A novel aspect of the Republican campaign for the party’s presidential nomination has been the importance placed by some candidates, their admirers and some voters on the Catholic religion and certain claims to formal academic certification or endorsement.

Begin with Newt Gingrich, who for a time was a leading figure in the race for the Republican nomination. Like the president himself, Congressman Gingrich possesses academic credentials, his in modern European history from Tulane University. He makes the double-barreled claim that America under a continuing liberal Democratic administration will become “a secular atheist country … dominated by radical Islamists.”

In Washington, his Ph.D. degree in history earned him — according to his account — $1.6 million as an adviser on historical matters to the government-sponsored Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corporation — Freddie Mac. As the value of the agency’s possible concerns with European history seemed unlikely to justify such a sum, Washington opinion assumed that his connection with the agency was closer to that of a Washington “fixer.” In this he seemed more successful than in his well-publicized marriage entanglements, although the latter left his religious admirers apparently unperturbed.

The “bunkum” artist is a familiar figure from the folklore of the American 19th century who makes up “facts” as required in the sale of the all-healing snake oil liniment he sells (the vaudevillian and film star W.C. Fields made a career from his impersonation).

Another familiar American figure is the earnest swot who knows less than he thinks he does, but does know more than a lot of voters, and indeed in the following case, and in a sensitive matter, more — apparently — than most of his Republican campaign-trail cohorts, as well as some serious national commentators. He has dazzled them with economics and moral theology as well.

The case is that of Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, now, in the view of some, the Republicans’ leader on economic policy. In 2005 he said that the thinker who inspired him to take up politics was the novelist and theorist Ayn Rand, celebrant of the heroic capitalist (a woman who was also a great influence on Alan Greenspan). Paul Ryan studied at Miami University in Ohio and was first elected to Congress as a Republican from Wisconsin’s First District in 1998. He quickly won a reputation as a young conservative, and in 2011 was selected to deliver the Republican response to President Obama’s State of the Union message. At the beginning of March this year, he offered the latest version of a previously offered budget plan for America, which, when put to vote in the House of Representatives, won the support of all but 10 of the Republicans.

The plan would end corporate income tax, estate tax, lower the overall corporate tax rate and eliminate income tax on capital gains, dividends and interest. It would partly privatize Medicaid, eliminate employer tax exclusion on payments for employee health insurance, and of course undo Obamacare. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops said his plan disproportionately cuts programs for “poor and vulnerable persons.”

Ryan, a Catholic, represented his budget proposals as reflecting Catholic social thought. In recent years there has been a neoconservative effort to substitute an endorsement of American-style capitalism for the long-established Catholic social doctrine set forth in two famous encyclicals, Rerum Novarum (in 1891, committing the Church to the social struggle of working people) and Quadragesimo Anno (1931, widening that commitment, and rebuking Catholics who support the economic despotism of the few, which it characterized as “a natural outcome of limitless free competition”). Quadragesimo Anno asserted the moral as well as economic principle of a “just wage” for workers.

The popes’ principles clearly are not the capitalism of Ayn Rand, Wall Street and the American Chamber of Commerce, nor for that matter of many American Catholics today who regard the church’s position as sheer socialism, and its close collaboration with American trade unionists in building the modern American trade movement in the 1930s and 1940s as the next thing to communism. The social morality taught by the church is to them thoroughly un-American, as indeed it is, if Americanism is judged by the moral standards of Ryan’s budget plan and the economic views of the present-day Republican Party.

Congressman Ryan has held himself aloof from the criticism of him by the U.S. Bishops and by members of the Georgetown faculty, where he recently delivered an address (Georgetown, of course, is a Jesuit university), and by Catholic academic and intellectual leaders elsewhere.

Ryan’s position, like that of the well-publicized recent convert to Catholicism, Newt Gingrich, is no doubt a case of what the church calls “invincible error” (meaning he doesn’t know what he is talking about), but is wrong whatever the invincibility. (A Jesuit at Georgetown would no doubt happily confess and forgive the two of them — if they promised to renounce their errors.) But then the Republican right would excommunicate both of them, thereby blocking them both from future presidential campaigns. They have both fallen afoul of moral authority’s rebuttal to the claims of political ambition. Their nominal patron saint in this situation is Sir Thomas More, martyr, lord chancellor of England, beheaded on order of King Henry VIII in 1535.

Visit William Pfaff’s website for more on his latest book, “The Irony of Manifest Destiny: The Tragedy of America’s Foreign Policy” (Walker & Co., $25), at www.williampfaff.com.

© 2012 Tribune Media Services, Inc.

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