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


Mark Stricherz - published on 09/04/14 - updated on 06/08/17

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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