Vail Daily columnist Jack Van Ens: Catholic bishops can’t convert Ryan |

Vail Daily columnist Jack Van Ens: Catholic bishops can’t convert Ryan

When big-city Roman Catholic neighborhoods thrived, bishops taught their flocks that God’s heart goes out to all. His “preferential option,” they declared, is toward the poor. “Don’t rob the poor …,” bishops recited, “or trample on the rights of an oppressed person at the city gate because the Lord will plead their case …” (Proverbs 22:22-23).

Because immigrant Catholic families had a tough time getting food, bishops co-opted Uncle Sam to fight against hunger. Government and the Catholic Church worked together to staff food pantries, provide low-income housing and sponsor health clinics.

Now, devout Roman Catholic Paul Ryan, the Republican vice presidential candidate, ignores the bishops’ ethic. He limits Uncle Sam’s role in caring for those less fortunate. His budget lowers taxes, cuts social-welfare programs and overhauls entitlements that help poor people.

Because of rising national debt, Ryan believes we must radically cut government spending, reform the tax code so the well-to-do pay less and urge churches, together with private charities, to widen social-justice ministries.

Ryan assures listeners that the rich, who benefit first in his supply-side scheme, will spur job growth, which, in turn, will lift the poor out of dire straits.

Do Americans remember how this way of treating the poor failed miserably during Herbert Hoover’s presidency (1928-32)? He argued, like Ryan today, that the rich must continue building wealth, aided by less government regulation. The poor, advised Hoover, should tend to their own cares without Uncle Sam’s help. Let private charity and church soup kitchens pick up the slack and care for them.

Hoover’s hands-off policy worsened the Great Depression after 1929. Only New York State, under Gov. Franklin Delano Roosevelt, funded a social-welfare program of any magnitude and efficiency to begin caring for the poor.

Earlier this year, the Bishops Conference denounced Ryan’s plan, calling his draconian cuts “unacceptable,” “unjustified” and “wrong.” Isn’t the Ryan budget immoral?

President Barack Obama, who has worked hands on with Chicago’s poor, warned that the Ryan budget is an exercise in “social Darwinism.” The strong who can pay their bills are rewarded. The weak who can’t are abandoned.

Ryan cleverly pressed his case for debt reduction in his acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention. Fact checkers said Ryan’s manipulated math didn’t add up. They started referring to him as “ly’n Ryan.”

Fox News commentator Sally Kohn accused him of “an apparent attempt to set the world record for the greatest number of blatant lies and misrepresentations slipped into a single political speech.”

On this measure, while it was Romney who ran the Olympics, Ryan earned the gold (for stretching the truth).

Ryan’s not happy with Pope Benedict XVI, who condemns displays of raw capitalism when the strong succeed and the weak don’t. In a series of statements, the pope questions whether capitalism that crimps compassion can create a just and equal economic climate.

Ryan contends that he bases his budget on Catholic social thought. Pope Pius XI in 1931 articulated the principle of “subsidiarity,” a vision Ryan tenaciously upholds.

This dense-sounding word, “subsidiarity,” means local communities are more efficient at helping the poor than Uncle Sam’s centralized planning. For example, a hungry person should eat apples harvested from a neighborhood nursery rather than wait on Washington state fruit shipped to his community after clearing government regulations. It’s usually true that help given at the local level is effective as long as the human need isn’t large.

On the Christian Broadcasting Network last April, Ryan voiced confidence in “the principle of subsidiarity, which is really federalism – meaning government closest to the people governs best. Having a civil society of the principle of solidarity where we – though our civic organizations, through our churches, through our charities, through all of our different groups – where we interact with people as a community, that’s how we advance the common good.”

This vision is immoral because it doesn’t advance the common good. Rather, it allows common disaster to increase for the poor.

For example, say the Mississippi River crests, overflowing its banks and threatens a river town. Citizens fill sand bags. They build walls to hold back the deluge. But the flood’s pressure collapses temporary dams. Local effort can’t handle massive floods. Town officials rely on the federal government’s Army Corp of Engineers to construct levees and flood walls.

Rising national poverty acts like floodwaters. Citizens staffing soup lines can’t begin to meet the need. The government, along with private and religious agencies, must work together to fend off the ravages of poverty.

Ryan’s vision of favoring the rich at the expense of the poor is naive at best. He selectively uses Roman Catholic teaching on justice that fits his errant vision.

Fortunately, enough Catholics who practice social justice don’t buy Ryan’s plan to dump the poor. Almost three-quarters say the way to shrink the deficit is to raise taxes on Americans who make more than $1 million annually.

Don’t slash, they caution, government aid to the poor.

The Rev. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax-exempt Creative Growth (www.theliving, which enhances Christian worship through storytelling and dramatic presentations aimed to make God’s history come alive. Van Ens’ book, “How Jefferson Made the Best of Bad Messes,” is available in local bookstores for $7.95.

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