Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.). (Joshua Roberts/BLOOMBERG)

Facing criticism for invoking the moral teachings of the Catholic Church as inspiration for his spending proposals, House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) defended his budget plan Thursday and acknowledged that his interpretation of the church’s teachings differed from other Catholics.

Ryan, who is Catholic, spoke Thursday at Georgetown University as he delivered the Whittington Lecture, established in honor of a former professor who was killed when American Airlines Flight 77 crashed into the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001. Ahead of the speech, dozens of faculty members sent Ryan a letter criticizing his “continuing misuse of Catholic teaching to defend a budget plan that decimates food programs for struggling families, radically weakens protections for the elderly and sick, and gives more tax breaks to the wealthiest few.”

In response, Ryan struck back Thursday at “Catholics who for a long time have thought they had a monopoly of sorts, not exactly on heaven, but on the social teaching of our Church.”

“Of course there can be differences among faithful Catholics on this,” he said. “The work I do as a Catholic holding office conforms to the social doctrine as best I can make of it. What I have to say about the social doctrine of the Church is from the viewpoint of a Catholic in politics applying my understanding to the problems of the day.

“Serious problems like those we face today require charitable conversation. Civil public dialogue goes to the heart of solidarity, the virtue that does not divide society into classes and groups but builds up the common good of all.”

Ryan then noted that Pope Benedict XVI “has charged that governments, communities, and individuals running up high debt levels are ‘living at the expense of future generations’ and ‘living in untruth.’”

“We in this country still have a window of time before a debt-fueled economic crisis becomes inevitable,” he said, calling upon warnings he has issued before when discussing his concerns about growing federal debt. “We can still take control before our own needy suffer the fate of Greece. How we do this is a question for prudential judgment, about which people of good will can differ.

“If there was ever a time for serious but respectful discussion, among Catholics as well as those who don’t share our faith, that time is now.”

The speech then turned to more familiar defenses of Ryan’s spending plan, including criticism of Congress and the White House for not more seriously tackling spending concerns and focusing instead on passage of President Obama’s health-care reform legislation.

But the address also provided Ryan an opportunity to share parts of his personal narrative, perhaps in anticipation of such attacks as the budget plan is debated on Capitol Hill — or perhaps in anticipation of Mitt Romney tapping him to serve as his vice presidential running mate.

Other politicians have addressed concerns with their personal faith before — think of Mario Cuomo’s famous 1984 lecture at Notre Dame University on “Religious Belief and Public Morality” or Romney’s 2007 defense of the Mormon Church.

Ryan’s speech Thursday wasn’t nearly as profound or drawnout, but it demonstrated how he could tackle the issue again if confronted about it and perhaps gave the Romney campaign a look at how he might sell and defend his spending plan to a skeptical electorate.

Watch Ryan’s full speech and then share your thoughts in the comments section below.

Follow Ed O’Keefe on Twitter: @edatpost

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