Paul Ryan

(Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

This past Saturday, as Mitt Romney introduced his running mate Paul Ryan, the loudest applause erupted when he said, “A faithful Catholic, Paul believes in the worth and dignity of every human life.” The newly minted vice presidential candidate is known for his Catholicism, his staunch views against abortion, and his socially conservative record. But as the chairman of the House Budget Committee, he has made a name for himself on fiscal issues—and within that arena, also melds his religious beliefs. “The 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,” he said in an April interview with the Christian Broadcasting Network. He also cited, as a way to serve the common good, “the [Catholic] principle of subsidiarity, which is really federalism, meaning government closest to the people governs best.”

Yet Ryan’s interpretation of Catholic social teaching has prompted much debate among his fellow Catholics. The budget proposal he crafted for his party would make deep cuts to entitlement programs while also cutting taxes for the wealthy. In response, members of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops have spoken out, worried the plan would hurt the poor. One letter reminded lawmakers that “[a] central moral measure of any budget proposal is how it affects ‘the least of these.’” In April, almost 60 Catholic leaders released a statement saying the Ryan budget is “morally indefensible and betrays Catholic principles of solidarity, just taxation, and a commitment to the common good.” This summer, Sister Simone Campbell, head of Network, a Catholic social justice lobby, organized a cross-country “Nuns on a Bus” tour to protest the Ryan budget.

Many of those protesting Paul Ryan’s budget measures cite the name of another Ryan in their arguments. In Catholic circles, the name Ryan in relation to the economy usually brings to mind another important figure: Monsignor John A. Ryan (1869-1945), arguably the most influential American Catholic social and economic thinker of the twentieth century. Monsignor Ryan provides an illuminating comparison with the young congressional representative. He and Paul Ryan have much in common besides the same last name: both hail from the upper Midwest and from Irish-American families, both have a penchant for number-crunching, and both have sought to reconcile their ideas about economic policy with their Catholicism. But in terms of their interpretations of Catholic social doctrine, perhaps there is no starker contrast than that between the two Ryans.

MONSIGNOR JOHN RYAN’S AMERICA, like Paul’s today, was one in great flux, rife with social and economic dislocation of historic proportions. Nearly 40 percent of all Americans lived in poverty in 1900. In 1920, many of the nearly 20 million Catholics clustered in America’s industrial cities were needy immigrants, and all lived in a society that discriminated against them on religious grounds. Immigrants, largely Catholic, labored in the most tedious and difficult jobs in industrial America: building and maintaining railroads out West, coal mining in Pennsylvania, meatpacking in Chicago, garment-making in New York City. Such circumstances deeply shaped John Ryan’s Catholic activism for the rest of his life.

Born in Vermillion, Minnesota, in 1869, John Ryan’s Midwestern and Irish-American roots laid the groundwork for his full embrace of papal teachings. As a youth he heard firsthand the tales of starvation, eviction, and oppression of the Irish from his immigrant parents. Late-nineteenth-century Minnesota, moreover, like much of the Midwest, was aflame with agrarian populism, a farmer-dominated movement led by individuals such as fellow Irish-American Catholic Ignatius Donnelly. Donnelly served as a Minnesota congressman and lieutenant governor in the 1860s; his writings and oratory gave Ryan a political appreciation for the preciousness of ordinary folk.

John Ryan never forgot his first reading of Pope Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum (“Of New Things”), the 1891 encyclical that would transform the landscape of Catholic social doctrine for decades to come. When he read those words, Ryan was a seminarian studying for the priesthood in St. Paul, Minnesota. “The doctrine of state intervention which I had come to accept and which was sometimes denounced as ‘socialistic’ in those benighted days,” he wrote in his journal in 1894, “I now read in a papal encyclical.” The encyclical emphasized government’s obligation to ensure the dignity of the worker in the industrial world. Its message has been reiterated in papal teachings ever since (most recently in Pope Benedict XVI’s 2009 Caritas in Veritate). The pope’s letter gave Ryan the tools he needed to bring his Catholicism to bear on his ideas about the economy.

