VP Role for Paul Ryan Has His Former Parish Priest Worried

The entrance to St. Mary Elementary School in Janesville, Wisconsin has two identical archways with contrasting inscriptions. One entrance says, "For God." The other says, "For Country." That is where Mitt Romney's vice presidential running mate, U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan, first merged his studies of government and religion as a young student.

And the priest who presides over the archways and the towering steeple of the Nativity of Mary says that Ryan's interpretation of Catholic teaching in national budgetary matters and his prospective vice presidential role have him "worried." Father Stephen Umhoefer told the Center for Media and Democracy (CMD) that he supports a role for religion in the public square, but that Ryan's austerity budget and proposed steep cuts in social programs are inconsistent with the Catholic teachings that Ryan cites to justify the policies. "If he is following his conscience, he is doing the morally correct thing. But he shouldn't wrap himself in Catholic teaching because he is not using that [teaching] in what I would say is a balanced way," said Umhoefer.

Umhoefer, 72, has led the church since 2002 and was the Ryan family pastor until the family left for another Janesville parish a few years ago. Ryan's current parish is led by a priest who teaches on the diocese faculty under the deeply conservative Madison Bishop Robert Morlino, who characterizes Ryan's judgment as "in accord with all the teachings of the Church."

Ryan's Defense of Austerity Budget Kicks Up Controversy

Ryan's leadership as chair of the House Budget Committee and author of the "Path to Prosperity" Republican budget blueprint and the FY 2013 House Budget Resolution has become a lightning rod for criticism by other Catholic bishops, ecumenical groups, and lay leaders.

Nativity of Mary Parish, Janesville, WisconsinIn introducing Ryan to the nation as his running mate Saturday, Romney said that Ryan's beliefs "remain firmly rooted in Janesville, Wisconsin," and pointed to his life as a "faithful Catholic." If elected, Ryan would become the first Catholic Republican vice president in history. The Ryan budget, which passed the U.S. House of Representatives in 2012 but died in the Senate, would slash taxes on the rich and on corporations, while implementing massive cuts in social safety net programs. It would repeal Obamacare, cut Medicaid, transform Medicare into a voucher system, cut student loans, and end the Earned Income Tax Credit program for the poor, while reversing Wall Street financial reforms.

Standing alone, the harsh austerity budget was controversial enough. But in an interview with the Christian Broadcasting Network in April 2012, Ryan defended his budget as in conformity with Catholic social doctrine. "[T]he preferential option for the poor, which is one of the primary tenets of Catholic social teaching, means don't keep people poor, don't make people dependent on government so that they stay stuck in their station in life. Help people get out of poverty onto [a] life of independence," Ryan said.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops took sharp exception, calling on Congress to resist "for moral and human reasons" cuts to food and nutrition programs to the poor. The Conference called instead for "shared sacrifice ... including raising adequate revenues, eliminating unnecessary military and other spending, and addressing the long-term costs of health insurance and retirement programs fairly." Faculty at Georgetown University put it more bluntly in an open letter to Ryan: "Your budget appears to reflect the values of your favorite philosopher, Ayn Rand, rather than the Gospel of Jesus Christ."

Father Umhoefer followed the controversy from Janesville. He said in an extended interview that he had a "very friendly pastor-parishioner relationship" with Ryan, but that the two "never sat down and talked politics." He noted that he has not read in full the dense, 60-plus page Republican budget, but that he has reviewed the budget through a range of Catholic and ecumenical materials and media reports, and he shared the concerns expressed by the bishops.

"The Primary Question Is, How Does This Affect the Poor?"

For Umhoefer, the test of the budget is a simple one: "The first question is how does this affect the poor. And everything else follows from that. That doesn't mean it's a Republican or Democrat [question] -- you could argue that. But the primary question is how does this affect the poor?"

Umhoefer said that Ryan's lack of attention to the poor and the emphasis on individualism espoused by role models such as Ayn Rand concerned him. "Paul would say that the only way to save the country from a coming [fiscal] disaster is 'follow my plan.'" But according to Umhoefer, the problem is "you can't tell somebody that in ten years your economic situation is going to be just wonderful because meanwhile your kids may starve to death."

Umhoefer said that in Janesville, which lost some 5,000 jobs related to the auto industry after a GM plant closed in 2009, residents continue to seek emergency food and housing support and social service organizations have been running out of funds. A house across the street from the church sits with a red "condemned" sticker prominently on the door, and another house on the block has a sign that declares, "Price Reduced."

"The welfare check runs out and people are suffering now in ways that they haven't before," he said, noting that the church has hired two former auto workers with wages and benefits far below their former level.

