Under fire from the powerful U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops for writing a budget that cuts deeply into programs that help the needy, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) defended his vision in a Thursday speech at Georgetown University.
But his remarks were less an attempt to persuade his religious detractors than to undermine them, putting the Catholic Wisconsinite in the uncomfortable position of criticizing a frequent ally.
“I suppose there are some Catholics who for a long time have thought they had a monopoly of sorts,” Ryan said. “Not exactly on heaven, but on the social teaching of our church. Of course there can be differences among faithful Catholics on this.”
The House Budget chairman offered a lengthy affirmation of his Catholic faith, reiterating that his policies are informed in part by his religious views. “The work I do as a Catholic holding office conforms to the social doctrine as best I can make of it,” he said, calling for a “respectful discussion, among Catholics as well as those who don’t share our faith.”
The speech was a response to recent criticism from the often GOP-friendly U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, who in a series of letters to Capitol Hill disparaged Ryan’s budget for “fail[ing] to meet … moral criteria” of protecting the poor, calling for “shared sacrifice by all” including raising revenues and considering military cuts.
Ryan made matters worse by initially arguing that the USCCB letter did not reflect the views of “all the Catholic bishops,” to which the group’s spokesperson reminded Ryan that it was indeed written by those elected to “represent all of the U.S. bishops.”
Ahead of Ryan’s speech, 90 faculty members at Catholic-affiliated Georgetown wrote a letter lambasting Ryan for “continuing misuse of Catholic teaching to defend a budget plan that decimates food programs for struggling families,” among other things. “In short, your budget appears to reflect the values of your favorite philosopher, Ayn Rand, rather than the gospel of Jesus Christ,” they wrote.
In a sign that the criticism bruised Ryan, he proceeded to label his well-documented affinity for Rand an “urban legend” in an interview with National Review published Thursday, saying he rejects her “atheist philosophy.” He did not, however, comment on Rand’s anti-government views that more closely reflect his political philosophy.
On that front, Ryan was as fervent as ever in Thursday’s speech that government programs are not the answer to society’s ills.
“Simply put, I do not believe that the preferential option for the poor means a preferential option for big government,” he said. “Those unwilling to lift the debt are complicit in our acceleration toward a debt crisis, in which the poor would be hurt the first and the worst.”
Sahil Kapur is a congressional reporter for TPM. He previously covered politics and public policy for numerous publications including The Guardian and The Huffington Post. He can be reached at sahil [at] talkingpointsmemo.com.