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Paul Ryan on Being Catholic in Washington

PaulRyanBCCropPaul Ryan gave a speech to Congressional interns on March 23 that described what living Catholic identity in public life should look like in today’s polarized Washington DC.

Ryan is years into an “about-face” on his past support for Ayn Rand. Part of his effort to identify more with his faith than Rand’s faithlessness was his commencement address at Benedictine College, as I described here.

Where is he now? He made it a point to tell Congressional staff that he is Catholic, “and we have certain principles that I think are very important that apply to what we do in public life as lay Catholics.” He lists “the principles of subsidiarity, of solidarity, preferential option for the poor,” and sums them up in a phrase: “People are the solution.”

Here are three ways he applies them.

First, says Ryan, respect the poor — by serving them directly.

Ryan said there are essentially two ways to ignore the poor: by refusing to make their problems a priority and by addressing them only through a gargantuan bureaucracy.

In his speech, Ryan admitted that his own thinking about the poor had undergone a sea change. “There was a time when I would talk about a difference between ‘makers’ and ‘takers’ in our country, referring to people who accepted government benefits. But as I spent more time listening, and really learning the root causes of poverty, I realized I was wrong. … Most people don’t want to be dependent. And to label a whole group of Americans that way was wrong.”

Ryan said he was transformed when, as a young college graduate, he worked for Jack Kemp, who provided community-based solutions to American poverty problems.

“Here was a conservative willing — no, eager — to go to America’s bleakest communities and talk about how free enterprise could lift people out of poverty. These were areas that hadn’t seen a Republican leader come through in years, if ever.”

In a perfect example of the “culture of encounter” Pope Francis is asking for, those visits with the poor gave Ryan “a sense of purpose” and politics “became a vocation” for him.

A vocation in the full sense of the word.

“I passionately believe in the Constitution and in the concept of federalism, because it’s in perfect keeping with the tenets of my faith,” he said in answer to a question. “Whether it’s fighting poverty — eye to eye, soul to soul, with local and community groups, civic groups, on the ground poverty fighters — or whether it’s making sure that we don’t have a big arrogant paternalistic condescending government that is taking power from our lives power from our communities and displacing it.”

Second, Ryan wants to apply the principle of subsidiarity to Congress itself.

Ryan and I worked on Capitol Hill at the same time, early in our careers, though we didn’t meet at the time. He was a legislative assistant for one Congressman while I was press secretary for Congressman Bill Archer, who soon became chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, where he stayed, rejecting calls to run for Speaker of the House. Ryan made the opposite decision last year.

But both made their decision for the same reasons: They opposed the nationalization of politics. The Contract with America was Newt Gingrich’s brilliant plan to win the majority for the GOP in 1992. But it had an unintentional effect: While Congressional press secretaries used to meet only with their own bosses to set their agendas, now we also gathered with Newt Gingrich or another Congressional leaders to set the common agenda.

In his discussion to interns, Ryan said that when the Democrats retook the majority after the Republicans, the problem only got worse, and Republicans didn’t fix it when they won the majority back.

His vision is for Congress to decentralize again.

“When I became Speaker I made a couple of decisions not to have the leadership predetermine the outcomes,” he said. “I am laboring to change the culture of this institution and decentralize the power so that ideas are done in the committees and brought to the floor by members of congress. That cultural change, I believe, is going to being about a better result at the end of the day. Perhaps a less predictable result, but a better result.”

Third, leaders need to focus on their personal character.

But the most important part of his message may not have been policy centered but character centered.

Ryan said the kind of politician you are will depend on the kind of person you are. “First I’m a husband and father and then I’m a public servant and that’s just the way I order these things in my mind,” he said in answer to a question. “To me it’s an inseparable thing. It gives me a sense of philosophy that is grounded in my faith but it also gives me a sense of how I should conduct myself both personally and publicly.”

This focus on personal character is the only way to raise the level of debate in the country from blind anger to visionary passion.

“In a confident America, we also have a basic faith in one another,” he said. “We question each other’s ideas — vigorously — but we don’t question each other’s motives. If someone has a bad idea, we don’t think they’re a bad person. We just think they have a bad idea. People with different ideas are not traitors. They are not our enemies.”

In the questions and answers he identified our common goals for all politicians. “We all want to be prosperous. We all want to be healthy. We want everyone to reach their potential in their lives,” he said. “Liberals and conservatives are going to disagree with one another on how to achieve that. No problem. That’s what this is all about. Let’s have a battle of ideas.”

We live in an age of cynicism about politics, and it is no wonder why: bad leaders in Washington have betrayed our trust again and again.

But the answer to our problems can’t be to choose a new trustworthy person who mirrors our anger. It has to be to do the hard work of Democracy: finding men and women of character who are bent on restoring the principles our country was founded on.

This first appeared at Aleteia.

The Gregorian Institute is Benedictine College’s initiative to promote Catholic identity in public life by equipping leaders (the Gregorian speech digest), training leaders (the Gregorian Fellows), defending the faith (the Memorare Army for Religious Freedom), and celebrating Catholic identity (the Catholic Hall of Fame).

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Tom Hoopes

Tom Hoopes is vice president of college relations at Benedictine College in Atchison, Kansas. A former reporter in the Washington, D.C., area, he served as press secretary of U.S. House Ways & Means Chairman Bill Archer and then spent 10 years as executive editor of the National Catholic Register newspaper and Faith & Family magazine. He writes weekly for Catholic Vote, the National Catholic Register and Aleteia. His work frequently appears in Catholic publications such as Catholic Digest. He lives in Atchison, Kansas, with his wife, April, and nine children.