Janesville Priest Pastored Paul Ryan But Can’t Endorse His Politics
Father Stephen Umhoefer told the Center for Media and Democracy that he supports a role for religion in the public square, but that Ryan‘s austerity budget and proposed steep cuts in social programs are inconsistent with the Catholic teachings that Ryan cites to justify the policies. "If he is following his conscience, he is doing the morally correct thing. But he shouldn't wrap himself in Catholic teaching because he is not using that [teaching] in what I would say is a balanced way," said Umhoefer.
Father Umhoefer has been pastor of the Catholic Church of the Nativity of Mary in Janesville (WI) since 2002. Paul Ryan was baptized there and attended the parish elementary school. He was a member until his family left for another Janesville parish a few years ago.
The Ryan budget, which passed the U.S. House of Representatives in 2012 in a partisan vote but died in the Senate, would slash taxes on the rich and on corporations, while implementing massive cuts in social safety net programs. It would take away health care from tens of millions of Americans by repealing the Affordable Care Act, cut Medicaid, transform Medicare into a voucher system, cut student loans, and end the Earned Income Tax Credit program for the working poor, while reversing Wall Street financial reforms and consumer protections.
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops took sharp exception, calling on Congress to resist "for moral and human reasons" cuts to food and nutrition programs to the poor. The Conference called instead for "shared sacrifice . . . including raising adequate revenues, eliminating unnecessary military and other spending, and addressing the long-term costs of health insurance and retirement programs fairly." Faculty at Georgetown University put it more bluntly in an open letter to Ryan: "Your budget appears to reflect the values of your favorite philosopher, Ayn Rand, rather than the Gospel of Jesus Christ."
Father Umhoefer followed the controversy from Janesville. He said in an extended interview that he had a "very friendly pastor-parishioner relationship" with Ryan, but that the two "never sat down and talked politics." He noted that he shared the concerns expressed by the bishops.
For Umhoefer, the test of the budget is a simple one: "The first question is: How does this affect the poor? And everything else follows from that. That doesn't mean it's a Republican or Democrat [question] -- you could argue that. But the primary question is how does this affect the poor?"
Umhoefer said that Ryan's lack of attention to the poor and the emphasis on individualism espoused by role models such as Ayn Rand concerned him. "Paul would say that the only way to save the country from a coming [fiscal] disaster is 'follow my plan.'" But according to Umhoefer, the problem is "you can't tell somebody that in ten years your economic situation is going to be just wonderful because meanwhile your kids may starve to death."
Umhoefer said that in Janesville, which lost some 5,000 jobs related to the auto industry after a GM plant closed in 2009, residents continue to seek emergency food and housing support and social service organizations have been running out of funds. A house across the street from the church sits with a red "condemned" sticker prominently on the door, and another house on the block has a sign that declares, "Price Reduced."
Umhoefer also laments what he calls an excess of individualism in America that is sometimes abetted by politicians. He prepared for CMD a section of the church catechism, which states that the church "has refused to accept, in the practice of 'capitalism,' individualism and the absolute primacy of the law of the marketplace over human labor." Umhoefer said that he doesn't mean to accuse Ryan of choosing individualism as a creed over community, but that Ryan's promotion of Ayn Rand to his staff and others is "an alternative universe of which he is a member. . . . What I call an excessive attitude of individualism is doing a great deal of harm to us as a society because we are forgetting society values,” said Umhoefer.
Priest to Ryan: "You Can't Just Pack Your Own Heat"
Umhoefer said that Ryan has also selectively presented to his audiences a Catholic concept of empowerment known as "subsidiarity." Ryan explained subsidiarity to the Christian Broadcasting Network as "not having big government crowd out civic society, but by having enough space in our communities so that we can interact with each other, and take care of people who are down and out in our communities."
Umhoefer said that he agrees with the "Nuns on the Bus," a group of nuns who recently undertook a bus tour and visited Ryan's Janesville office to underscore the absurdity of Ryan's approach. "Just on food stamps alone, Congressman Ryan is wrong that the church can take care of this issue. The cuts that have been proposed and passed by the [U.S.] House are going to require every church, every synagogue, every mosque, every house of worship in the United States, each year for ten years, to each raise $50,000. It's impossible," said Sister Simone Campbell during the Janesville stop. CMD covered the Nuns on the Bus Tour and sought the interview with Umhoefer after the nuns presented an alternative "moral budget" in Janesville.
Reading from the catechism, Umhoefer explained that government "should support [local communities] in case of need and help to coordinate its activities with the activities of the rest of society, always with a view to the common good." He said that when subsidiarity lacks resources and coordination, government can fail when it is most needed. But sometimes we need to be rescued: "You can’t just pack your own heat and protect your own building," he cautioned.
"What I wish for Paul -- he is so smart and so articulate and has made this whole budget, which he can defend on his own view . . . of how the economy and politics work. I wish he wouldn’t bring in the Catholic church. He doesn't need to if his economic and political argument are strong, and I'm sure he believes that they are."