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Is the “On All of Our Shoulders” Statement Partisan?

For many, including an apparently very upset Robert George, the answer to the above question is obvious: of course it is.  Such partisanship is demonstrated by what he calls a “deplorable attack” and “tendentious assault” on Ryan. But only in a world which accepts a simplistic liberal/conservative binary could the criticism of one candidate or party be understood as support for another party.  We will explore below whether the criticisms of Ryan’s views are justified, but surely George would admit that this binary reasoning doesn’t match up with the political and ethical reality.  Indeed, as a former liberal who still holds multiple views at odds with mainstream conservatism, George himself is a good example of someone who blows up the binary.

But George’s argument isn’t quite this simple.  His focus is not just on what was said in the statement, it is on what it didn’t say.  It didn’t criticize Joe Biden enough.  It didn’t praise Paul Ryan enough.  It didn’t spend enough time talking about principles of Catholic social teaching that are at odds with Democrats.  This argument from silence apparently counts as enough evidence for George to assume and/or suggest that the signatories reject the Church’s teaching on abortion and/or are trying to carry water for the Obama administration.

Let me say for the record that I have zero interest in getting either of these candidates elected–and I found Joe Biden’s tired response to the abortion question last night to be a fundamental attack on Catholic Social Teaching’s call for justice for the most vulnerable–and for nonviolence more generally.  From the press release when the statement was sent to media:

“The Church’s broad social teaching transcends the narrow ideological agendas of either political party, and we want to be absolutely clear that this statement was not circulated and released to support Democrats – a group which also finds itself seriously at odds with Catholic social teaching,” said Charles C. Camosy, assistant professor of theology at Fordham University. “We focus on Paul Ryan because several of his statements and proposals, and those of his supporters, have been the most recent cause of error and confusion about some of the most important aspects of Catholic teaching on care for the most vulnerable.”

That is the context out of which this statement comes.  There is no confusion about how the views of Biden and other pro-choice Democrats line up with Church teaching. However, there is tremendous confusion about the matters of Catholic Social Doctrine brought up in “On All of Our Shoulders”–and this is why we crafted and circulated it.  The statement was already probably too long, and we could not hope for it to be all things to all people.  And despite this being the case, the statement nevertheless still managed to do the following:

1.  Insist that the foundational principle of Catholic Social Teaching is the dignity of the human person from conception

2. Agree with Catholic Bishops publicly reminding Catholics about the pro-choice views of Catholic (and other) politicians

3.  Criticize the Obama administration for the HHS mandate

4.  Laud Paul Ryan for his positions that are consistent with Catholic teaching

That is a remarkable list, and it would be exceedingly odd to have these sentiments come from people who are in the tank for Obama/Biden.  The criticism that those who crafted the statement must be partisan because these ideas were not expanded upon, or talked about enough, cannot bear the weight that George puts on it.  Again, this statement comes out of a context, and was meant to respond to a very particular problem with regard to confusion about the Church’s Social Doctrine.

But even if the criticism of Ryan isn’t partisan, perhaps it is just mistaken.  After all, the claim that George attributes to us–that Ryan is “an unreconstructed Randian radical individualist and, as such, a clear opponent of Catholic social teaching”–is pretty harsh and seems difficult to substantiate.  He even accuses me directly of not giving Ryan the benefit of the doubt I give others in my scholarship.

But is this what we said of Ryan?  Oddly, George never links to our document, but even if he had, his readers would not have been sent to a document which makes any such claim.  Indeed, we were careful not to say he was a radical individualist in the statement–he clearly has stated concern for the flourishing of families and of other local communities.  We did say that he has an “Ayn Rand “inspired” individualist and anti-government vision” that is not consistent with Catholic Social Doctrine. But is that because we are somehow predisposed to oppose him or not willing to give him the benefit of the doubt?  Not at all.  We say this because in 2005 Paul Ryan said this in a speech to the Atlas Society.  Indeed, he even claimed he would often return to Atlas Shrugged to check his principles to make sure that what he is doing is consistent “with the key principles of individualism.”

It is certainly possible that Ryan has switched in the last few years from this connection with Rand to one with Thomas Aquinas.  But as we point out in the statement:

a shift from the social philosophy of Ayn Rand to the social doctrine of the Catholic Church is a radical change indeed.  Such a conversion would take much time and reflection.  Congressman Ryan’s policies have remained unchanged through this shift.  This suggests that they may in fact still be more indebted to the social principles of Rand than to Aquinas and the Catholic Church.

Several of Ryan’s proposed policies remain at variance with Catholic Social Teaching–and this has been pointed out by the US Bishops designated by the conference to speak about such matters.  It is certainly possible that Ryan may be in process, on his way from Rand to CST, but in the meantime the confusion created by defenses of his mistakes needed to be addressed.

