Religious Biography

Paul Ryan

Paul Ryan, the youngest of four children in an Irish-Catholic family, was born in Janesville, Wis., where he still lives. He and his family attend St. John Vianney Catholic Church in Janesville, the same church he attended as a child. “Our father always had us at church on time,” Ryan’s older brother, Tobin Ryan, told the Los Angeles Times. “But each of us grew up to discover our own path. And Paul has certainly chosen his beliefs and a very, very strong value system. It’s an important part of his life.”

At age 16, Paul Ryan found his 55-year-old father dead of a heart attack at the family’s home. His father’s death reportedly led to a period of soul-searching. It was during this time that he read the works of novelist and philosopher Ayn Rand, whom Ryan has cited as a major influence on his decision to enter public service: “[T]he reason I got involved in public service, by and large, if I had to credit one thinker, one person, it would be Ayn Rand,” Ryan said at a 2005 event sponsored by the Atlas Society, named for Rand’s novel “Atlas Shrugged.” However, Ryan explicitly rejects Rand’s well-known atheism and has cited other thinkers, including Catholic theologian and philosopher Thomas Aquinas, as influences on his worldview as well.

“A person’s faith is central to how they conduct themselves in public and in private. 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?”

– Interview, The Christian Broadcasting Network, April 2012

During his nearly 14 years in the U.S. House of Representatives, Ryan’s Catholic faith has played an important role in his public life. For example, Ryan agrees with the Catholic Church’s stances against abortion and same-sex marriage, and he has spoken out against the Obama administration’s mandate for insurance coverage of contraceptives. A statement on his House website says, “While I am a pro-life Catholic, I believe this mandate transcends the issue of personal religious beliefs about contraception, sterilization and abortion.” Ryan says he favors an approach that would “permit a health plan to decline coverage of specific items and services that infringe upon one’s religious beliefs.”

As chairman of the House budget committee, he played a major role in drafting the House Republicans’ 2013 budget plan, which includes cuts to many social programs. After a representative of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops criticized this part of the budget plan in an April 4, 2012, letter to the House Subcommittee on Transportation, Housing and Urban Development, and Related Agencies, Ryan gave an interview to the Christian Broadcasting Network in which he spoke about how his Catholic faith helped shape his budget proposal. He specifically mentioned the principle of “subsidiarity,” which states in part, that “a community of a higher order should not interfere in the internal life of a community of a lower order.” “To me,” Ryan said, “the principle of subsidiarity [means] having a civil society … where we, through our civic organizations, through our churches, through our charities … that’s how we advance the common good[,] by not having big government crowd out civic society.” The week after Ryan’s interview, the U.S. Bishops sent three additional letters to Congress criticizing portions of the budget.

An April 2012 letter signed by roughly 90 Georgetown University faculty members and priests asserted that Ryan had misinterpreted church doctrine on the role of government in public life. Shortly after, on April 26, Ryan addressed the controversy in a speech at the university, saying there could be “differences among faithful Catholics” on the church’s social teachings and that “the work I do as a Catholic holding office conforms to the social doctrine as best I can make of it.” He went on to say that his “personal thinking on these issues has been guided by my understanding of the Church’s social teaching. Simply put, I do not believe that the preferential option for the poor means a preferential option for big government.”

The 2012 election marks the first time both major parties have had a Catholic presidential or vice presidential candidate. If elected, Ryan would be the second Catholic vice president. (The first was Joe Biden.) Ryan and Mitt Romney also represent the first major party ticket without a Protestant since 1860, according to many experts.

Updated September 13, 2012; originally published on August 13, 2012
Photo Credit: © Steven Senne/AP/Corbis