Liberal critics of Paul Ryan’s economic policies frequently accuse him of being heartless. Now some Catholics are pressing the question of whether the Wisconsin Republican’s policies are soulless as well.

A small handful of Catholic social justice activists descended on Georgetown University’s gothic campus to protest Ryan’s speech there this morning, unfurling a 50-foot sign that read, “Were you there when they crucified the poor?” Organized by Catholics United, a left-leaning advocacy group, members argued that Ryan’s proposed cuts to Medicaid and other welfare programs for the poor go against the teachings of the Church to uplift the poor and downtrodden.

“What you prioritize in a budget is a moral choice. Christianity does not follow what’s right or left,” said Mark Andersen, a parishioner at D.C.’s Sacred Heart Church who was helping to hold up the banner. Ultimately, Andersen said, God will cast judgment on everyone, politicians included, based on whether they helped the downtrodden. “Did you feed the hungry? This is what we will face on Judgment Day,” he concluded.

The protest came on the heels of last week’s criticism from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, who appealed to Congress to oppose budget cuts that Republicans such as Ryan have proposed. “I write to urge you to resist for moral and human reasons unacceptable cuts to hunger and nutrition programs,” one letter said, concluding that the House GOP’s proposed cuts to food-stamp and other nutrition programs had failed the Church’s moral test.

Inside Georgetown’s Healy Hall, Ryan tried to counter the arguments of his Catholic critics. In his speech, he explained that his commitment to reducing the debt was, in fact, based on moral and religious grounds that had support from the Catholic Church. “The work I do as a Catholic holding office conforms to the social doctrine as best I can make of it,” he said, according to his prepared remarks. “The overarching threat to our whole society today is the exploding federal debt. The Holy Father, Pope Benedict, has charged that governments, communities, and individuals running up high debt levels are ‘living at the expense of future generations’ and ‘living in untruth.’ ”

But Ryan’s budget does more than simply reduce the debt: It increases spending on defense, and it cuts taxes by trillions of dollars. His spending cuts need to pay for those priorities, as well as for deficit reduction, and for that reason, they need to be quite deep. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities estimates that 62 percent of Ryan’s proposed $5.3 trillion in budget cuts comes from programs that serve low-income Americans.

In cutting government spending, however, Ryan argues that he would “revitalize civil society instead of displacing it,” allowing local community and faith organizations, among others, to play a bigger role. “Government is one word for things we do together. But it is not the only word. We are a nation that prides itself on looking out for one another — and government has an important role to play in that. But relying on distant government bureaucracies to lead this effort just hasn’t worked.”

Not all of the church’s faithful, however, were convinced by his defense. In terms of understanding the Catholic Church’s doctrine on social issues, “we’d give that speech an F,” said the Rev. Thomas Reese, a Jesuit priest at Georgetown’s Woodstock Theological Center. “Catholics believe that problems should be dealt with at the lowest levels. But if families could take care of themselves, and the local government could, we wouldn’t have the crisis that we’re facing right now.”