St. Mary School, Janesville, WisconsinUmhoefer said that wealthy church members have offered support for shared sacrifice and revenue raising proposals such as the Warren Buffet rule that asks millionaires to avoid loopholes and pay a tax rate of 30 percent. "I can't always invite my neighbor over to dinner, but I ... need to pay a certain amount of taxes. And I need to vote to make sure taxes are used to help make sure that my neighbor isn't starving," he said.

Umhoefer also laments what he calls an excess of individualism in America that is sometimes abetted by politicians. He prepared for CMD a section of the church catechism, which states that the church "has refused to accept, in the practice of 'capitalism,' individualism and the absolute primacy of the law of the marketplace over human labor." Umhoefer said that he doesn't mean to accuse Ryan of choosing individualism as a creed over community, but that Ryan's promotion of Ayn Rand to his staff and others is "an alternative universe of which he is a member.... What I call an excessive attitude of individualism is doing a great deal of harm to us as a society because we are forgetting society values," said Umhoefer.

Priest to Ryan: "You Can't Just Pack Your Own Heat"

Umhoefer said that Ryan has also selectively presented to his audiences a Catholic concept of empowerment known as "subsidiarity." Ryan explained subsidiarity to the Christian Broadcasting Network as "not having big government crowd out civic society, but by having enough space in our communities so that we can interact with each other, and take care of people who are down and out in our communities."

Umhoefer said that he agrees with the "Nuns on the Bus," a group of liberal nuns who recently undertook a bus tour and visited Ryan's Janesville office to underscore the absurdity of Ryan's approach. "Just on food stamps alone, Congressman Ryan is wrong that the church can take care of this issue. The cuts that have been proposed and passed by the [U.S.] House are going to require every church, every synagogue, every mosque, every house of worship in the United States, each year for ten years, to each raise $50,000. It's impossible," said Sister Simone Campbell during the Janesville stop. CMD covered the Nuns on the Bus Tour and sought the interview with Umhoefer after the nuns presented an alternative "moral budget" in Janesville.

Reading from the catechism, Umhoefer explained that government "should support [local communities] in case of need and help to coordinate its activities with the activities of the rest of society, always with a view to the common good." He said that when subsidiarity lacks resources and coordination, government can fail when it is most needed. But sometimes we need to be rescued: "You can't just pack your own heat and protect your own building," he cautioned.

"What I wish for Paul -- he is so smart and so articulate and has made this whole budget, which he can defend on his own view ... of how the economy and politics work. I wish he wouldn't bring in the Catholic church. He doesn't need to if his economic and political argument are strong, and I'm sure he believes that they are."


I have the deepest respect for Bishop Morlino, who states that Ryan's thought is in accord with Catholic social teaching. He is obviously in dialogue with Catholic leaders about it, including Cardinal Dolan, including about guarding the interests of the poor. Budget specifics are not really the competency of bishops--as several bishops pointed out, criticizing the USCCB committee that made a statement about the budget proposal. Biden is also Catholic, does he talk very much and with such an obviously healthy relationship with the bishops about moral matters and public policy? He is pro abortion and pro same sex "marriage", this cannot be justified for any Catholic. These things are always gravely wrong. Christians are highly obliged to help the poor, it doesn't all have to be through the federal government (though certainly some could or even should) and it does have to respect the principle of subsidiarity, or else you wind up with socialism or what Pope Benedict has called "statism". Ryan has stated multiple times, he does not believe in Ayn Rand, and has explained very well why not, in accord with Catholic beliefs.

I have seen and heard many instances of Paul Ryan talking about how much he admires Ayn Rand. To claim now that he never liked her, you're being disingenuous.

A few quotes from Paul Ryan over the past few years regarding the atheist Ayn Rand and her writings: • "I just want to speak to you a little bit about Ayn Rand and what she meant to me in my life and [in] the fight we're engaged here in Congress. I grew up on Ayn Rand, that's what I tell people." • "I grew up reading Ayn Rand and it taught me quite a bit about who I am and what my value systems are, and what my beliefs are." • "It's inspired me so much that it's required reading in my office for all my interns and my staff. We start with Atlas Shrugged. People tell me I need to start with The Fountainhead then go to Atlas Shrugged [laughter]. There's a big debate about that. We go to Fountainhead, but then we move on, and we require Mises and Hayek as well." • "But the reason I got involved in public service, by and large, if I had to credit one thinker, one person, it would be Ayn Rand." • "And when you look at the twentieth-century experiment with collectivism -- that Ayn Rand, more than anybody else, did such a good job of articulating the pitfalls of statism and collectivism -- you can't find another thinker or writer who did a better job of describing and laying out the moral case for capitalism than Ayn Rand." • "It's so important that we go back to our roots to look at Ayn Rand's vision, her writings, to see what our girding, under-grounding [sic] principles are."

