It’s interesting to watch how so many on the left, advocates of a “complete separation of church and state,” applaud wildly whenever House Speaker Paul Ryan’s Catholicism is questioned. It was questioned again by Sinsinawa Dominican Sister Erica Jordan at the CNN “Town Hall Meeting” in August.

Photo by Doreen Wigderson

Hand-painted stained glass from Sinsinawa. (Photo by Doreen Wigderson)

George Weigel, writing for First Things, says Ryan’s position on the Church’s social doctrine deserves more than a “gotcha” moment.

Speaker Ryan is a longstanding advocate of decentralizing and (as he puts it) “customizing” social welfare programs. That means abandoning one-size-fits-all attempts to address poverty and looking to the states, where a lot of the creativity in American government resides these days, for approaches that actually empower the poor, because they treat poor people as men and women with potential to be unleashed, not simply as clients to be maintained. Proposals to decentralize social welfare programs and give the states the funds necessary to conduct all sorts of customized efforts to empower the poor—crafted so that each “fits” the vast array of distinct circumstances we find in impoverished America—strike me as a sensible application of the social doctrine’s principle of subsidiarity. That principle, first articulated by Pope Pius XI in 1931, teaches us to leave decision-making at the lowest possible level in society, closest to those most directly affected by the policy in question. Paul Ryan thinks Washington doesn’t have to decide everything; Pius XI would have agreed.

The fact that poverty remains a serious problem in the United States after the federal government has spent $22 trillion dollars on social welfare programs over the past fifty years should have taught us all something about the complex problems of empowering the poor. No one with any sense or experience imagines that he or she has the silver-bullet answer to poverty in all its social, cultural, economic, and political dimensions; I know my friend Speaker Ryan doesn’t think he does. But unlike those who insist on measuring an official’s or a party’s commitment to the poor by inputs rather than outcomes (an approach that tends to instrumentalize the poor and render social welfare policy a cash transaction rather than a human encounter), Paul Ryan and reform conservatives like him are willing to face the fact that there is no direct correlation between magnitude-of-dollar-inputs and success-of-human-outcomes when it comes to anti-poverty programs. Inner-city Catholic schools (the Church in America’s most effective social welfare program) demonstrate that time and again: They spend less than the government schools, and their students learn much more—and not just in quantifiable, standardized-testing terms.

Weigel concludes,

Paul Ryan is no more the reincarnation of Simon Legree than Sister Erica Jordan and her fellow Sinsinawa Dominicans are the reincarnation of Ingrid Bergman/Sister Mary Benedict in The Bells of St. Mary’s. Keeping that in mind would help foster the thoughtful debate that the Speaker, and the country, would welcome.

To be fair, Ingrid Bergman was hardly Sister Mary Benedict, too.

The nuns of Sinsinawa are known for their wonderful bakery which you can order online. We strongly recommend the Sin-a Mound and serving it with coffee. Yes, it’s terribly decadent and lives up to the name.

Stained glass along the Sinsinawa Chapel Ceiling. (Photo by Doreen Wigderson)

We also suggest a visit to their beautiful chapel in Sinsinawa, WI. In such a beautiful location in southwestern Wisconsin, we hope the nuns take a prayerful moment to reflect on the role of the Catholic Church in society. In that moment, perhaps they’ll remember which political party is hostile to everything they believe, including: the importance of human life at conception, the mission of Wisconsin’s Catholic schools, the defense of marriage, and even the protection of an individual’s right to practice the Catholic faith against the power of a coercive state.

In that moment of prayer, perhaps they’ll remember that Ryan is not an enemy, and that the Catholic Church is about more than how much is spent on any government program.

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