21st Aug 2012

A JFK for the New Evangelization?


by Kathryn Jean Lopez 

“We both agreed that we care passionately about the future of this country. So we did find some common ground.”

At last, Sister Simone Campbell and I are seeing eye to eye on Wisconsin congressman Paul Ryan! Sister Campbell, head of the social-justice lobby Network, commented on her meeting with Ryan after organizing a multi-state “Nuns on the Bus” tour to protest his budget plan. I’ve long been perplexed by why she doesn’t see what I see: The young, Catholic Ryan, House Budget Committee chairman and now vice-presidential running mate to presumptive Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, appears to take his faith seriously, including in discerning matters of public policy. What a great day for Catholics to have him on a national ticket, to have him at the forefront of policy and politics!

The prospect of Ryan as vice president is an important moment for Catholics — or, at least, it will be, if we take what he represents seriously in our own civic participation.

Kennedy’s ‘separation’: Sincere but wrong

The model for the Catholic in public life for far too long — for over 50 years now — has been John F. Kennedy, who asserted in his famous 1960 speech to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association that “the separation of Church and state is absolute.” Kennedy thus established a model for the privatization of religious faith in public life.

In a 2010 address marking the anniversary of Kennedy’s speech at Houston Baptist University, Archbishop Charles J. Chaput, then of Denver and now the Archbishop of Philadelphia, described Kennedy’s approach as “sincere, compelling, articulate — and wrong.” It was “wrong about American history and very wrong about the role of religious faith in our nation’s life,” Archbishop Chaput said. It has left a detrimental “lasting mark on American politics” having “profoundly undermined the place not just of Catholics, but of all religious believers, in America’s public life and political conversation.

“Today, half a century later, we’re paying for the damage,” he stated.

“Real Christian faith is always personal, but it’s never private,” Archbishop Chaput went on to say. “I’m here as a Catholic Christian and an American citizen — in that order. Both of these identities are important. They don’t need to conflict. They are not, however, the same thing. And they do not have the same weight. I love my country. I revere the genius of its founding documents and its public institutions. But no nation, not even the one I love, has a right to my allegiance, or my silence, in matters that belong to God or that undermine the dignity of the human persons He created.”

A historian might argue Kennedy had to do what he did, given the religious discrimination Catholics endured in the early 20th century in a country that historian Paul Johnson has described as having been “born Protestant.” That said, the late Archbishop Philip Hannan of New Orleans, a Kennedy family friend, in his book “The Archbishop Wore Combat Boots,” observed: “From my perspective, Kennedy went overboard in emphasizing his independence from the Catholic Church, essentially promising an arm’s length manifesto as well as a wall of separation between himself and the Church …”

Defending religious freedom and conscience rights

Ryan has joined a ticket that was already serious about defending the role of faith in public life. Referring to vocal Catholic-led opposition to the onerous threats to conscience rights imposed by the Department of Health and Human Services mandate requiring employers to offer contraception, sterilization, and abortion-inducing drugs in any employee benefit plans, Romney told an Ohio audience last month that President Obama and his administration “are going to usurp your religious freedom by demanding that you provide products to your employees, if you’re the Catholic Church, that violate your own conscience.”

Speaking to a solidarity with all people who respect religious freedom on this issue, he added: “I feel that we’re all Catholic today.”

He went on to articulate that it is not just those at religious-based organizations whose conscience rights are threatened by the HHS mandate, but businessmen as well. We’ve seen this in Denver, where the Hercules company, run by a Catholic family, won an injunction just before the Aug. 1 implementation began. Romney said the “attack on religious freedom…is a dangerous and unfortunate precedent.”

This was far from the former Massachusetts governor’s first encounter with religious-liberty threats. As governor, he came to defense of Catholic Charities and Catholic hospitals. As a candidate in the primaries going into 2008, the Mormon gave a major address on religious freedom — which was widely anticipated as being modeled after the Houston 1960 speech — in which he did a reverse JFK:

We separate church and state affairs in this country, and for good reason. No religion should dictate to the state nor should the state interfere with the free practice of religion. But in recent years, the notion of the separation of church and state has been taken by some well beyond its original meaning. They seek to remove from the public domain any acknowledgment of God. Religion is seen as merely a private affair with no place in public life. It is as if they are intent on establishing a new religion in America — the religion of secularism. They are wrong.

The founders proscribed the establishment of a state religion, but they did not countenance the elimination of religion from the public square. We are a nation “Under God” — and in God, we do indeed trust.

