House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, under criticism from some fellow Catholics, said his budget plan that includes cuts in federal aid to the poor is consistent with the church's teachings.
In a speech Thursday at Georgetown University, a Jesuit institution in the nation's capital, Ryan said his proposal complies with the church's admonishments to care for the needy.
"The work I do as a Catholic holding office conforms to the social doctrine as best as I can make of it," said Ryan of Wisconsin, the House's chief budget-writer and a possible Republican vice presidential candidate.
"There can be differences among faithful Catholics on this," Ryan said. "If there was ever a time for serious but respectful discussion among Catholics as well as those who don't share our faith, that time is now."
Ryan was criticized by some Catholics after he told the Christian Broadcasting Network this month that his Catholic upbringing was reflected in his budget plan, which calls for substantial cuts in food stamps, the Medicaid health care program and other types of assistance to the needy.
A group of protesters silently raised a banner as Ryan spoke at the university that read, "Stop the war on the poor" and "no social justice in Ryan's budget."
Almost 90 members of Georgetown's faculty and administrators signed a letter to Ryan accusing him of misusing the Catholic faith.
"Your budget appears to reflect the values of your favorite philosopher, Ayn Rand, rather than the gospel of Jesus Christ," the letter said.
"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' letter said.
They sent him a copy of the Vatican's Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church to "help deepen your understanding of Catholic social teaching."
Ryan acknowledged receiving it, saying, "you gave me a fresh copy -- I've got an old dog-eared one."
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops wrote to lawmakers last week urging them to reject the food stamp cuts proposed by Ryan's budget.
"We join other Christian leaders in insisting 'a circle of protection' be drawn around essential programs that serve poor and vulnerable people," the bishops' letter said.
Ryan said the proposed cuts are "hardly draconian," noting federal spending under his plan would still increase each year by an average of more than 3 percent. He also defended plans to cut Pell college tuition grants, telling students that recent funding increases may have spurred universities to increase costs.
"We need to look at tuition inflation and when you take a look at the spending on these programs, you'll see a direct correlation with higher increases in inflation," Ryan said. "Rather than have taxpayers subsidize faster tuition, let's look at why is tuition growing at such a fast pace."
He said the cuts would help reduce the government's budget deficit and avoid a debt crisis that would require lawmakers to make much more drastic cuts in aid to the poor.
"The Holy Father himself, Pope Benedict, has charged governments, communities and individuals running up high debt levels are 'living at the expense of future generations,' " said Ryan. He said those unwilling to reduce the debt "are complicit in our acceleration toward a debt crisis in which the poor would be hurt the first and the worst."