Can we really just “agree to disagree” on Catholic social teaching?

We've provided coverage of the back-and-forth exchanges between Paul Ryan and Catholic leaders over his budget proposal, and the drama isn't over quite yet. Since releasing his budget plan, Ryan has admitted to using his Catholic faith to shape the budget; the bishops have denounced the plan, citing the importance of protecting the vulnerable; Ryan dismissed their criticism, claiming that not all the bishops disagreed with him; and the USCCB reaffirmed that the bishops' statements issued against the budget did represent the wider voice of the entire conference.

After all that, Ryan spoke yesterday at Georgetown, where prior to his arrival 90 faculty members spoke out against his budget. In his talk Ryan stated again that his budget reflects Catholic values and that he and the bishops were going to have to just agree to disagree about social policy.

Said Ryan: "I suppose there are some Catholics who for a long time have thought they had a monopoly of sorts…not exactly on heaven, but on the social teaching of our Church. Of course there can be differences among faithful Catholics on this."

Can there, though? It’s pretty obvious that to follow the teachings of Jesus (and of the church), we are supposed to act with care and concern for others around us, including those whom society has cast aside. And if there can be differences of opinion, why is it only acceptable when the policy in question is the church’s position on social justice?

As Nick Sementelli points out at Faith in Public Life, why can’t Ryan just admit he disagrees with the church? History suggests that disagreeing about social teaching isn’t going to earn as big a slap on the wrist as disagreeing about abortion, same-sex marriage, or women’s ordination.

Imagine if the subject matter had been one of these three highly polarizing topics and Ryan had said, “Of course, there can differences among faithful Catholics on this.” It's not a stretch to think that response would be immediate, widespread, and seriously condemning (especially considering recent events with the contraception mandate and the assessment of the LCWR). Likely there would be some who would claim that Ryan couldn't call himself a Catholic for saying such things. But for crafting legislation that would burden those we are called to protect and serve, Ryan and the bishops just get to "agree to disagree"?

Though the bishops and other Catholics are to be commended for speaking out against Ryan’s budget and in support of social teaching, it seems like there is a long way to go to achieve equal, nonpartisan response to voices dissenting from church policy. 

About the author

Elizabeth Lefebvre

Elizabeth Lefebvre is a writer living in Chicago.