We should acknowledge the Creator as did the Founders — in ceremony and word. He should remain on our currency, in our pledge, in the teaching of our history, and during the holiday season, Nativity scenes and menorahs should be welcome in our public places. Our greatness would not long endure without judges who respect the foundation of faith upon which our constitution rests. I will take care to separate the affairs of government from any religion, but I will not separate us from “the God who gave us liberty.”

Ryan also happens to defend the lives of the unborn, in contrast to the Catholic who is currently serving as vice president. In a 2010 essay, Ryan wrote:

[A]fter America has won the last century’s hard-fought struggles against unequal human rights in the forms of totalitarianism abroad and segregation at home, I cannot believe any official or citizen can still defend the notion that an unborn human being has no rights that an older person is bound to respect. I do know that we cannot go on forever feigning agnosticism about who is human. As Thomas Jefferson wrote, “The God who gave us life gave us liberty at the same time.” The freedom to choose is pointless for someone who does not have the freedom to live. So the right of “choice” of one human being cannot trump the right to “life” of another. How long can we sustain our commitment to freedom if we continue to deny the very foundation of freedom — life — for the most vulnerable human beings?

Prudential judgment and Catholic principles

When I went to Mass the morning after Romney announced Ryan as his running mate, we prayed that all elected officials would work toward the common good. By Monday, at his first solo event as Romney’s running mate, Ryan was being shouted down by folks in the crowd for opposing “the common good.” During the Fortnight for Freedom, this was an organized political action plan, with liberal activists going so far as to protest Mass and adoration, because they were also celebrations of religious freedom.

My plea to Catholics this presidential cycle is: Don’t get distracted. Don’t be distracted by the president’s re-election campaign insisting that a compromise exists that doesn’t. (Why would Notre Dame be suing the federal government if there were?). Don’t be distracted by the constant bombardment of rhetoric playing on the best of intentions (who wants to wage a “war on women”? who wants to be opposed to the “common good”?) in the most insulting way.

As Catholics, we must oppose laws that and candidates who support intrinsic evils. The painful issue of abortion is as clear as any in this way. We must work for conditions that make abortion unthinkable for women who find themselves in difficult situations. But we also cannot accept candidates who contribute to the regime of abortion in our land. For too many years, we have done just that. “The Catholic vote” hasn’t always been a discerning one, but rather too often has contributed to a culture of death.

Catholic social teaching also calls to care deeply for the needs of the poor and work for the common good. These teachings lay down principles, but the specific courses of action for accomplishing these ends necessarily are left for policy experts and public officials to sort out, and there are various economic and sociological theories on how to approach the issues involved. Catholics can differ on how to shape government policies, budgets, programs, and strategies in order to best serve and support these concerns.

“[C]laims that Paul Ryan’s plan run deeply counter to Catholic social teaching are unfounded and unreasonable,” Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila of Denver has written. He echoes Ryan’s own bishop. “Congressman Ryan has made his prudential judgment about how best to serve the long-term needs of the poor,” Bishop Robert C. Morlino of Madison, Wis., said in an interview with EWTN’s Raymond Arroyo in May (he has since welcomed the veep announcement, too). “He has done that in accord with Catholic principles.”

Bishop Morlino made it clear that “I don’t have to approve his decision, or his budget, or anything else. What I do approve of is that he is a responsible Catholic layman who understands his mission and carries it out very responsibly. I feel very strongly about that. The details of his solution are not mine to approve or disapprove. That’s not my field.”

Bishop Morlino gently suggested that the “Nuns on the Bus” take a similar approach: “So, I would think that the religious sisters, though, should concentrate on giving that witness of holiness of all of the wonderful works that they do rather than busing around for political issues.”

Just before the Ryan pick was announced, Archbishop William E. Lori of Baltimore underlined the significance of the upcoming election.

“This is a big moment for Catholic voters to step back from their party affiliation,” he told me in an interview from the Knights of Columbus convention, held Aug. 7-9 in Anaheim, Calif.

Archbishop Lori advised Catholic voters: “The question to ask is this: Are any of the candidates of either party, or independents, standing for something that is intrinsically evil, evil no matter what the circumstances? If that’s the case, a Catholic, regardless of his party affiliation, shouldn’t be voting for such a person.”

In Paul Ryan, we have a tremendous opportunity to encourage a different model of the Catholic politician: One who respects his Catholic values enough to firmly lead on moral principle and to use his informed conscience to make prudential judgments on social concerns in concert with his faith — as we all are called to do.

Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online and a nationally syndicated columnist. She speaks frequently on faith and public life and blogs on Catholic things at  K-Lo@Large.

(The views expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the positions of Catholic Pulse or the Knights of Columbus.)