What do Pope Francis I and Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.) have in common? Both consider themselves to be devout Catholics, and neither was elected Vice President of the United States last November. But when it comes to addressing just how the world’s governments ought to address helping the poor, these two figures could not be more different.
On Thursday, Pope Francis condemned the “dictatorship of the economy” and called for global financial reform: “We have created new idols. The worship of the golden calf of old has found a new and heartless image in the cult of money and the dictatorship of an economy which is faceless and lacking truly humane goal.”
Paul Ryan had a few words of his own on a similar subject when he gave a commencement address at Benedictine College last Saturday. When defining the notion of solidarity (an essential tenet of Catholic Social Teaching), Ryan said, “We are all in this together, so we must be good to one another…and when we write laws of our nation, we must never lose sight of our primary purpose: the common good.”
However, this is the same Paul Ryan whose budget has been decried by the Society of Women Religious as well as a number of U.S. Catholic Bishops. This is the same Paul Ryan who has espoused cuts in government spending that affect some of the most vulnerable members of our society. Moreover, this is the same Paul Ryan who, while running for vice president last year, noted the strong influence that Ayn Rand’s philosophy had on his own intellectual development.
In case you don’t remember Ayn Rand’s name (and in today’s political landscape, you would be wise to read the Cliff Notes), she was the 20th century author who once said that “the alleged short-cut to knowledge, which is faith, is only a short circuit destroying the mind.”
I do not mean to argue that, in the Catholic tradition, there is no room for competing visions of how “the good” ought to be achieved. However, this disconnect between Francis and Ryan’s vision of Catholic Social Teaching is striking. To call yourself a devout Catholic and also admire the vision of an author who made it a mission to teach the dangers of altruism and submission to higher authority take a degree of cognitive dissonance I can hardly fathom.
And yet this division, while especially pronounced here, is not entirely uncommon. Remember, one of the other most politically influential Catholics in the country is Joe Biden, who is a staunch proponent of abortion rights, strict gun laws, a more regulated economy, and more spending for the poor, all of which are policies that Ryan vehemently denounces.
Does this disconnect suggest an identity crisis for the Catholic Church? Probably not. When your denomination is the single largest religious group in the world, there is bound to be debate. After all, what else is the purpose of politics? But when your faith vision ostensibly clashes so powerfully with that of the leader of your church, people tend to take notice. Whether or not Ryan or Francis’s position proves more popular will certainly tell us a lot about where Catholic voters’ (and, by extension, the rest of this country’s) priorities lie.