Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) diffused what could have been a tense policy speech at Georgetown University on Thursday, engaging members of the Catholic Church who have criticized him for using his faith to justify the budget he authored.

“I suppose there are some Catholics who for a long time have thought they had a monopoly of sorts … not exactly on heaven, but on the social teaching of our Church,” the House Budget Committee chairman said. “Of course, there can be differences among faithful Catholics on this.

{mosads}”The work I do as a Catholic holding office conforms to the social doctrine as best I can make of it. What I have to say about the social doctrine of the Church is from the viewpoint of a Catholic in politics applying my understanding to the problems of the day.”

Midway through his speech, protesters on a balcony in the lecture hall unfolded a banner that read, “Stop the war on the poor, no social justice in Ryan’s budget.” The interruption caused a minor stir, but Ryan continued with his speech without acknowledging the protesters, who stood silently throughout.

More than 80 Georgetown University faculty members and administrators on Tuesday signed a letter to Ryan, criticizing him for saying his Catholic faith helped shape the GOP budget plan and challenging his assertion that the budget is consistent with Catholic teaching.

The letter cites correspondence, first obtained by The Hill, sent by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops to lawmakers criticizing the House-passed budget for failing to meet certain “moral criteria” by disproportionately cutting programs that “serve poor and vulnerable people.”

The authors of the faculty letter included a copy of the Vatican’s Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, commissioned by John Paul II, to “help deepen your understanding of Catholic social teaching,” and Ryan thanked them for this in his speech.

“You gave me a fresh copy,” Ryan said. “I had an old dog-eared one.”

Ryan, who’s considered a possible VP pick, defended his budget as part of Georgetown’s Whittington Lecture series in a speech called “America’s Enduring Promise.”

Outside the hall, a group of about a dozen protesters, organized by the liberal-leaning group Catholics United, held a sign that said, “Were you there when they crucified the poor?,” and one man dressed as “GOP Jesus” facetiously lectured about a doctrine that benefits the wealthiest.

But Ryan was unshaken by the dissent and spoke about what he sees as the true moral crisis facing the country.

“The overarching threat to our whole society today is the exploding federal debt,” Ryan said. “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 painted a bleak future for the United States if the country is unable to get its debt under control.

“If our generation fails to meet its defining challenge, we would see America surrender her independence to the army of foreign creditors who now own roughly half of our public debt.”

Ryan used that kind of heavy, existential language throughout, which may explain the ease with which he is able to dismiss criticism: If the looming economic crisis is what he says it is, it would seem to provide a moral defense for his budget. Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), also a Catholic, has made a similar defense of the GOP budget.

“Look, it is rare in American politics to arrive at a moment in which the debate revolves around the fundamental nature of American democracy and the social contract,” Ryan said. “But that is exactly where we are today.”

“If there’s one thing you hear me say today, hear this,” Ryan continued. “This will not be our destiny. Americans won’t stand for a shrunken vision of our future.”

Still, a growing number of religious organizations have been increasingly vocal in speaking out against Ryan’s proposed cuts to food stamps, workforce training and development, nutrition assistance, low-income tax credits and safe and affordable housing for the less fortunate, and these groups have mobilized since the letters from the bishops were made public.

They say Ryan misreads the church doctrine of “subsidiarity,” which teaches that individuals should not be overly reliant on government welfare.

Ryan has used the principle to justify his budget cuts, and on Thursday, argued that his budget focuses on “upward mobility” that will lift people permanently out of poverty rather than merely “treating the symptoms” of it.

Ryan said that his proposal to revamp Medicare, by giving future seniors the choice of opting out of the program in favor of private insurance, is one of the ways he is looking to rewire the safety net to “get people back to a life of prosperity.”

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