Paul Ryan. (AP Photo)

Congressman Paul Ryan consistently—make that aggressively—identifies himself as “pro-life.”

If the Catholic congressman’s definition of the term is narrowly limited to the debate about reproductive rights, perhaps Ryan can convince himself that his use of the term is appropriate.

But leading American Catholics are telling Ryan and other politicians that they can’t get away with claiming to be “pro-life” and “pro-NRA.” Theologians, priests and nuns are challenging the House Budget Committee chairman and 2012 Republican vice presidential nominee—who often suggests that his ideas and positions are influenced by Catholic teaching on social and economic issues—and other elected Catholics who trumpet their “pro-life” positions to think more seriously about the meaning of the term.

Specifically, the prominent Catholics thinkers and activists are urging members of Congress such as Ryan to reconcile their use of the term “pro-life” with a seemingly unthinking and steadily unapologetic alliance with “powerful special interests” that seek to block even the most minimal gun-safety legislation.

“We urge you to reflect on the wisdom in our church’s call for a ‘consistent ethic of life’ as you consider legislation in the coming months that can provide greater protection for our families and communities,” write former US ambassadors to the Holy See Miguel H. Diaz and Thomas P. Melady, retired Associate General Secretary of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops Francis X. Doyle and prominent theologians, priests, nuns and social justice advocates.

Among the signers of the letter are Sister Florence Deacon, who serves as president of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, and Sister Simone Campbell, who serves as executive director of NETWORK, the national Catholic social justice lobby. Marie Dennis, the co-president of Pax Christi International is a signer, as are the Rev. Thomas J. Reese, SJ, senior fellow with the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University; Patrick Carolan, executive director of the Franciscan Action Network; James Salt, executive director of Catholics United; and the leadership team of the Sisters of Mercy of the Americas.

Joining the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, the Catholic Health Association and Catholic Charities USA call for “common-sense reforms to address the epidemic of gun violence in our nation.” They write: “Pro-life citizens and elected officials have a responsibility to show greater moral leadership and political courage when it comes to confronting threats to the sanctity of life posed by easy access to military-style assault weapons and high capacity magazines. Members of Congress who take pride in their pro-life stance and appeal to family values have no excuse for inaction, and neither do any of us who share a firm commitment to these values. We especially encourage our fellow Catholics in Congress, including prominent leaders such as House Speaker John Boehner, to stand up to the National Rifle Association and other gun lobbyists who choose to obstruct sensible reforms. Catholics who earn an “A” rating from the NRA—including Republicans like Speaker Boehner and Rep. Paul Ryan and Democratic lawmakers such as Rep. Joe Donnelly and Sen. Heidi Heitkamp—should not put powerful special interests before the common good.”

The specific naming of Ryan, among others, was coupled with perspective on the term “pro-life.”

“Our faith and our Church call us to remember, as we reflect on our most recent massacres, that the defense of human dignity extends beyond protecting life in the womb. Gun violence demeans human life and tears communities apart. There have been more than 70 mass shootings since the January 8, 2011, massacre in Tucson, Arizona. More than 900 people have been killed with guns since the Newtown tragedy,” wrote the dozens of Catholic leaders. “The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops recently renewed their call for measures to address gun violence by echoing their 2000 statement, ‘Responsibility, Rehabilitation and Restoration: A Catholic Perspective on Crime and Criminal Justice.’ Bishops have called for ‘measures that control the sale and use of firearms’ and ‘sensible regulations of handguns.’ The Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, in a 1994 document, ‘The International Arms Trade,’ urges political leaders ‘to impose a strict control on the sale of handguns and small arms’ and states that ‘limiting the purchase of such arms would certainly not infringe on the rights of anyone.’

“All of us need to work against the glorification of violence, remedy our inadequate mental health services and address the breakdown of family support structures. No single law or set of regulations will prevent all tragedies, but the complexity of this urgent challenge must not be an excuse for protecting the status quo when it comes to regulating the sale and use of lethal weapons,” write the Catholic leaders. “President Obama and Members of Congress can honor the memories of those killed in Newtown, Conn., and work to prevent future tragedies by acting now.”

Americans can and do disagree over reproductive rights and gun control, and even about the precise definition of the term pro-life.”

But what these Catholic leaders have done is about more than just language. They are challenging Paul Ryan and his congressional compatriots to think more deeply—not just about the positions and policies they espouse but “to show greater moral leadership and political courage when it comes to confronting threats to the sanctity of life posed by easy access to military-style assault weapons and high capacity magazines.”

Ryan has shown little inclination to listen to his constituents on these issues, or to the experts on gun safety. Perhaps he will listen to the experts on moral leadership and political courage, as well as leaders of the religious community to whom he claims to look for advice and counsel.

For more on the contradictions of gun control politics, check out Tom Tomorrow’s “NRA Debate Tips.”