My apologies for being late to this iteration of the conversation. The charms of my parent’s home, my sister’s pontoon boat, and my lovely little grand-niece (is that the proper term?) have distracted me over the past few days.
Here’s only one of the latest salvos fired by those who seem to wish to excommunicate Mr. Ryan:
Ryan has set himself up as a distinctively Catholic candidate who is making a major effort to ensure that his policy decisions are in accord with the will of the Almighty as explained by the teachings of his Church. That’s a high bar to set and, to Ryan’s credit, he has not shrunk away from answering specific questions about how he sees that happening….
But a “faithful Catholic” is also supposed to follow the guidance of the Bishops. In the Catholic hierarchy, unless the Pope or the Vatican speaking in the Pope’s name has weighed in, the Bishops are the designated authentic explainers of the official line….
So if Ryan claims to be speaking in the name of his Church and the Bishops continue to have sharp and specific disagreements with much of what Ryan is saying, aren’t the Bishops morally and theologically obligated to shoot Ryan down again? And with greater specificity?
This is wrong in so many ways I don’t know exactly where to begin. But the best place, it seems to me, is at Ryan’s Georgetown speech, rather thoroughly canvassed on this site at the time. The first point is a simple one. Rather than claiming to speak “in the name of his Church,” Ryan was much more modest (my emphases):
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.
Ryan’s critic seems to think that he should simply submit to the guidance of the bishops. But is not an authoritative exposition of the doctrine different from its application? The bishops may be uniquely situated to explain to Roman Catholics inside and outside of political life what their obligations are, but since they are not themselves omniscient, they lack the detailed knowledge and expertise that have to be applied in particular situations. In Thomistic terms, human law is supposed to be an application of natural law, both of which are naturally and humanly imperfect expressions of human participation in eternal law. I’ll grant the bishops their expertise as expositors of natural law, but that in and of itself doesn’t make them knowledgeable about how best to accomplish the ends natural law calls for. God only knows (literally) how to accomplish those ends. Policy experts like Paul Ryan might indeed know better than the bishops about the consequences of the various choices we might be called to make.
This brings me to my second point. Many have pointed out (most recently, Carson Holloway) that the application of natural law to our situation requires the virtue of prudence, a mastery of the details of our circumstances (such as is possible for a human being), with the goals and the weights given to particular considerations by good moral character (or, if you will, a well-formed conscience). We would all be hard-pressed to deny Paul Ryan’s detailed policy knowledge. Those who disagree with Ryan’s prescriptions are left with two options. They can say that “reasonable people can disagree” about the weights given to particular considerations or about the consequences of certain choices. (How much do we have to spend on national defense? Will there be as much economic growth as Ryan expects if the tax rates are lowered?) Or they can seek to deny his moral character, reducing his “prudence” to mere “cleverness,” such as any sharper is capable of.
Given its track record, I think I know which choice will most tempt the Obama campaign. I hope (and pray) that others will grant him what he called for in his Georgetown speech:
Serious problems like those we face today require charitable conversation. Civil public dialogue goes to the heart of solidarity, the virtue that does not divide society into classes and groups but builds up the common good of all.
Let us have that charitable conversation. Perhaps, rather than “shoot Ryan down,” as RealClearReligion’s Jeffrey Weiss thinks they should or will, the American bishops can take the lead in promoting that charitable conversation.