The first time Timothy Cardinal Dolan of New York, president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, met Wisconsin representative Paul Ryan, the congressman was talking about St. Thomas Aquinas. Cardinal Dolan reminisced about the meeting and their subsequent friendship and correspondence during his Sirius Catholic Channel radio show Thursday.
The meeting took place at Carthage College, a Lutheran school in Kenosha, Wisc., Dolan, then bishop of Milwaukee, was there to receive an honorary degree; Ryan, a fourth-term congressman, was the commencement speaker that year.
“He gave — I timed it — nine minutes, which is excellent, on St. Thomas Aquinas,” recalled Cardinal Dolan, who himself tends to give concise homilies. “It was tremendous, in front of a Lutheran audience,” the cardinal remembered. “So we really started up a great correspondence and got to know each other very, very well.”
“We go way back, Congressman Paul Ryan and I,” the cardinal continued. “I came to know and admire him immensely. And I would consider him a friend. He and his wife Janna and their three kids have been guests in my house; I’ve been a guest at their house. They’re remarkably upright, refreshing people. And he’s a great public servant.”
Dolan stressed that he was “speaking personally and not from a partisan point of view. . . . But I have immense regard and admiration and affection for him, just personally.” Dolan added that he is “happy” his friend has the “honor” of being on a national ticket.
In his first solo outing this week, Ryan met hecklers criticizing him for policies they believe are against the “common good.” This summer, his budget was criticized on a bus tour by politically active liberal religious sisters, one of whom is on the verge of becoming a talking-head-show regular through Election Day. In his own show, taped Tuesday afternoon and aired Thursday afternoon, Cardinal Dolan acknowledged that Ryan has his critics, but commended the congressman for his efforts to tackle the federal budget deficit.
He recalled exchanges they have had about the Ryan budget plan (exchanges that National Review Online first reported on last May) and paraphrased Ryan:
He did say, “I bristle when any Catholic politician who dares to suggest that we need to get our fiscal house in order, that we need to balance the budget, that we need to show some frugality and restraint, is automatically branded as anti-poor. . . . I am passionate about the poor. That, too, comes from my religious conviction. . . . Nobody suffers more from runaway deficits and a poor economy than the poor. And the best way we can help the poor is by getting our financial house in order — meaning jobs will go up, employment will go up, and they’ll be helped.”
Cardinal Dolan summed up his end of the exchange, saying: “And I wrote back and said, ‘You’ve got a good point.’ ‘And,’ I said, ‘let me applaud some of the things you are doing, namely your call for financial accountability and restraint and a balanced budget . . . and . . . let me also applaud your obvious solicitude for the poor.”
“Once again it comes down to that prudential judgment. How are we going to do it?” Dolan stressed that he was “not trying to be an apologist” for Ryan:
He and I had a good, heated conversation and I offered some criticism which he was gracious in accepting. . . . [Ryan said he believes it is] “probably time to ask a big question . . . whether so-called entitlement programs are the best way to help the poor. . . . I’m for the entitlement programs. We always have to have a vigorous safety net. But if we don’t do something to save them, our huge entitlement programs, like Medicare and Social Security” — to which he is committed, by the way — “are going to flounder. So I’m kind of the only one saying what we’ve got to do to save them. Please don’t say to me that I’m the one about to undo them. Actually, if we don’t do this, they’re going to be undone.”
So I admire him. He’s honest. He’s refreshing. Do I agree with everything? No, but . . . I’m anxious to see him in action.
In his letter to Cardinal Dolan in April, Ryan wrote:
The vast network of centralized bureaucracies under a government that grows without limits has reached the point where an increasing majority of citizens are now receiving more in government payments than they provide in revenues. We believe human dignity is undermined when citizens become passive clients living on redistributions from government bureaucracies. Twenty years ago Blessed Pope John Paul the Great identified these problems as the “Social Assistance State” in his encyclical Centesimus Annus: “By intervening directly and depriving society of its responsibility, the Social Assistance State leads to a loss of human energies and an inordinate increase of public agencies, which are dominated more by bureaucratic ways of thinking than by concern for serving their clients, and which are accompanied by an enormous increase in spending.” . . . What he warned against as a threat to human dignity is now being realized in America.
On his radio show this week, Cardinal Dolan affirmed that the social-assistance state is “not the end-all, be-all. And it shouldn’t become an end in itself, and sometimes, it can become strangling.”
Cardinal Dolan credited Ryan with considering subsidiarity and solidarity, two principles of Catholic social teaching, in his approach to public policy. “It’s a both-and, not an either-or,” consideration, the cardinal said, “as most things in Catholic chemistry are.”
Modeling how one would walk through the principles in making policy, the cardinal said:
The subsidiarity would seem to say, “Hey, we need to work at the local level: families, neighborhood, churches, volunteer associations. The closer we can get to the folks, and the more we can avoid ‘Big Brother’ government, the better off we are.” That’s subsidiarity, and that’s always been a classic part of Catholic social justice. . . . Solidarity, though, also balances it out to say, “By the way, a civil, virtuous society is going to come together to take care of those most in need.” Now, somewhere between the two — which is another great classic of Catholic social justice — usually in the middle stands virtue.
Dolan welcomed the fact that there is a Catholic on each party’s ticket. “Do you not think it’s a cause for celebration in the Catholic community in the United States of America that the two vice-presidential candidates are Catholic? Did you ever think it would come to this?
“We’ve got two men who — and you can disagree with one of them or both of them — say they take their faith seriously, who don’t try to hide it, and who say, ‘Hey, my Catholic upbringing and my Catholic formation influences the way I think.’ Not bad. Not bad.”
President John F. Kennedy, Dolan observed, “couldn’t say, ‘My religion will affect my public policy.’ He couldn’t say, ‘My Catholic faith is going to have an impact on the way I govern.’ In fact, he almost had to say the opposite. And now you’ve got two guys . . . who were picked because their Catholicism was attractive.”
Ryan’s bishop, Robert Morlino of Madison, also commended Ryan this week, as he has before. “I am proud of his accomplishments as a native son, and a brother in the faith, and my prayers go with him and especially with his family as they endure the unbelievable demands of a presidential campaign here in the United States,” he wrote in the Diocese of Madison’s Catholic Herald. He added:
It is not for the bishop or priests to endorse particular candidates or political parties. . . . It is the role of bishops and priests to teach principles of our faith, such that those who seek elected offices, if they are Catholics, are to form their consciences according to these principles about particular policy issues. . . . Some of the most fundamental issues for the formation of a Catholic conscience are as follows: sacredness of human life from conception to natural death, marriage, religious freedom and freedom of conscience, and a right to private property.
“This is a big moment for Catholic voters to step back from their party affiliation,” Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore, chairman of a new religious-liberty committee of the bishops’ conference, told me in an interview last week, just before Mitt Romney’s announcement about Ryan. Advising Catholic voters, Archbishop Lori said: “The question to ask is this: Are any of the candidates of either party, or independents, standing for something that is intrinsically evil, evil no matter what the circumstances? If that’s the case, a Catholic, regardless of his party affiliation, shouldn’t be voting for such a person.”
— Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online.