When my fellow conservatives and Republicans were beating up on President Obama for his “you didn’t build that” remark, representing him as having claimed that business owners didn’t build their own businesses, the government did it, I spoke out in defense of the President. I argued that his artless words should not be seized upon to exaggerate or distort his views on the respective contributions of government and business owners to the success of businesses.
I spoke up for fairness to Barack Obama not because I support his policies or favor his re-election, but despite my deep opposition. 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.
Of course, the unfairness I condemned is by no means unique to Republicans or conservatives. One finds plenty of it among Democrats and liberals. Take, for example, the deplorable attack on Paul Ryan issued this week by a group of Catholic scholars professing to be “concerned for our nation and for the integrity of the teachings of the Catholic Church,” under the title “On All of Our Shoulders.”
Implausibly, the signers assert their non-partisanship: “We do not write to oppose Ryan’s candidacy or to argue there are not legitimate reasons for Catholics to vote for him.” In fact, the statement is a highly tendentious assault on Ryan, presenting him and his positions in the most unfavorable possible light, and insinuating that he is someone who seeks to “legitimate forms of social indifference.” It is, in short, the discursive version of the infamous Democratic Party television advertisement showing a Ryan-like figure dumping an elderly lady out of her wheelchair over a cliff.
The whole thing is presented in a cloyingly earnest manner and is laid over with a patina of scholarship. Despite Ryan’s own very public statements of his points of agreement and significant disagreement with the thought of Ayn Rand, and despite the commendations he has received from the bishops who know him and his work best—Bishop Joseph Morlino of Madison, Wisconsin and Cardinal Timothy Dolan, Archbishop of New York (formerly of Milwaukee)—Ryan is presented as an unreconstructed Randian radical individualist and, as such, a clear opponent of Catholic social teaching.
Instead of a careful, nuanced analysis of Ryan’s thought in light of that teaching, the statement offers a set of Democratic Party talking points festooned with quotations from St. Thomas Aquinas and Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI. It is a thoroughly unedifying spectacle designed to discredit Ryan with Catholics in the run up to the Congressman’s debate with Vice President Joe Biden.
The University of Notre Dame’s Richard Garnett, in a polite but devastating critique of “On All of Our Shoulders,” goes straight to the heart of the matter:
The statement, like much of the “Ryan is a Randian!!” business, overstates significantly the extent to which the policies that are being proposed—and certainly the policies that have even a remote chance of being enacted, should Gov. Romney be elected—are, in fact, “libertarian” (let alone Randian). If programs and policies are described tendentiously, and contrasted with rival programs that are described idealistically, they will (no surprise) seem less compatible with Christianity.”
Authentic Catholic social teaching begins from an affirmation of (a) the inherent and equal dignity and fundamental right to life of every member of the human family, including the child in the womb; (b) the centrality and indispensable social significance of marriage as the conjugal union of husband and wife; and (c) religious freedom and the rights of conscience.
What do the signers of the statement say about these foundational principles of Catholic teaching and Ryan’s positions on them? Very little. Indeed, they excuse themselves from discussing life issues because on these matters there is, they say, “little or no confusion about the Church’s teaching.” (Evidently, the memo has not yet reached Vice President Biden, House Minority Leader Pelosi, most Catholic Democrats in the United States Senate and House of Representatives, and Caroline Kennedy, whose speech at the recent Democratic convention displayed quite a bit of confusion.)
What do the signers say about the positions of the Obama-Biden administration on life, marriage, and religious freedom? Virtually nothing. This is scandalous in a statement presenting itself as non-partisan and published out of “concern for our nation and for the integrity of the teachings of the Catholic Church.”
It is Obama and Biden, not Ryan (or Romney), whose positions on abortion mirror those of the vehemently pro-abortion Ayn Rand. Obama and Biden have undermined the right to life of the child in the womb in every way they possibly can, working tirelessly to protect the abortion license, expand access to abortion, and eliminate restrictions on killing human embryos for biomedical research. They are the ones “legitimating forms of social indifference.”As Mother Teresa observed during her visit to the United States in 1994, it is the abortion license above all else that is undercutting social solidarity in Western democracies today. And the abortion license has no more loyal and determined defenders and promoters than Barack Obama and Joe Biden. If there is radical individualism to be condemned in this election cycle, it is the radical individualism advanced by the President, Vice President, and others in their party who champion an unrestricted right to kill the weakest and most vulnerable members of the human family in the name of individual “autonomy” and “choice.”
Moreover, Obama, Biden, and their political party have committed themselves to abolishing in law the conjugal understanding of marriage as the union of husband and wife and replacing it with a conception of marriage as an intimate relationship of two persons of the same or opposite sexes. Given Rand’s views on sexual morality, she would likely find the Obama-Biden position far more congenial than the Romney-Ryan stand.
And there is more. The Obama-Biden administration has imposed odious mandates on Catholics and others, requiring employers, including religious institutions who cannot comply in good conscience, to provide health insurance coverage that includes abortion-inducing drugs, sterilizations, and contraceptives. It has sought to eliminate the ministerial exception, which recognizes religious institutions’ special autonomy in hiring under the First Amendment. They have declined to renew contracts for Catholic providers of excellent social services to victims of human trafficking because those providers do not refer for abortions, abortion counseling, and the like.
Oddly, their statement makes a point of commending Ryan for not being an atheist (Ayn Rand was one) yet does not commend him for his impeccable pro-life record or his support for marriage as the union of husband and wife. Why? Presumably because some of the signers themselves—despite their professed concern for “the integrity of the teachings of the Catholic Church”—reject the Church’s teachings on these foundational issues of Catholic moral and social doctrine. Somehow that doesn’t stop them, though, from criticizing Paul Ryan for alleged deviations from Catholic teachings.
As for the substance of what they say about the content of Catholic social thought, I agree with the principles they articulate, though I’m appalled by their lack of attention to the foundational principles they omit or excuse themselves from discussing in a serious way. And I reject their efforts to depict Ryan as a radical individualist who rejects the social teachings of the Catholic Church in favor of those of Ayn Rand.
Whether in the long run, or for that matter, in the shorter run, Ryan’s policies would better serve poor and middle-class Americans than those more collectivist ones favored by the Democrats (and, I have no doubt, all or most of the signers) is not something that can be determined purely on the basis of the principles of Catholic social teaching. There are Catholic bishops and other good Catholics who are critical of Ryan’s budget proposals and others, sharing the same fundamental principles, who support them. It is a disagreement among reasonable Catholics—and people generally—of goodwill.
Robert P. George is McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence and Director of the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions at Princeton University.
Joseph Knippenberg, Paul Ryan, the (Bad or Good?) Catholic
R.R. Reno, Ryan Outrage Syndrome
James R. Rogers, Ryan, Social Insurance, and American Conservatism
Become a fan of First Things on Facebook, subscribe to First Things via RSS, and follow First Things on Twitter.