By David Lawder
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Invoking Pope Benedict, Republican Representative Paul Ryan defended his budget plan on Thursday at Georgetown University, where a group of the Jesuit institution's faculty has accused him of misusing Catholic teachings to push cuts to programs that serve the poor.
"The overarching threat to our whole society today is the exploding federal debt," Ryan said, speaking in a Gothic, oak-paneled auditorium on the Georgetown campus.
"The Holy Father, Pope Benedict, has charged that governments, communities, and individuals running up high debt levels are 'living at the expense of future generations' and 'living in untruth.'"
Ryan said the actions of individuals, charities, private institutions and firms should take precedence over government programs - citing a Catholic doctrine known as "subsidiarity".
"I feel it's important to discuss how, as a Catholic in public life, my own personal thinking on these issues has been guided by my understanding of the Church's social teaching," Ryan said. "Simply put, I do not believe that the preferential option for the poor means a preferential option for big government."
The best way to lift people out of poverty is to spur economic growth, said Ryan, the influential chairman of the House Budget Committee.
The Republican budget that Ryan pushed through the House of Representatives last month proposes big cuts to federal food aid and Medicaid healthcare for the poor, as well as to education grants, in order to shrink deficits while preserving low tax rates for the wealthy and for corporations.
It has drawn sharp criticism from U.S. Catholic bishops for violating Church teachings to help the poor, and on Wednesday, 90 Georgetown faculty members and priests signed a letter rebuking the plan.
"We would be remiss in our duty to you and our students if we did not challenge your continuing misuse of Catholic teaching to defend a budget plan that decimates food programs for struggling families, radically weakens protections for the elderly and sick, and gives more tax breaks to the wealthiest few," the faculty members wrote.
Last week, House Speaker John Boehner, also a Catholic Republican, found himself defending his party's budget policies amid attacks from Catholic bishops.
DISAVOWING AYN RAND
The Georgetown faculty said Ryan's budget had more in common with capitalist philosopher Ayn Rand, whom Ryan has admired in the past. They said Rand's "call to selfishness and her antagonism toward religion are antithetical to the Gospel values of compassion and love."
Before his Georgetown speech, however, Ryan disavowed Rand's views.
"I reject her philosophy," Ryan told the National Review. "It's an atheist philosophy. It reduces human interactions down to mere contracts and it is antithetical to my world view."
Ryan added that he would rather identify with Thomas Aquinas, a 13th century Dominican priest who promoted the philosophy that man needed divine help in the pursuit of knowledge.
As Ryan spoke on Thursday about the need for the United States to avoid a devastating European-style debt crisis, a small group of students quietly unfurled a banner in the balcony that read. "Stop the war on the poor; No social justice in Ryan's budget".
Outside, a group of about a dozen non-university protesters from a group called Catholics United held more banners, some of which read "Were you there when they crucified the poor?," "Rep. Ryan: Don't use my faith to punish the poor," and "Serve the needy, not the greedy."
James Salt, the social justice group's executive director, said he has worked in soup kitchens in The Bronx, New York. Ryan "didn't talk about the actual effects of his policies on those who suffer," Salt said. "These cuts will be devastating."
(Editing by Mohammad Zargham)