a barely basic standard of living. Moreover, cutting government aid to the poor is rarely an incentive to overcome a dependency on government "handouts" and find meaningful work.
If Ryan is consistent about ending dependency on government handouts, he would be well advised to take a hard look at the trillions of dollars the U.S. government has spent bailing out banks, subsidizing the arms industry and providing other forms of corporate welfare.
Despite his enthusiasm for Catholic social teaching, Ryan has ignored one principle taught steadfastly by the Second Vatican Council and Pope John Paul II - the universal destination of goods. As the council stated, "God destined the earth and all it contains for all men and all peoples, so that all created things would be shared fairly by all humanity under the guidance of justice tempered by charity." At the very least, this principle calls for a progressive system of taxation, a system Ryan would eradicate.
Ryan's stands on abortion and religious liberty may well make him preferable to Biden as vice-president, if he would actually take action on those views. However, Catholic teaching is a full-meal deal. The Church's moral guidance calls for a society that strives to reduce economic inequality rather than give more to those who already have much.