The announcement of Representative Paul Ryan as the Republican VP nominee has energized Catholic conversation about the election.  On this blog, Charlie Camosy said this election will now be much more substantive, while Jana Bennett worried about Catholics fighting Catholics in public and forgetting that politics is not the most important thing.  Over the past several days, the left called Ryan out for his misuse of Catholic Social Teaching, while the right championed Ryan’s call for efficiency and lamented liberal blindness to the failures of the social welfare system.

I hope the continuing dialogue will be as substantive as Charlie predicted and less contentious than Jana feared. It might be, if those like myself who find themselves to the left of Ryan choose to enter into dialogue with him. Why is this important?

1. Civil dialogue is what we always say we’re for. Charlie Camosy recently gave us some rules for civility, like humility, solidarity with our conversation partners that includes a willingness to listen, and avoiding the binary language that divides us. Even if those on the left are justly angered and even fearful of what a Romney-Ryan presidency might bring, shouldn’t we be committed to seeking common ground?

2.  This is a chance to bring a wider audience to the Catholic Social Teaching we love. This is an election moral theologians could only dream of. The texts we know best will be front and center.  The wisdom we see in our tradition may soon become soccer field conversation. What a great chance to show the world the richness of this teaching that transcends the banality of mainstream political discussion.

3. Moving from principles to policy is complicated. If this is true, as many on the left argue, it must be as true in social ethics as it is in bioethics or family ethics. This is a chance for those on the right and the left to acknowledge these difficulties together.  Yes, two-thirds of Ryan’s budget cuts come from programs that aid the poor. And, yes, Catholic Social Teaching teaches us to embrace the option for the poor and work for the common good. But this doesn’t mean that all programs for the poor must always be maintained as some seem to suggest. In a CBN interview, Ryan has defended his budget as consistent with Catholic Social Teaching and ultimately helpful to the poor. His views should not be approached uncritically, but he deserves a chance to explain and defend the following:

“Through our civic organizations, through our churches, through our charities, through all of our different groups where we interact with people as a community, that’s how we advance the common good, by not having Big Government crowd out civic society, but by having enough space in our communities so that we can interact with each other, and take care of people who are down and out in our communities,” Ryan said.

” . . . the preferential option for the poor, which is one of the primary tenants of Catholic social teaching, means don’t keep people poor, don’t make people dependent on government so that they stay stuck at their station in life, help people get out of poverty, out into a life of independence.”

4. The social welfare system is not without problems. There is reason to be worried when so many citizens receive nutritional assistance from the government, when such a large percentage of citizens would be poor if government assistance did not lift them above the poverty level, when rates of movement out of poverty in the U.S. lag behind those in other nations, when Medicare is unsustainable, etc. Of course, some people will always need government assistance and Catholic Social Teaching certainly affirms this responsibility of government. And it’s important to admit that much government assistance already goes to community organizations like Catholic Charities that aid the poor.  Still, questions can legitimately be asked about whether our current system could be improved.

5. Listening goes both ways. If the left offers civil dialogue, allows for complexity, admits weaknesses on its own side, and seeks common ground, it can legitimately ask Ryan and his supporters to consider their best points: a Catholic anthropology that is diametrically opposed to the individualism of Ayn Rand, the duty of the wealthy to pay taxes out of their abundance, the appropriate role of government, and legitimate doubts about the ability of civil society to care for all of the vulnerable.

It’s worth a try.