For months, Janesville Congressman and now Republican vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan has spoken passionately about how Catholic social teaching helped shape his budget priorities.
And for months, leaders within his own denomination have ripped him.
A committee of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops blasted his federal budget approach for "unjustified and wrong" cuts to the poor. A busload of nuns motored through nine states, including Wisconsin, contending his fiscal priorities are "immoral" and would "devastate the soul of our nation."
But in Ryan's own Catholic diocese, the reception has been much more nuanced, even flattering at times. Ryan attends St. John Vianney Parish in Janesville, a church of about 1,400 households in the Madison Catholic Diocese.
While never commenting on specific budget proposals, Madison Catholic Bishop Robert Morlino has described Ryan as a Catholic in good standing and vigorously defended Ryan's right — and the right of any prayerful Catholic layperson — to form conclusions about the best ways to help the poor.
"The fact that we're friends does not cloud my judgment when I say he is an excellent Catholic layman of the very highest integrity," Morlino said of Ryan on a Catholic radio show last month.
In a column Aug. 16 in the Catholic Herald, the newspaper of the diocese, Morlino wrote that Ryan "is aware of Catholic social teaching and is very careful to fashion and form his conclusions in accord with (Catholic principles). Of that I have no doubt." Morlino said he felt compelled to mention the matter "in obedience to church law regarding one's right to a good reputation."
In the same column, Morlino said it is not for bishops or priests to endorse particular candidates or political parties.
Diocesan spokesman Brent King said Morlino is not speaking to secular media outlets about Ryan because his comments too easily get interpreted through a political lens. The bishop also feels he has said enough about Ryan, King said.
However, Morlino agreed to an interview with the State Journal on related issues, such as Catholic social teaching and government's role in people's lives. While never mentioning Ryan, Morlino laid out a world view closely aligned to the congressman's, one in which charitable giving is the preferred method to aid the poor, and big government is to be eyed warily.
"If people begin to look to government for everything, that's how we get toward a state-imposed socialism, which is never acceptable from a Catholic point of view because it's contrary to reason, which says that human labor should yield its fruits, and that those who labor own the fruits," Morlino said.
Those with an abundance are obligated to share with those who lack basics, Morlino said, but the best way to do that is at the level closest to the people in need, a Catholic principle called subsidiarity.
"It's just common sense," Morlino said. "In other words, if I can help you directly, why should we bring it to the mayor or the government or the president of the United States, if I can just help you?"
Charitable giving respects individual freedoms and reduces bureaucratic costs, Morlino said. However, charity can't do it all, and government has a responsibility to those who are poor, especially in times of profound need, such as a natural disaster, he said.
But in general, governments "should not be in the business of distribution of wealth," Morlino said.
Ryan has said similar things, invoking subsidiarity to bolster his view that the current "unsustainable" growth in government entitlement programs ultimately will hurt the poor.
"If we keep growing government in debt," Ryan told EWTN, a Catholic television network, "we will crowd out the civil society — those charities, those churches, those institutions in our local communities that do the most to actually have a human touch to help people in need. That's what we want to empower. That's what we want to improve on."
It's a debate reverberating in the Madison Catholic Diocese.
Elizabeth Durack, 34, a Madison Catholic who describes herself as low-income, said she likes Ryan's focus on deficit reduction. Otherwise, the economy could collapse, "and the poor always suffer when stuff goes wrong," she said.
Richard Bonomo, 56, another Madison Catholic, also likes Ryan's approach. A Christian society is obligated to help the poor, he said. However, "I find the political left makes the mistake of thinking government is the highest form of society," he said.
But Dennis Collier, 63, also a Madison Catholic, said he finds Ryan's approach "too individualistic."
"Catholic bishops in the U.S. have said everyone should share in bringing the federal budget into balance," he said. "(Ryan's) budget seems to make cuts primarily to the poor. Wealthier taxpayers, in fact, benefit from his budget."
Three Dane County parishes will come together Sept. 18 to explore these issues more. The event, at Christ the King Catholic Church in McFarland, is billed as a way to help Catholics "think and act in the political realm in ways consistent with their faith."
Ryan's take 'jumbled'
Stephen Schneck, director for policy research & Catholic studies at the Catholic University of America and national co-chairman of Catholics for Obama, said he appreciates that Ryan has brought Catholic social teaching to the forefront. But he called Ryan's take on the principle of subsidiarity "jumbled."
Subsidiarity is intended to empower all levels of a community for the common good, including government and labor unions, Schneck said. That allows problems to be addressed at the most effective level, which isn't necessarily the lowest level.
"(Ryan) appears to understand it as replacing government with the market and associates it with the libertarian ideal of weak government," Schneck said.
Schneck has been following Morlino's public comments on Ryan and finds nothing objectionable in them. "I applaud Bishop Morlino's efforts to protect the congressman from those who would question Ryan's faith," he said.
Morlino said a bishop's role is to teach the principles of the faith, then step aside and let laypeople figure out "the nitty-gritty" of implementing them in the public sphere. "People of goodwill — Catholics of goodwill — will disagree on those specifics," he said.