I think Paul Ryan’s defense of our prenatal children–and that of Robert George–are to be greatly admired.  As I wrote in the online version of the Washington Post yesterday, I also admire Ryan’s clear-headed thinking about the problems (though I disagree with his proposed solutions) of our long-term health care debt.  The “On All of Our Shoulders” statement was designed with a narrow purpose in mind: a defense of Catholic Social Doctrine during a time when it is under attack and clouded by confusion. The defense of these doctrines is far more important than a blog exchange, or even a presidential election.  We cannot allow partisanship, even in favor of a good cause (like defense of our prenatal children), to compromise or equivocate on the fullness of the Church’s teaching on protection of–and support for–the most vulnerable.



  1. I posted a similar question on First Things, so excuse the repetition.

    I am curious, however, Dr. Camosy whether you think that a Catholic could agree (as Prof. Garnett explicitly does, & I would assume Robert George does) that (a) Randian objectivism is incompatible with Catholic Social Teaching, & (b) Ryan’s past statements regarding Rand are lamentable – even deplorable, but still conclude that Ryan’s proposal, primarily with respect to Medicare (which as David Brooks wrote earlier in the week is the real heart of the “Ryan budget”) is (a) the right policy proscription given the financial instability of such programs, and (b) within the realm of acceptable policy proscriptions under Catholic social teaching.

    I think what is frustrating to many Catholics who do support Romney/Ryan is that the discussion over Rand serves as a proxy for some of Ryan’s policy proscriptions, such that knocking down the caricature of Rand operates to disqualify Ryan’s proposals, which I do not think is accurate (I don’t even think Ryan, whatever his comments, is a very good Randian passed on his voting record). Interested in your take.

  2. Robert George has endorsed Romney. He is advising the campaign:

    He endorsed and advised Romney during the 2008 campaign.

    He is in no position to denounce you or anyone else as partisan. Pot, kettle.

  3. You say here, Charlie, and you have told me in our private conversation that there is no confusion about Biden not lining up with the teachings of the Church. I think you are too optimistic about this. I had several Catholics tell me today that they found Biden’s abortion response thoughtful and very much in line with their own position. I think people generally assume that one can believe personally that abortion is wrong but be pro-choice in the public square. Denouncing Biden with the thoroughness that the statement denounced Ryan (or maybe “challenged” Ryan would be a better way to put it) would only strengthen your position and give more credence to the claim that the statement wasn’t partisan. We also need not assume that Catholics, even educated Catholics, are catechized enough to know that Biden isn’t in line with Church teaching. I, quite frankly, have been a bit perplexed at the attention given to Ryan’s Catholicism. I don’t remember hearing much of anything back in 2008 about Biden’s Catholicism, and I haven’t heard much more in 2012. Even this blog, which I hail as non-partisan, has talked endlessly about Ryan’s failure to uphold CST (most of which I agree with), but very little about Biden’s failure to uphold CST, which is based on the dignity of all human beings from conception to natural death.

    The statement you helped draft and circulate was already too long and couldn’t do everything, and after slogging through research papers with my students today, I understand the importance of limiting scope. But I do think the confusions about CST and the moral teachings of the Church more generally pertain to Biden as well. After all, CST is based in and inseparable from the understanding of the life and dignity of all people, even those who are pre-born.

  4. Josh, I agree with what you wrote 100%.

    Grant, I don’t think the issue is so much whether George or the signers of the statement support or endorse a particular candidate, but whether that support leads them to make an uncharitable interpretation of the other candidate’s beliefs or policies. As George said, “It is both wrong in itself and damaging to the spirit of democracy to misrepresent one’s political opponents or interpret their words tendentiously to depict them in the most unfavorable possible light.”

    That being said, I think George does provide an uncharitable reading of the statement, first by assuming that all of its signers represent the “Catholic Left” and second for not taking at face value their explanation of why the focus is not on abortion.

  5. Beth Haile wrote: “I had several Catholics tell me today that they found Biden’s abortion response thoughtful and very much in line with their own position.” That isn’t because they believe Biden is speaking for the church, or articulating church teaching. The fact is that most U.S. Catholics do not agree that abortion should be illegal. They are not confused about the church’s teaching against abortion — is there another subject on which the USCCB comments more frequently?

