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Paul Ryan vs. the Bishops

When it comes domestic investments and budget priorities, House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops clearly aren't on the same page. As it turns out, neither is House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.).

Given the severity of the cuts in the House Republican budget plan, and the way in which the poor are punished by the GOP agenda, the Bishops said in a letter this week the party's budget fails to meet certain "moral criteria" by disproportionately cutting programs that "serve poor and vulnerable people." They added the cuts are "unjustified and wrong."

Ryan, who, like Boehner, is Roman Catholic, appeared on Fox News yesterday, and was largely dismissive of his church's concerns.

For those who can't watch clips online, the thrust of Ryan's argument was, "Um, these are not all the Catholic bishops."

At first blush, this might seem compelling. After all, the letter was signed by the Rev. Stephen Blaire, bishop of Stockton, Calif., and the Rev. Richard E. Pates, bishop of Des Moines, not every member of the Conference. Ryan wants to make it seem as if he was rebuked by a couple of rogue prelates, instead of his own church's leadership at the institutional level.

But as Nick Sementelli explained, Ryan's wrong: Bishops Blaire and Pates "weren't speaking as individuals. They wrote in their official capacity as chairmen of the USCCB's Committees on Domestic Justice and Human Development and International Justice and Peace, respectively. Their views are rooted in a long history of Catholic social teaching on these issues and do represent the official position of the Church."

USCCB spokesman Don Clemmer added, "Bishops who chair USCCB committees are elected by their fellow bishops to represent all of the U.S. bishops on key issues at the national level. The letters on the budget were written by bishops serving in this capacity."

To be sure, there's a compelling case to be made that conflicts between politicians and their church is a private matter, but given the larger context, there's nevertheless some real political salience to these developments.

Just at a surface level, it's politically problematic for Republicans, who generally claim the high ground on matters of religion and righteousness, to have the leaders of Boehner's and Ryan's own church criticizing them for trying to punish poor families during difficult economic times.

But we can go further. Remember, for example, that Republicans just spent weeks arguing that those who disagree with the bishops on contraception are guilty of waging a war on faith. It's tough to say the bishops' views on public policy aren't terribly important so quickly after saying the exact opposite.

And then there's the fact that Ryan, just last week, said his Roman Catholicism inspired his right-wing budget agenda.

House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), whose budget plan recently passed the House in a party-line vote, says his faith contributed in shaping the proposal, which he says is consistent with Catholic teachings.

"A person's faith is central to how they conduct themselves in public and in private," Ryan said in an interview released on Tuesday by the Christian Broadcasting Network. "So to me, using my Catholic faith, we call it the social magisterium, which is how do you apply the doctrine of your teaching into your everyday life as a lay person?"

If Ryan is going to rely on his faith to sell his plan, it's unhelpful to have his own church's leadership argue publicly that he's wrong.