On Thursday, Rep. Paul Ryan strayed from the current Republican mantra when he said he “respectfully disagrees” with the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB). What Ryan disagrees with is the Bishops’ stance that it’s not very Jesus-like to let poor people starve.
Food stamps were one of the many safety-net programs that got the axe in the Ryan budget, in favor of tax breaks for large corporations. A letter from the USCCB said lawmakers should “protect essential programs that serve poor and hungry people over subsidies that assist large and relatively well-off agricultural enterprises.”
It’s surprising it took so long for Republicans like Ryan and Speaker John Boehner, both Catholics, to "respectfully disagree" with the bishops. This kind of ideological clash is inevitable when your main influences as a Party are the irreconcilable Jesus and Ayn Rand.
None of this would be particularly problematic if these same Republicans didn’t lean on their religious beliefs, and specifically the USCCB, as validation for so much ridiculous and oppressive legislation. As Ryan and Boehner should have realized this week, the Catholic bishops might have a few good ideas about morality, but religious doctrine is hardly an acceptable foundation for modern legislation.
Selective observance of a church’s religious teachings is the standard for just about every believer, even the most supposedly devout. Former presidential candidate Rick Santorum, who characterized himself as pretty-darn-Catholic, disagrees with the USCCB on torture, the death penalty, and immigration. The bishops notably issued a 2011 statement in support of workers' rights in Wisconsin, in stark contrast to the Paul Ryan-Gov. Scott Walker agenda to destroy collective bargaining. Rarely though, do Republican politicians or others who disagree with the bishops get scolded quite so much as any Catholic who speaks up on behalf of family planning or women’s equality.
The present GOP War on Women is rooted in some of the cruelest interpretations of Catholicism. Like our hometown Republicans, the Vatican has no interest in letting women achieve anything resembling equality. In a Wednesday statement from the menfolk in charge, the Vatican accused U.S. nuns of promoting “radical feminist themes.” The umbrella group for U.S. nuns, the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, is accused of not saying enough terrible things about homosexuals and abortion rights for the Catholic leadership’s liking. This is another example of Catholic leadership stifling opposition in its ranks, and ignoring the interest of believers. The fact that the USCCB has become so intertwined with U.S. politics in recent years makes the Church’s silencing of women inexcusable. (There’s a Change.org petition in support of the nuns and their work.)
This restriction of women’s roles certainly isn’t limited to Catholicism, but the USCCB's influence on U.S. lawmakers should invite plenty of public skepticism onto the Church leadership’s behavior.
Because the bishops say GOP Jesus said life begins when you click on an attractive person’s Match.com profile, Republicans argue that low-income women and women in the military should have fewer reproductive choices than those who can afford birth control on their own. The USCCB launched the firing shots over the rule in the Affordable Care Act that requires most employers to cover contraception in their employees’ health plans (yes, there’s still an exemption for religiously-affiliated employers). And now GOP leadership is opposing an expansion to the Violence Against Women Act. Perhaps the GOP “respectfully disagrees” with Jesus that same-sex couples and battered illegal immigrants deserve our compassion.
If you have to pick and choose which part of a religious doctrine to adhere to, it’s pretty clear that this doctrine shouldn’t be used to justify legislation. Our leaders are elected to adhere to the Constitution, and that’s both a firm platform to stand on, and something we all can agree on.