    Matthew Shadle: George is not politically pure. He has endorsed and is advising a candidate whose abortion policy does not comport with Catholic teaching on abortion. He has made a prudential judgment, well within his rights, to support a man who believes, with most of the country, that some abortions should be paid for with federal tax money. And now he baroquely denounces this statement as partisan. It’s quite a performance, actually. You’ve found another…let’s call it an unresolved tension in George’s post: He tut-tuts the signatories for uncharitably interpreting Ryan’s views (even though they quote him several times, and not unfairly), and then turns around and says that he doesn’t believe them when they say the statement isn’t partisan. Oh, and we’re supposed to believe George is the most fair-minded guy because of his mealy-mouthed “defense” of Obama against conservative’s attacks on him for the “you didn’t build that” line. Right.

  6. There are really two different questions circulating here (and elsewhere): the “why not call out Biden on abortion” question and the “can one support Ryan’s policy positions even if one agrees with the critique of Randian principles” question. These are very different (but helpful!) questions, but they do have some relationship.

    Like Beth, I have also heard from thoughtful people who liked Biden’s answer; like her, I don’t believe the answer works; like Grant, I don’t believe either party has a Huckabee-esque pure position on abortion. In principle, the only thoroughly pro-life, analogous-to-slavery answer to this question is a human life constitutional amendment and an actual enforcement mechanism. Abolition is the point, right? Every other position, even if they are on a spectrum, is a politically-prudent compromise with various realities. The Biden-Cuomo answer is (on a superficial level) attractive because, pace Aquinas, we don’t try to outlaw all vice by civil laws – so just as the Church tolerates legal, widely-available contraception, Biden suggests that he tolerates abortion, even though he personally finds it wrong. But the reason this is superficial is twofold: one, it would at least require Biden to distance himself from the virulent pro-choice rhetoric that equates abortion on demand with the social flourishing of women, and two, it would require him to maintain that abortion, while wrong, is not seriously so. He has not done the former, and (if he believe the fetus is really a person) he cannot really hold that the issue is not grave. So the position is ultimately not any more plausible than when Mario Cuomo held it. But again, neither is any position that offers exceptions. Accepting a position with exceptions has to be a prudential judgment that such a policy is preferable in limiting (not eliminating) harm – a position I would find plausible if there were signs that there would be actual implementation of policies that would seriously restrict abortion. Which is another prudential judgment. Now, should Biden be called out on this tired argument? Certainly. Didn’t I just do that?

    Which brings us to the Ryan question. What I’ve realized reading a lot of the comments in the wake of the statement is that we have to be careful to distinguish between supporting Romney/Ryan despite their errors of principle and supporting them and maintaining that they are not errors. Commentators like Robert George and others have (commendably) noted that the statement does in fact state fundamental principles of CST correctly. Good. As others have said, that’s a step in the right direction, because many Catholics do not realize this. Then, as Josh asks above, is it possible to support Romney/Ryan’s policies, while holding different principles? This gets murky, I think, because of two problems. One is that it would seem that one would at least be required to vocalize one’s concern over the apparent divergence of principle – there would have to be an analogous group to “Democrats for Life” or one would have to remind everyone (as the statement does on abortion) that the difference in principle is recognized. But the second problem is ascertaining whether there really is a difference in principles, or whether the statement is unfair in its characterization of Romney/Ryan’s actual principles.

    This is where I actually find there to be a connection between Biden’s slipperiness on abortion and Ryan’s slipperiness about Rand/Aquinas. Put bluntly, neither are very good philosophers. In both cases, I don’t use the term “slipperiness” to indicate insincerity, but I do think that, even if a moral theologian sat down with them and tried to work through the contradictions (between Aquinas and Rand, or between tolerating minor vice and tolerating abortion), they cannot actually present the fully coherent position as politicians. Because this is a two-party democracy, and at some level, they have to present compromised positions in order to get elected or even maintain a minority seat at the table. And of course, properly understood, both parties present majority-palatable positions on abortion and majority-palatable positions on social welfare programs – and in fact, neither comports entirely with Evangelium Vitae or CST in either area. Indeed, if the Republicans really wanted a much more politically practicable proposal for a constitutional amendment protecting the culture of life, they would work for proposals that banned the death penalty and banned physician-assisted suicide. Why do they not do this, when it has a so much more plausible chance of actually passing and being enacted?

  7. I get that the authors of the Statement understood their task as attempting to add some clarifying color to a (at least if judged by Raddatz;s “Catholic” question in Thurs.’s debate) series of issues which they feel is maybe not as often in the forefront (even though I think that this year that assertion is a bit weaker given the media attention to the Nuns on the Bus, and the fact that a prominent leader of the group was given a primetime speaking role at the Democratic Convention). And I don’t particularly see the basis for, or really the point of, the charge of “partisanship” (of either the Statement or responses to it) simply on the basis of who is supporting/endorsing/advising whom. I suppose, in an election year, that such a characterization is unavoidable.

