THE TABLE

A setting to debate the issues of the day.

Will Paul Ryan help Mitt Romney win the Catholic vote?

Memo to Ryan: “Life Issues” Go Beyond Abortion

By | August 16, 2012

(Win McNamee/Getty Images)

We already know that no homogeneous “Catholic vote” exists in presidential elections. Catholics present themselves along the entire political spectrum, with a strong “middle” of undecided voters.

Like all Catholics, those in the middle must balance individual issues like abortion and marriage with church teachings about helping people in poverty. While abortion and gay marriage have received far more media exposure (and yes, pulpit time) than the Catholic social justice teachings, there are many within the faith who believe that “pro-life” includes making sure that every person has access to food and all that is necessary to live. In this, they are in agreement with the Bishops and the fullness of church teaching. Those who oppose abortion also know that abortions go down when mothers are able to take care of their babies. Providing them with the means to do so is therefore, for me and many others, a position that supports a consistent ethic of life.

Catholic voters must always grapple with the fact that no political party or candidate completely represents the fullness of our faith’s teachings. So they are forced to decide what is most important to them, where their priorities lie.

This year, we have an interesting—and very distinct—choice between the two parties. Both candidates for vice president are Catholic, and they represent very different Catholic constituencies.

When an election is predicted to be close—as this year’s is—politicians look for every edge. There is no getting around the fact that there are a LOT of Catholic voters in this country. Carving out a segment of undecided Catholic voters could prove more than valuable.

Governor Romney knew this when he included Paul Ryan’s religious affiliation while announcing him as his running mate on August 11: “A faithful Catholic, Paul believes in the worth and dignity of every human life.” (How often has one heard a presidential candidate introduce his running mate as a “faithful Methodist” or “Presbyterian”?)

Now that Ryan has been named as Romney’s running mate, there has been renewed interest in the link between his religious beliefs and the federal budget plan he has put forward. Not only does Paul Ryan say that his budget is grounded in church teachings, but he also frequently cites his commitment to life issues when speaking to various audiences.

I don’t for a moment question that his beliefs are sincere, but they only represent those of the conservative wing of the church.

Many of us are puzzled when those against abortion, who are committed to life issues, try to link their agenda with a budget plan like that of Representative Ryan, which would take food from hungry families, deny lifesaving healthcare to millions of families, and push vulnerable people further into poverty.

My organization, NETWORK, A National Catholic Social Justice Lobby, was founded by Catholic sisters, and we organized the “Nuns on the Bus” tour earlier this summer. We traveled from Iowa to Virginia to talk about Paul Ryan’s budget and how it would impact people already struggling at the economic margins. Along the way, we visited food programs, clinics and other programs run by people of faith. We spoke with many hardworking low-income people about what they went through to feed their families and find healthcare. Their stories touched us deeply, making us wonder even more how anyone could target programs that help them.

Today, we continue to question how a budget that deliberately harms people at the economic margins while further enriching the wealthiest can ever be defined as “pro-life” or in keeping with Catholic social teachings. We cannot support a plan that would cut assistance to WIC, which would result in many hundreds of thousands of women, children and infants losing access to nutrition programs that nourish them. Or the slashing of funds for health insurance programs, causing millions to lose access to potentially lifesaving medical care.

For the most part, the “conservative” and “progressive” wings of the Catholic Church will probably prioritize their own political values when they enter the voting booths in November.

So what will be the outcome? That depends on how the candidates present themselves in the coming months, and how they are defined by others. Will Representative Ryan continue to play up his Catholic credentials despite the fact that his federal budget proposal has been criticized by U.S. Catholic Bishops, a large group of professors at the Jesuit Georgetown University, and numerous others—including the “Nuns on the Bus”?

If so, how will the undecided Catholics react?

Time will tell, but my current guess is that, in the end, the Catholic vote will resemble that of the 2008 election. (President Obama received the majority.) But that is only my guess.

Simone Campbell, SSS, is executive director of NETWORK, A National Catholic Social Justice Lobby.

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