No longer, alas. Today the liberal impulse in American Catholic life has substituted political for religious orthodoxy. In retrospect, the turning point is easy to spot: liberal Catholicism's acquiescence in the Democratic Party's drift toward supporting abortion at a time when church leaders had the influence to stop it.
Columnist Bill McGurn on Catholic liberals' assault on Paul Ryan. Photo: Associated Press
So here we are in 2012, when all but one of the active senators and representatives who are members of the official Catholics for Obama campaign team enjoy a 100% approval rating from NARAL Pro-Choice America.
This fundamental dissent from a basic church teaching is now a fact of modern Democratic Catholic life. The result for our politics is an extraordinary campaign, in the 10 days since Paul Ryan became the Republican candidate for vice president, by those on the Catholic left to strike a moral equivalence between Mr. Ryan's reform budget and Democratic Catholic support for the party's absolutist position on abortion.
Thus the column in the National Catholic Reporter characterizing Mr. Ryan as a "champion of dissent" regarding the church's social teaching. Or the headline at the website Jezebel, "Badass Nun Says Paul Ryan is a Bad Catholic." When this sort of thing seeps into the mainstream, it takes the form of the recent article in the Washington Post that found moral parallels between the two vice-presidential candidates: Mr. Ryan is a dissenter from "social justice," while Vice President Joe Biden, also Catholic, dissents on issues such as same-sex marriage and abortion.
Once upon a time, Catholic Democrats would explain away their position with the Mario Cuomo-inspired halfway apology: They were "personally opposed" to abortion but unwilling to do anything about it. These days we have moved to the full Nancy: House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi's complaint that Catholics need to overcome their "conscience thing" regarding abortion.
As for Mr. Ryan, what drives progressives bonkers is that he insists on talking about spending in terms of promises made to the American people. In this sense, "Can we pay for it?" is a moral as well as practical question.
Manifestly some bishops do not like Mr. Ryan's answers. Then again, Catholic social teaching itself holds that the bishops possess no special competence on the subject. Applying the principles of Catholic social teaching involves prudential judgments that are the special province of Catholic laymen and laywomen.
Mr. Ryan's own bishop, the Most Rev. Robert C. Morlino, addressed the subject with his most recent column in the diocesan paper for Madison, Wis. The church, he wrote, regards abortion as an "intrinsic evil" (meaning always and everywhere wrong, regardless of circumstances). In sharp contrast, he said, on issues such as how best to create jobs or help the poor, "there can be difference according to how best to follow the principles which the church offers."
"I'm not endorsing Paul Ryan," the bishop told me later by phone. "People are free to disagree with him, and disagree vehemently. But it's wrong to suggest that his views somehow make him a bad Catholic."
Unfortunately, suggesting that Mr. Ryan is a bad Catholic is the entire case. Stuck with the fact of Mr. Biden, who has long since made his peace with the party's absolutism on abortion, progressive Catholics know that it would be laughable to try to present Mr. Biden as faithful to church teaching. They know too that clarity about church teaching does not work to their advantage. The only way to take on Mr. Ryan is to tear him down.
Think about that. In another age, Catholic progressives would have laughed at the suggestion that people were corrupted by reading certain works; now they believe Paul Ryan's soul is in peril for his having read Ayn Rand. Before, they would not have feared science; now they insist that a program such as food stamps ought to continue ad infinitum without consideration of its effects. And while they believe that the pope and bishops have nothing of value to offer about the sanctity of marriage or the duty of protecting unborn life, when it comes to federal spending, suddenly a miter means infallibility.
In the past, the liberal Catholic vision sought to inspire. Today, in the pages of the venerable lay Catholic magazine Commonweal, a blogger tries to diminish Paul Ryan by saying, "like the rest of us, he is a Cafeteria Catholic." Surely it says something about a movement when its most powerful argument against an opponent is this: You are just as lousy as we are.
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A version of this article appeared August 21, 2012, on page A11 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: Social Justice and Ryan the Heretic.