    I appreciate David Cloutier’s questions in response to the issue of Romney/Ryan’s positions vis-a-vis Catholic teaching. With respect to the first issue he raises, I, for one, would like to see some “internal” conservative pressure on Ryan with respect to certain elements of his budget (e.g. defense spending). There are probably several reasons why that hasn’t happened (maybe most of all because, as a Republican, I’m just happy to see someone on my said at least thinking about domestic policy in a substantive way).

    I would say, however, that one thing that has struck me about the coverage of Ryan is that I think the “mainstream media” has given him more of a fair shake than has the “Catholic” media, & I think the STatement, to a certain degree, follows that mold. For example, the Ryan Ezra Klein describes here ( is a far cry from the Ryan I read about as described by Michael Sean Winters. I lament Ryan’s statements with respect to Rand, BUT I think Catholic media outlets have, for lack of a better work, feteshized Ryan’s Randian comments, which I think is overwrought given both (a) his actual voting record, and (b) his actual proposals which I think are clearly distinguishable from Randian principles, if evidenced by nothing else by his willingness and eagerness to work with Democrats like Alice Rivlin & Ron Wyden.

  8. It seems that you are conflating two objections to Ryan: one is to his political philosophy and the other is to specific proposals he has made. It also seems you are implying that if his philosophy is contrary to Church teaching then his proposals are tainted also, but this is clearly not so. Another responder to this article stated that the comments by Professor George could be dismissed because he is advising the Romney campaign, but, for the same reason, this assertion is false as well. An argument is either right or wrong on its own merits and the reasons one makes it – whether it be philosophy or politics – is immaterial.

    I am not overly concerned with Ryan’s references to Ayn Rand. As someone else observed, if Ryan is a Randian he’s not a very good one since it doesn’t show through in his proposals. It may be that Rand’s overall philosophy is contrary to Church teaching but, beyond expressing admiration for some of her ideas, there is little evidence that anything Ryan believes is outside the pale.

    I also think you greatly overstate the case that the “US bishops designated … to speak about such matters” have pointed out several policies at variance with Church teaching. First, no bishop can speak for another; the opinions expressed by the two bishops opposing Ryan’s budget are theirs alone. Second, there is hardly agreement among the bishops given that another spoke out saying he found nothing in the budget that contradicted Church teaching. What are we to make of the fact that the overwhelming majority of bishops said nothing at all and the three who did speak out took opposing positions? I don’t think any case can be made that Church doctrine is involved in their disagreement.

    The US bishops did speak out against the HHS guidelines; all of them spoke and all of them said the same thing. This is an example of a proposal that is at variance with Church teaching, not the Ryan budget.

  9. To those of us who have heard of the “ad hominem” fallacy, who cares about Gallicho’s point-scoring against George? The proposition “George is a partisan Republican” does not refute the proposition that “the ‘On All of Our Shoulders’ statement is partisan.”

    This is the case because:

    1) singling out Ryan for such extensive criticism in the context of an election is inevitably going to come across as partisan, even if there are one or two oblique statements indicating that Democrats aren’t perfect either; and

    2) as others have said, criticizing Ayn Rand, while a good idea generally, is rather beside the point given that nothing Ryan has actually proposed, let alone that he could conceivably accomplish in the rather figure-headish role of Vice President, is even close to being Randian.

  10. Charlie writes that “There IS tremendous confusion” about CSD. Indeed. But why? I think abortion politics is mostly to blame.

    Roe called upon the church to act. For the past forty years, the GOP has generally been the anti-abortion party, while the Democrats have generally been the abortion rights party. Not surprisingly, this confluence has caused individual Catholics and, perhaps, the institutional American church to identify with the Republicans. That proximity with one party starts us down the slippery slope. We instinctively think that if the GOP is for it, the Church is probably for it, too. Forty years of abortion politics has a way of creating habits of mind.

    Four years ago, Douglas Kmiec, a Reagan Catholic, stepped back from his GOP-biased habits of mind and concluded that Mr. Obama offered the better (albeit imperfect) choice for CST-minded voters. The outcry was nasty.

    With that as background, I was pleased to read the thoughtful, nuanced OAOS declaration signed by so many Catholic luminaries because I worry that the American church has over-identified with the GOP. It’s reassuring to see that so many bright Catholics proactively try to “blow up the binary.” I’d like to see more of this.

    Personally, my tiny response to the Catholic / GOP “confluence” is to try to sound off on several pro-life matters, not only abortion. It’s no to abortion, but no to executions, euthanasia, preemptive war, global warming, and so many other issues. When we see the full slate of CST-related matters, vs. the horror of abortion alone, the fact that both parties are deficient becomes more apparent.

    I pray that in ’12 Aquinas and Francis of Assisi will be on the ballot. I’ll settle for Biden / Ryan if each man would take a few steps closer to the Church.


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