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Ryan’s Story: Congressman and Former VP Candidate Writes About Faith Journey



Mark Stricherz - published on 09/04/14

Three Catholic Takeaways from "The Way Forward."
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WASHINGTON — On Capitol Hill, Representative Paul Ryan is known as a budget wonk, workout fiend, and funnyman. The Wisconsin Republican has a reputation as an expert on the ins and outs of the federal budget, a devotee of P90-X, and a member of Generation X given to quoting lines from the 1985 comedy “Fletch.”

Beyond the Hill, Ryan has a more polarized identity. To progressives, he is the Republican who wants to slash Medicare and Medicaid benefits and gave a misleading time in finishing a marathon. To conservatives, he is the man whose budget blueprint will help return the country to fiscal sanity and at the age of 44 is a fresh face in a graying political party.

In "The Way Forward: Renewing the American Idea," which was released last month, Ryan seeks to present a clearer, more likable version of himself to ordinary voters; this is not a book heavy on political history in the vein of John F. Kennedy’s "Profiles in Courage" or scholarly citations and data sets like Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s "Miles to Go." Ryan wants to create the impression he is an intellectually serious, down-to-earth, and soulful Republican politician.

Like any Republican with his sights on the White House, Ryan pledges fealty to Ronald Reagan. Although Ryan’s invocations of Reagan are genuine, his real hero is Jack Kemp, a legendary congressman from Buffalo, N.Y. The link is not farfetched. Ryan worked as an aide to Kemp in the interregnum between Kemp’s service in the Bush administration and his being named as the GOP’s vice presidential nominee in 1996.

Reviewers of "The Way Forward" have picked up on Ryan’s admiration for and affiliation with Kemp. But none has explored Ryan’s stated Catholicism, which in its emphasis on domestic spending differs from that of, say, Rick Santorum. The former Pennsylvania senator’s 2012 presidential campaign was oriented around cultural issues such as abortion and gay marriage.

The reason for the oversight cannot be Ryan’s slighting of his religion. Ryan peppers references to and explains his Catholic faith throughout the book. In the interest of filling in the gaps, gives you three takeaways about Catholicism from "The Way Forward."

Takeaway #1: Ryan details his loss of faith for several years.

When Jimmy Carter ran for president in 1976, the Georgia governor’s invocations of his Christian faith were considered unusual. “It was what [Carter campaign manager] Ham Jordan irreverently but unabashedly called the “weirdo factor,” and it plagued Carter throughout the long election year,” reporters Jack Germond and Jules Witcover wrote in "Marathon," their tome on the 1976 presidential race.

Ryan’s book is notable for its details about the loss of his faith. Ryan takes pains to show that doubt if not about God but a loving God has been a key part of his spiritual journey.

The precipitating event in Ryan’s spiritual slide was the death of his father in 1986. Ryan had finished his sophomore year of high school, and he was the family member who found his dad’s body lying in his parents’ bed. Although Ryan blames his father’s death on alcoholism, he said his family members were not consoled by the knowledge.

Ryan describes the grieving process as “brutal.” He notes that more or less, he stopped going to Mass through four years of college at Miami University in Ohio and a few years in his early twenties as an aide on Capitol Hill. As he writes,

I could list the holy days of obligation and detail the Gospels. I could recite the Act of Contrition on command and knew the Apostle’s Creed by heart. But of course, saying the words and feeling the meaning behind them are two very different things. Losing my dad was brutal for my whole family, and I can’t say that the experience inclined my heart much toward faith. In high school, I had tried to resolve the dissonance I felt by reading about different beliefs. I learned about all kinds of organized religions. I studied the writings of existentialists and atheists. But no matter the faith or philosophical position, my spiritual journey always brought me back to that same place where most everyone has been at one time or another: I believed in God, but I was mad at God.

With the help of friends and the words of C.S. Lewis and Thomas Aquinas, Ryan said he returned to his faith in his mid-20s.

Takeaway #2: Ryan makes pains to emphasize his commitment to his Catholic faith.

While Ryan details his loss of faith, he details his faith too. Ryan may have been hot and cold spiritually but he has not been lukewarm. To hear Ryan tell it, Catholicism is a subject of regular discussion among him and fellow Republican politicians.

Before the Wisconsin primary on April 3, 2012, Ryan said he and eventual GOP nominee Mitt Romney got to know one another in part by discussing their spiritual lives. “We talked about faith – my Catholicism, his Mormonism,” Ryan writes.

Earlier, as a political aide to Sam Brownback, a congressman from Kansas who was campaigning for a Senate seat in 1996, Ryan notes the two Republicans discussed Catholicism regularly. Ryan drove the evangelical Brownback around the state, and he said Brownback was thinking about converting to Rome.

(H)aving a non-Catholic asking me serious questions about Church doctrine was an important responsibility. I took that seriously, and our talks became the catalyst for a deepening of my faith. At Sam’s urging, I dove a little more into the writings of C. S. Lewis. By my mid-twenties, I started attending Mass again. Sam kept searching and eventually converted to Catholicism himself.

In addition, Ryan describes growing up in an Irish-Catholic subculture in Wisconsin straight out of the 1950s. He attended St. Mary’s Elementary in Janesville, where all of the teachers were nuns, and became an altar boy.

Takeaway #3: Ryan pushes back against the idea his social vision is not rooted in Catholic teaching.

In April 2012, Bishop Stephen Blaire, the chairman of the U.S. bishops’ Committee on Domestic Justice, Peace and Human Development, denounced the 10-year blueprint for the federal budget that Ryan proposed. The bishop said it was too hard on the poor and too easy on the wealthy and military contractors. "Just solutions, however, must require shared sacrifice by all, including raising adequate revenues, eliminating unnecessary military and other spending, and fairly addressing the long-term costs of health insurance and retirement programs," Bishop Blaire wrote.

Ryan does not mention Blaire or his words, but he goes out of his way to link his social vision to that of Catholic social thought. He argues that a “simpler, smaller, smarter” federal budget would empower mediating institutions such as churches, civic groups, and families.  A “virtuous cycle” would follow. Institutions and their leaders would be more accountable, the country’s $17 trillion deficit would be eliminated, and citizens would feel less disconnected and more energized. As he writes,

The federal government has a role to play, but it’s a supporting role, not the commanding one. Its job is to give people the resources— and the space— to thrive. Two principles of Catholic social teaching— subsidiarity and solidarity— can help show the way here. Subsidiarity is an idea that’s echoed in our federalist system. It holds that problems should be handled at the lowest level at which it’s possible to achieve a successful resolution. It’s the belief that those closest to an issue know it best. If possible, government shouldn’t assume tasks that can be better handled by families or communities or other civil society institutions— and responsibility for action should be left to the closest level of community or organization possible. If and when that doesn’t work, an issue can then be addressed at a broader level. In practice, subsidiarity counsels that the federal government support the work of anti-poverty groups and not co-opt that work or crowd it out. The principle of solidarity goes hand in hand with subsidiarity. It holds that we have a responsibility to stand together with our brothers and sisters— and there are social and moral goods that can only be gained only through the broader society.

Ryan does not say if he plans to run for president in 2016. But "The Way Forward" positions him for a run. His loss of faith may appeal to religiously unaffiliated or agnostic Americans; his resumption of faith to the religiously devout, especially among his co-religionists; and his interpretation of Catholic social teaching to fiscal conservatives.  It’s a trifecta of supporters who could come in handy.

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