Without Freedom No One’s Got a Prayer
Prudential arguments point to the common good.

The Nuns on the Bus tour arrives in Janesville, Wisc., June 19, 2012.


Kathryn Jean Lopez

The warmth with which four elderly Catholic nuns have been greeted on their bus tour protesting Representative Paul Ryan’s budget is a great breeze of encouragement on the eve of the bishops’ designated Fortnight for Freedom. The sisters and I may have prudential disagreements on the young Catholic congressman’s plan, but what a blessed country we live in when our arguments are about how best to care for the least among us.

As the sisters arrived outside of Ryan’s office, they were greeted “like heroes,” reports the Huffington Post. “For the nuns, the tour is about more than debating points,” the dispatch continues. “They left Janesville headed for Milwaukee, where they would be at a long-standing meal program run by one of the churches. They know what it’s like to be in the midst of the poor.” Their service is a reminder that we are not alone and that we have responsibilities to one another. It’s exactly what you’d hope for from women who have dedicated themselves to God.

Ryan’s bishop, Robert Morlino of Madison, Wis., gave him a vote of confidence while affirming the work of religious orders in an interview with Raymond Arroyo of EWTN: “Congressman Ryan has made his prudential judgment about how best to serve the long-term needs of the poor,” Bishop Morlino said. “He has done that in accord with Catholic principles.” The bishop made it clear that “I don’t have to approve his decision, or his budget, or anything else. What I do approve of is that he is a responsible Catholic layman who understands his mission and carries it out very responsibly. I feel very strongly about that. The details of his solution are not mine to approve or disapprove. That’s not my field.” He gently suggested that the sisters on the bus take a similar approach: “So, I would think that the religious sisters, though, should concentrate on giving that witness of holiness of all of the wonderful works that they do rather than busing around for political issues.”

Ryan has done great good by taking Catholic social teaching seriously in his role as House Budget Committee chairman. He has engaged with bishops, priests, and laymen and shown that neither political party owns “social justice.” And at a time when the very ability of church organizations to freely live their mission of service has been compromised by federal mandates, it is especially important to debate the role of government with clarity and charity.

Father Robert Sirico and his Michigan-based Acton Institute are involved in a project called PovertyCure, which is an important part of this conversation. The project asks if we have been raising “the wrong questions” about the causes of poverty and how to address them. Its goal is “advancing entrepreneurial solutions to poverty.” “PovertyCure is different because it places the focus on the human person, created in the image of God, with dignity and creative capacity as the source of wealth,” Father Sirico tells me. “The dominant model among both secular and religious agencies has been one of aid or charity. PovertyCure shifts the focus to unleashing the entrepreneurial capacity that already fills the developing world. Long-term sustainable development does not come from aid or charity but from helping to foster the conditions where people create wealth and prosperity for themselves, their families, and their communities.”

The PovertyCure website gives you a sense of the project’s approach, which is to do what every good teacher does: unleash potential. Rudy Carrasco, a Christian minister, explains: “Everybody has capacity, talent, and ability. Everybody has responsibility. Everybody has stewardship responsibility. I don’t care what dirt hovel you’re living in, in Brazil or Mexico City or Manila. You have a responsibility to be a steward of the resources under your control because you have a heavenly Father who has put great things inside of you, that [are] waiting to be called out and developed and extracted.”

I’d like to think that the nuns on the bus would be encouraged by these sentiments.

For far too long, we have tolerated insulting public conversations about our moral responsibilities in economic life. Something similar has been happening in the religious-freedom debate over federal threats to conscience, most notably the Department of Health and Human Services’ mandate for insurance coverage of contraception, sterilization, and abortion-inducing drugs. One side is trying to drown out serious concerns about religious liberty with cries of the “war on women,” in the hope that single women aren’t discerning voters and will take the charge at face value. Of course, proving that cynical insinuation wrong is our work as citizens. We must educate ourselves and others to ensure that our politics are worthy of the dignity of the men and women they exist to serve.

You don’t have to be a believer to appreciate the leadership of religious people in the defense of freedom. “When freedom is divorced from faith, both freedom and faith suffer,” Father Sirico writes in a new book, Defending the Free Market. “Freedom becomes rudderless, because truth gives freedom its direction. Freedom without a moral orientation has no guiding star. On the other hand, when a people surrenders [its] freedom to the government — the freedom to make moral, economic, religious, and social choices and then take personal responsibility for the consequences — virtue tends to waste away and faith itself grows cold.”

The nuns on the bus may not be cheerleaders for the bishops or the Fortnight for Freedom, but their road trip can be a helpful accompaniment. Fundamentally, this debate we’re having about God and Caesar is about much more than a presidential election: It’s about who we are as a people and whether we do not merely tolerate but welcome — and even encourage — religious believers as economic and political participants. The sisters and the bishops are on the same page there.

And for the headlines treating religion as a good, thanks be to God. It’s an ecumenical thanksgiving, for without freedom, no one’s got a prayer.

Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online. This column is available exclusively through Andrews McMeel Universal’s Newspaper Enterprise Association.