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.