In an article for a Catholic Web site, Representative Paul Ryan (R–WI) has again clarified the role he thinks faith and social doctrine should play in creating public policies.

Ryan states that, in his role as a policymaker, he takes seriously the teachings of his church, especially the call to care for the poor. But he doesn’t equate this moral norm with increasing the size of the welfare state.

Social teaching is not the monopoly of one political party, nor is it a moral command that confuses the preferential option for the poor with a preferential option for bigger government.

According to Ryan, “there’s a right way and wrong way to understand” Catholic social doctrine and to bring it to bear in the political arena. As he writes:

Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, indicated the right way in his gracious letter to me: “[T]he Church makes an essential contribution to society when she raises up moral principles to help guide and inform decisions about public policy in a compelling way.”…

Policymakers apply timeless principles to policies that are necessarily limited by changing circumstances. The judgments of equally well-intentioned citizens may differ. Usually, there isn’t just one morally valid policy. Instead, there are better and worse ones calling for respectful dialogue and thoughtful judgment. The moral principles are dogmatic; the political responses are prudential.

This guidance holds for many public policy questions. Recently, religious voices have focused particular attention on the House Budget Committee’s proposed federal budget for FY 2012, entitled The Path to Prosperity. (For more on this, see recent Heritage posts and commentary.) When it comes to evaluating such policies, Ryan, the committee’s chairman, asserts that

Catholic social thought’s paramount interest is the moral character of society, which takes primacy over dollars and cents. What kind of people do Americans want to be?

Faith communities can help Americans and their political representatives wrestle with this fundamental question. Religious leaders are perhaps most helpful in this effort when they clarify important moral concepts and implications involved in budgetary proposals while acknowledging that people of good will can differ on the nuts and bolts of complex policy matters.

Both those who agree and disagree with the details of Ryan’s proposed budget should heed his insights about and example of helpful church–state dialogue.