House Speaker Paul Ryan’s recent endorsement of Donald Trump is more than another typical case of a politician putting expediency and power before principle. It’s also a low moment for anyone who cares about the intersection of faith and politics. In particular, this should be a time of anguish and introspection for thoughtful religious conservatives who have long admired Ryan as a serious thinker who unabashedly brings his Catholic values into the public square.
As one of the most prominent Catholics in Washington, Ryan has faced theological pushback for citing Catholic teaching to explain elements of his economic views. He once quoted Pope Benedict XVI to warn about the national debt, and he has exchanged friendly letters about the budget with Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York. He gives substantive speeches at Catholic universities, and praises Pope Francis for “breathing new life into the fight against poverty.”
What then to make of Ryan’s support for a crass sexist, a demagogue who demonizes Muslims and that rare figure willing to publicly square off against the pope?
The speaker’s calculus is perhaps predictable given the fierce demands of partisan orthodoxy in an election year. The pressure on Republican and Democratic leaders to fall in line with their prospective presidential nominees is a strong undertow that requires a solid moral anchor to resist.
But if Ryan’s endorsement is unsurprising, it’s also indefensible when judged in the light of his faith’s social teachings.
Put simply, it doesn’t pass the Pope Francis test.
In his speech to Congress in the fall, the pope urged lawmakers to put the common good before self-aggrandizement and narrow partisanship. He also reminded us that we are a nation of immigrants. When Francis visited Mexico a few months later, reporters asked him about Trump’s braggadocious promise to build a wall on the U.S.-Mexican border.
“A person who thinks only about building walls, wherever they may be, and not building bridges, is not a Christian,” the pope said.
Trump brags about his riches and extravagant lifestyle. “You have to be wealthy in order to be great,” the billionaire boasted in a recent speech. Pope Francis, in contrast, warns of “the idolatry of money,” and describes inequality as “the root of social evil.” And while Trump now conveniently embraces the “pro-life” label (after supporting late-term abortions in past years), the pope also insists that “an economy of exclusion,” the refugee crisis and climate change are also urgent threats to life.
A prominent group of more than two-dozen conservative Catholics, many of whom have been reliable supporters of Republican presidents, seem to know what Paul Ryan fails to admit. “Donald Trump is manifestly unfit to be president of the United States,” they wrote in the National Review in March. “His campaign has already driven our politics down to new levels of vulgarity. His appeals to racial and ethnic fears and prejudice are offensive to any genuinely Catholic sensibility.”
Several Catholic bishops are also raising warnings about the specter of Trumpism. Cardinal Dolan argued in the New York Daily News that Trump’s anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim rhetoric is the modern strain of old nativist bigotry once directed at Catholics and given institutional credibility in the Know-Nothing Party.
“I am not in the business of telling people what candidates they should support or who deserves their vote,” the cardinal wrote. “But as a Catholic, I take seriously the Bible’s teaching that we are to welcome the stranger, one of the most frequently mentioned moral imperatives in both the Old and New Testament.”
Without specifically naming Trump, Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio of Brooklyn, one of the largest and most diverse dioceses in the nation, recently blasted what he called “racist and xenophobic tendencies” in society and lamented the “current politicization of the issue of undocumented workers in our country.”
In Santa Fe, N.M., Archbishop John Wester told the Associated Press that some of the presidential campaign rhetoric is “deplorable” because it is “scapegoating and targeting people like the immigrant, the refugee and the poor.”
Ryan’s reputation as a sober intellectual leader of the conservative movement is clearly diminished by his endorsement of a candidate who jeers at disabled reporters, uses Twitter to hurl personal insults and thinks eating a taco bowl signals his affinity for Latinos.
But Ryan should also be reflecting on a more existential matter. If those sincere expressions of how much his faith inspires his views as a policymaker are to be taken seriously, the speaker might do well to dust off Pope Francis’s writings. It’s time for Ryan and for all people of faith to reflect on centuries of Catholic social justice teachings that can’t be squared with the candidacy of a man who makes a mockery of traditional Christian values.
John Gehring is Catholic program director at Faith in Public Life Action. He is author of “The Francis Effect: A Radical Pope’s Challenge to the American Catholic Church.”