John Ryan’s exacting and pivotal work, A Living Wage (1906), sought to quantify how much an average family needed to survive. Ryan advocated a legal minimum wage when there was none; indeed, he drafted the legislation for Minnesota which, though slightly modified from his original version, became law in 1914. He pushed for federal legislation on a range of basic employee rights, from the right to unionize to unemployment insurance. In 1919, he authored the Bishops’ Program for Social Reconstruction, which advocated for these measures as well as for public housing, a national employment service, and regulation of public utility rates and monopolies. Although the 1919 Bishops’ Program was largely forgotten in the economically uninhibited 1920s, once the Depression began, Roosevelt’s administration was much more receptive to Ryan’s ideas than Hoover or Coolidge had been. The priest-scholar served on various committees within the White House, advising the president on labor and social security legislation. Ryan was delighted with much of the New Deal agenda and publicly advocated for its provisions. When he died in 1945, many of the measures he had championed 40 years earlier had become policy.

PAUL RYAN, LIKE OTHERYoung Guns” who today see themselves as reforming the Republican Party, believe that such economic measures are no longer necessary or effective, that the New Deal approach to the state has created a large government with a bloated entitlement system, and that the current social welfare system needs a major overhaul if not a complete dismantling. Born just over century after the Monsignor in 1970, Paul’s positions on the economy reflect the circumstances of his upbringing and education as much as his Irish-American Catholic predecessor’s did.

The younger Ryan comes from, as one local newspaper put it, “a sprawling, traditional, Irish-Catholic, fifth-generation Janesville family.” Paul’s family is of Irish and German ancestry, but one far removed from the working-class circumstances of the second-generation Irish-American John Ryan. Monsignor Ryan grew up on a farm as one of 11 children; Paul is one of four siblings and his mother was an “outdoors enthusiast who led her husband and four kids on regular trips to hike and ski in the Colorado Rockies.” Paul Ryan’s grandfather was appointed by Calvin Coolidge to serve as U.S. Attorney for Western Wisconsin. His father, a lawyer, died young, but his social security benefit went to his son to finance a college education. Paul moved on to a career in marketing and speechwriting before becoming a seven-time Wisconsin Republican representative.

Paul Ryan’s experience does not reflect the workers in the upper Midwest who could not make the transition from the industrial to the postindustrial world, whose jobs were either shipped overseas or given to newer immigrants. Ryan sees middle and upper class Americans as victims of a grasping state bureaucracy, and in this way he is exhibiting a new populist strain more in line with Tea Party outrage than the farmer outrage of the 1890s. He told the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel that he is a “‘second generation’ supply-sider.”

Until recently, Paul Ryan cited Ayn Rand as a large influence. “The reason I got involved in public service, by and large, if I had to credit one thinker, one person, would be Ayn Rand,” Ryan said in 2005 speech to the Atlas Society. “The fight we are in here, make no mistake about it, is a fight of individualism versus collectivism.” Rand’s objectivism, which emphasizes individual happiness and laissez-faire capitalism, is diametrically opposed to the Catholic social thought embedded in documents like Rerum Novarum and the writings of John Ryan, which emphasized the obligation of individuals to the community. More recently, Ryan has distanced himself from the controversial thinker. “I reject her philosophy. It’s an atheist philosophy,” he told Robert Costa at the National Review. “It reduces human interactions down to mere contracts and it is antithetical to my worldview.” He said he preferred Thomas Aquinas to Rand.

During his speech this past Saturday, Ryan told the crowd in Virginia, “Our rights come from nature and from God, not government,” adding, “We promise equal opportunity, not equal outcomes.” And if nature and God do not generate equal outcomes? John Ryan spent his career focusing on justice and the Catholic responsibility to those who may have been promised equal opportunity but were denied it. Paul Ryan’s view on rights and outcomes sounds more like Social Darwinism than Monsignor Ryan’s Catholicism, though the vice presidential candidate remains personally committed to his faith. In an April speech at Georgetown University, he said, “The work I do as a Catholic holding office conforms to the social doctrine as best I can make of it.” During this campaign season, many Catholics are hoping he can make more of those doctrines than he has thus far.  

Maria Mazzenga, Ph.D., is a historian at Catholic University in Washington D.C. specializing in twentieth century U.S. history and the American Catholic experience.