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Caring for the Poor Is Up for Debate in the Catholic Church?

It’s graduation season, when pundits and politicians and poets take to the podiums at colleges and universities across the country. Some speakers are chosen because they are now-famous alums, others because they are believed to be Important People With Important Things to Say, and still others because they will be entertaining and engaging speakers.

Today, just a short hop north from Kansas City, Paul Ryan will be speaking at Benedictine College’s commencement, and I have to say that this is a rather jaw-dropping paradox for a Benedictine institution. He was recommended to the school’s president, Stephen Minnis, by George Weigel (a huge conservative fan of the late “John Paul the Great”, and last year’s speaker), and then Minnis dug into things to see whether Ryan measured up:

Minnis said he used his usual criteria for a commencement speaker to vet Ryan: the congressman’s stance on what Minnis called “the non-negotiable,” such as abortion and same-sex marriage, are in line with the official teachings of the Catholic Church.

Minnis also said he consulted Bishop Robert Morlino of Madison, Wis., Ryan’s bishop, and Archbishop Joseph Naumann of Kansas City, Kan. They both indicated that Ryan is “making a sincere effort to make his budget consistent with Catholic social teaching and they did not see this [budget] as a non-negotiable,” Minnis told NCR.

So, having checked off all the right boxes, off the invitation went.

But there are just a couple of problems here. First, Ryan’s views on abortion are NOT in line with the official teachings of the Catholic church, as Mary Sanchez points out. Second, Ryan was taken to task by the USCCB for his budget — well, taken to task by everyone but Timothy Dolan — which flies in the face of Catholic social teachings going back not just to JPII but a century earlier to Pope Leo XIII:

When there is question of defending the rights of individuals, the defenceless and the poor have a claim to special consideration. The richer class has many ways of shielding itself, and stands less in need of help from the State; whereas the mass of the poor have no resources of their own to fall back on, and must chiefly depend on the assistance of the State. It is for this reason that wage-earners, since they mostly belong to the latter class, should be specially cared for and protected by the Government.

But the worst of the problems for Minnis and his Benedictine institution is that Ryan’s approach to his neighbor flies in the face of the approach put forward by the founder of the Benedictine order himself.

From Chapter 33 of the Rule of St. Benedict, entitled “Whether Monks Ought to Have Anything of Their Own”: “This vice especially is to be cut out of the monastery by the roots. . . . Let all things be common to all, as it is written (Acts 4:32), and let no one say or assume that anything is his own.”

Yeah, that’ll fly with Paul “Ayn Rand Rocks!” Ryan.

Or how about Chapter 34 of the Rule:

Let us follow the Scripture, “Distribution was made to each according as anyone had need” (Acts 4:35). By this we do not mean that there should be respecting of persons (which God forbid), but consideration for infirmities. She who needs less should thank God and not be discontented; but she who needs more should be humbled by the thought of her infirmity rather than feeling important on account of the kindness shown her. Thus all the members will be at peace.

Or how about this from Chapter 31, which describes the office of the Cellarer — the one in charge of the property of the monastery (especially the food and drink), who sees that things are distributed in the proper way:

Let him take the greatest care of the sick, of children, of guests and of the poor, knowing without doubt that he will have to render an account for all these on the Day of Judgment.

Or how about this from Chapter 36 — On the Sick:

Before all things and above all things, care must be taken of the sick, so that they will be served as if they were Christ in person; for He Himself said, “I was sick, and you visited Me” (Matt 25:36), and, “What you did for one of these least ones, you did for Me” (Matt. 25:40).

Ryan’s budget, on the other hand, has a very different approach, as one local Benedictine nun points out:

Benedictine Sr. Barbara McCracken disagrees [that Ryan’s budget is in line with Catholic social teaching].

A Benedictine alumna and member of the Mount St. Scholastica Monastery community (a co-sponsor of the college with St. Benedict’s Abbey monks), she says that the choice of Ryan as commencement speaker is inappropriate because his budget takes money away from programs that poor people need for survival. For her, that is a non-negotiable.

Through her work as associate director at the Keeler Women’s Center in Kansas City, Kan., McCracken said, “I see too many people who don’t have enough money … enough social benefits coming from the government to help them make it.”

“These are people who [are] handicapped, unemployed, supporting small children or very aged people in their families,” McCracken explained.

According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, Ryan’s budget aims to lower the national deficit by calling for major cuts to social services like Medicaid, transportation, schools, health care and law enforcement.

The center said it would cut federal funding 31 percent for the federal-state Medicaid program by 2023; about $139 billion in cumulative cuts to state and local transportation aid over the next 10 years; and cut non-defense, non-entitlement funding over the next 10 years, leading states and localities to lose almost $25.2 billion in 2014.

I can only think of one reason why a Benedictine college would invite Paul Ryan to be a guest speaker — to demonstrate the radical hospitality the Benedictines are known for. “When we say ‘all are welcome as guests’ we mean it — even someone whose positions are diametrically opposed to those of our founder.”

In the wake of the announcement of the choice of Ryan as the commencement speaker, criticisms began to fly, and this one on the college Facebook page really caught my eye:

I live in Paul Ryan’s district. Paul Ryan speaks at Koch brother events. He believes in Ayn Rand’s philosophy. He is on the record with this. His policies were protested by the Nuns on the Bus. His budgets would hurt the poor and middle income earners. You really want him on your campus as a representative of the Catholic faith? I believe you should have invited the person who ran against him in the last election–Rob Zerban!

Maybe next year.

Image by DonkeyHotey under Creative Commons license

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I'm an ordained Lutheran pastor with a passion for language, progressive politics, and the intersection of people's inner sets of ideals and beliefs (aka "faith" to many) and their political actions. I mostly comment around here, but offer a weekly post or two as well. With the role that conservative Christianity plays in the current Republican politics, I believe that progressives ignore the dynamics of religion, religious language, and religiously-inspired actions at our own peril. I am also incensed at what the TheoCons have done to the public impression of Christianity, and don't want their twisted version of it to go unchallenged in the wider world. I'm a midwesterner, now living in the Kansas City area, but also spent ten years living in the SF Bay area. I'm married to a wonderful microbiologist (she's wonderful all the way around, not just at science) and have a great little Kid, for whom I am the primary caretaker these days. I love the discussions around here, especially the combination of humor and seriousness that lets us take on incredibly tough stuff while keeping it all in perspective and treating one another with respect.

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