MR. JONES..... Excellent comments and well presented. As a Catholic myself, I see Paul Ryan and the entire debate of healthcare, abortions, willingness to go to war, etc as an example of people who are "PRO-BIRTH" and Not "pro-life". In other words, they INSIST that a child be born but refuse to accept any responsibility to help feed, clothe and educate that same child.

I cannot thank you enough for taking the time to put together such a thorough argument against the current candidate's positions. As you say, he can believe what he wants, but he certainly cannot claim that he is following Jesus' teachings. I encourage you to get this essay out there as many places as you can. Send it to newspapers, networks, internet news sites. We need more voices like yours if we are to prevent this catastrophe from making it to the White House.

I wonder if you, as a "poor person who receives an extremely generous amount of government aid" have thought about what the Ryan budget will do to your quality of life? Will you get a special government exemption due to being Catholic or pro-life? Probably not. Will the church be able to compensate for that loss of income? For those of us apparently thrown into the "nasty atheist anti-Catholic" category, the issue of poverty and the Ryan budget will directly affect the lives of millions of people in this country. People who pay taxes everyday through sales taxes at the state, county, and city level. People who pay ever rising fees established by various governmental entities. People who are working hard to survive and are constantly denigrated as "deadbeats" by many of our nation's leaders. People about whom Jesus spoke extensively in the Bible. Abortion affects a very small section of our society by comparison, and is an issue used to divide people who would normally be on the same side of issues, like poverty. Abortion is only tangentially addressed in the Bible. The budget crisis only recently became an issue when a democrat was elected president. During the Bush years, running up that enormous budget was hardly even addressed, nor was the issue of how to pay for two wars and a massive tax cut. The right to life is your issue, but it is only one of many issues that affect our country. And many of those issues are directly traceable to the issue of poverty and inequality.

I wonder if you have considered that I actually believe the government is being too generous to me and that it is obviously unsustainable, and that I actually would like to wean off the government teat. Someone who stays dependent stays poor, Abortion is direct killing of persons, and is far graver than whether they give me less food stamps, or even stop giving me food stamps, which is not going to kill me. There have been about 50 million abortions in the US since that became legal. It is completely a no brainer that morally I am obliged to oppose abortion even if it costs me. I used to be a progressive (a MoveOn.org volunteer, went to Camp Wellstone, the 1st YearlyKos etc, was in the very front at the massive John Kerry campaign rally on W Washington Ave), so I'm familiar with the "What's the Matter with Kansas" notion that poorer people "ought to" vote their economic interests (including the abundant government teat the Democrats offer) and ignore such grave issues as abortion, same sex marriage, and religious liberty. So the Democrats expect people to be accepting of an increasing culture of death, sexual license and breakdown of family life and religion, and get some form of government welfare in payment for going along with that. Presented as populism, it's really warmed-over marxism. It's destructive to our human dignity and to our society. It's not even really in our best interest as poor people. Especially, if our country goes broke, that does NOT help the poor, and breakdown of married family life sure as anything doesn't help! I volunteer with the homeless through the Society of St Vincent de Paul and yet another decent seeming guy (who showed me a picture of his beautiful kids whom he loves) just implied sadly he may be going to jail for failing to pay child support; I felt for this guy and for all involved. Giving food stamps or etc does NOT fix these broken lives, and neither does trivializing sex and human life, which is what gets people into those types of situations. We need to all be there for our neighbors, for our family members, foster responsible love via premarital chastity and married family life and faithfulness, love one another and work hard, and love and trust in God. I don't want all the folks dependent on the government to stay poor and dependent, I want to see people thrive and I am interested in the ideas Romney and Ryan may have for making getting actually OUT of poverty a reality for more people.

You say you are "a poor person who receives an extremely generous amount of government aid." Don't you see that a Paul Ryan type of plan would remove that and leave you destitute?

Yet another person who identifies with the ruling elite, to the point that she's willing to vote against her own interests. Does she EVER think, that as a poor person who "receives an extremely generous amount of government aid", that she could get an appointment with Ryan to talk about an issue important to her--say, abortion--if she were one of his constituents in Janesville? (Not clear from her post if she is) Good luck with that one, he's too busy raising money to talk to people who don't have any. And writing budgets to strip away all that generous government aid.