If Mitt Romney is disinclined to discuss his Mormon faith and the critical role it plays in his personal life and political convictions, he is not at all reluctant to engage the Roman Catholic vote through the agency of Paul Ryan, his vice-presidential nominee presumptive. And there are good strategic reasons to play the Catholic card and to play it now.
The U.S. Catholic hierarchy has been on a war footing with the Obama administration for some time climaxing with the President’s controversial mandate in his Affordable Care Act requiring Catholic institutions to provide contraceptive and other reproductive-specific coverage for its employees, irrespective the explicit mission of the institution. This, in turn, has resulted in a cascade of episcopal activities designed to resist the intrusion of the state into the religious sphere.
Barack Obama is, in fact, not anti-Catholic. But the label sticks.
On issues such as abortion and gay marriage Mr. Obama can hardly expect to win support from the bishops. His relationship with them is strained further by the fact that Vice-President Joe Biden, Minority Leader of the House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi, and Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius are persona non grata Catholics in the eyes of most in the episcopate.
Enter Paul Ryan.
The Wisconsin wunderkind enjoys considerable credibility among many of the bishops. He has all the right Catholic ingredients to their mind: He is vigorously pro-life and defends religious liberty as soon as he sees the spectre of encroachment.
Determined to win the Catholic vote – a recent poll places Mr. Obama with a nine-point lead over Mr. Romney among self-identified Catholic voters – Mr. Romney has deployed a large “Catholics for Romney” team committed to recalibrating the Catholic political sentiment. This team has as its six co-chairpersons former ambassadors to the Holy See, a not inconsiderable weighty body.
But it is Mr. Ryan who appears as the model Catholic vote-getter; he is the one who can shatter the nine-point lead. But can he?
Although portrayed by Mr. Romney and others as the intellectual face of the GOP, he betrays a staggering lack of familiarity with, and essential grasp of, the core concepts of Catholic social thought. His butchering of papal teaching on the doctrine of subsidiarity, his love affair with the rugged individualism of Ayn Rand (the very antithesis of Catholic communitarianism) although now forsworn, and his quirky recasting of the liberationist notion of the preferential option for the poor, amply demonstrate that his ready command of the minutiae of budget formulas and economic forecasting do not translate into a penetrating or even accurate appropriation of the more philosophical side of things.
Mr. Ryan was endorsed by The Wall Street Journal as someone who “knows the facts and philosophy of his arguments” and “can argue the issues in equally moral terms.” It is not unreasonable to wonder what that means when key ideas are imaginatively recast into something they are not.
Many U.S. bishops know this and have issued statements opposed to the draconian measures of the budget put forth by the Ryan committee, particularly as they apply to government’s responsibility for the poor and the future of social entitlements such as Medicare and Medicaid.
But it is an election year. The Catholic hierarchy sees in the Romney-Ryan ticket a favourable alternative to the Obama-Biden platform. Whether other Catholics think likewise is at the heart of the Romney gamble for a Catholic VP whose political conservatism is inextricably wed to his theological conservatism.
Michael W. Higgins is an author and vice-president of Mission and Catholic Identity at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Conn.