The current media frenzy over Paul Ryan seems to boil down to two things: his fiscal conservatism and his broad-shouldered good looks. Not since John F. Kennedy has a White House hopeful caused such a handsome fuss—Ryan, with his stiff-bristled black hair, aquiline nose, and earnestly furrowed brow has all the lean good looks of an early 20th century prize fighter in the back bar rooms of the Lower East Side.
But Ryan is heir to JFK in more ways than hunkiness. The guy just may be the single greatest thing to happen to American Catholics since the 35th president took the oath of office, ending the White House’s WASP streak. In 1960, speaking before a group of Texas ministers, Kennedy addressed his Catholicism head-on, dispelling the notion that, as president, he would take directives from the Vatican.
“I do not speak for my Church on public matters—and the Church does not speak for me,” Kennedy said. “Whatever issue may come before me as president—on birth control, divorce, censorship, gambling, or any other subject—I will make my decision in accordance with … what my conscience tells me to be the national interest, and without regard to outside religious pressures or dictates.”
Ryan’s Catholicism has been brought up in the context of his strongly anti-choice voting record in the House, which hews to Church teaching. But it’s also crucial to remember that his budget plan, now the centerpiece of the GOP’s platform, was condemned by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops earlier this year as an immoral document because of its proposed slashing of social safety net programs like Medicare and Medicaid.
Like his Democratic counterpart Joe Biden, Ryan is a Catholic politician in the Kennedy mold. The fact that such prominent men in the country’s two major political parties each run afoul of Catholic teaching is a good thing. For one, Ryan and Biden’s different views on social and economic-justice issues shows that not all Catholics are cast in the same mold. For another, their conscientious dissent shows that individuals in public life can and should act outside the constraints of religious teachings when it comes to promoting the common good (though whether or not you agree with their conception of the common good is another story entirely).
For years, the American public has gotten the misimpression that the majority of Catholics are prudish, birth control disbelievers who by and large vote on issues of reproductive rights and gay marriage. Figures like Rick Santorum did little to squash this impression, but the lopsidedness of Catholicism’s reputation can mostly be chalked up to Church officials, who for years have taken liberal Catholic politicians to task for their stances on, most prominently, abortion. But American Catholics vary widely in their opinions on sexual morality. Eighty-two percent of American Catholics believe contraception is morally acceptable, and 51 percent said that President Obama best reflected their views social issues like abortion and gay marriage, according to a poll out last month. Only 36 percent believed Mitt Romney did.
Somewhere in the middle of all the high-profile flogging of progressive Catholics for sins relating to reproductive health, the American public at large forgot that the Catholic Church cares very deeply about the poor and underrepresented (qualities often ascribed to bleeding-heart liberals). But thanks to Ryan’s budget proposal, and the bishops’ rebuke, people are getting a reminder that it’s not just the right that has a religious conscience. You can believe in God and in helping struggling families feed their children with food stamps. God isn’t on any one party’s side, though he very well might be on the Yankees’ payroll.
With both Biden and Ryan on the ticket, religion—at least in one small way—has also resumed its rightful position in American public life. The fact that the Catholic Church has problems with major stances of each party and thus, major quibbles with each VP candidate is a healthy thing for our democracy. Bishops of the Catholic Church are more than entitled to air their opinions, but they are not opinions that Catholic politicians should feel compelled into taking-on as their own. That neither Biden nor Ryan has bent to the pressure is reassuring. The pragmatism of JFK lives on.
And if we’re looking for a whole, “What Would Jesus Do” moment in all this, the New Testament pretty much spells it out: “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God, the things that are God’s”