After about 30 years of teaching college students, I’ve learned a lot of the tricks for prompting discussion among students—not that I have always been successful. One is to argue vigorously that two like cases are unlike, or that two unlike cases are alike, and see if the students rise to the challenge of telling you that you’re wrong.
But one must remember that this is an argumentative ruse, a playing of devil’s advocate. Woe to the teacher who mashes together two different things as just alike, and starts believing it because it sounded so darn clever.
This, I think, is the fate that has befallen Michael Peppard, an assistant professor of theology at Fordham University. Unfortunately, his embarrassment has been published in the pages of the New York Times . Peppard argues that, in the position that he enunciated on abortion in last week’s vice-presidential debate, Paul Ryan revealed that “along with Mr. Biden, he has joined the ranks of dissenting Catholic politicians, those who preserve a distance between nonnegotiable Catholic moral teaching and civil law.”
“Paul Ryan, Catholic Dissident” (that’s the headline on the piece) on abortion? How so? Because, as Professor Peppard points out, Ryan stated the position of the Republican ticket as being in favor of prohibiting all abortions, except in cases of rape, incest, or danger to the life of a mother. The Catholic Church makes no such exceptions, therefore Ryan is a dissenter from Church teaching—just like Biden! Perhaps there should be a “wafer watch,” Peppard remarks, to see if Ryan is refused the Eucharist on this basis, as some have said Biden should be.
Peppard is right about the exceptionless Catholic position on abortion. But to equate Ryan’s case with Biden’s is absurdity. Ryan favors prohibiting roughly 99% of the abortions that now take place in this country. Biden favors prohibiting none of them . The vice president made it crystal clear that preserving Roe v. Wade is more important to him than what his Church teaches—which of course is not “de fide doctrine” as Biden falsely claimed, but the conclusion of reason and science about what justice requires, as Ryan rightly said.
Ryan’s public policy position is analogous to the one Abraham Lincoln took on slavery—to oppose the institution as much as public opinion will allow, and hope to pull public opinion to where you want to lead it. Lincoln held slavery to be a great evil in all cases, everywhere it existed, but his stated position in the 1860 election was only to oppose its spread westward into the territories—and to put the evil on a course to its “ultimate extinction.” He knew a more radical position would only disable him politically. By the same token, many Americans are squeamish about prohibiting abortion in a tiny number of extreme cases presenting the most heartrending difficulties. But our situation now is that hundreds of thousands of abortions occur each year having nothing to do with those extreme situations. If we can stop the vast majority, it can await another day for us to tackle the delicate cases of rape, incest, and danger to women’s lives.
Professor Peppard’s reasoning would have us reject Lincoln along with Stephen Douglas because neither man is John Brown. The argument refutes itself. As Frederick Douglass was to say in celebrating Lincoln’s memory in 1876, “Viewed from the genuine abolition ground, Mr. Lincoln seemed tardy, cold, dull, and indifferent; but measuring him by the sentiment of his country, a sentiment he was bound as a statesman to consult, he was swift, zealous, radical, and determined.”
Professor Peppard also thinks he has identified another deviation from Catholic teaching in Rep. Ryan’s position:
Mr. Ryan also criticized Roe v. Wade , and he is right that a democratic process would have been better for abortion law in our country. But handing abortion law over to the voters is no more of a Catholic position than is having it decided by the Supreme Court.
Come again? The Catholic position is that persons in authority have a responsibility to do the right thing with that authority. Ryan’s view, that the abortion question should be returned to the democratic processes of elections and legislation, is inseparable from his view of what policy those processes should produce, if responsible actors conform their actions to justice. But the first order of business is to remove the question from the grip of an institution that usurped the right to decide it nearly 40 years ago, and to get the matter back where it belongs.
This piece is a sad failure as an attempt to assimilate Ryan’s case to Biden’s. About Biden, Professor Peppard can only bring himself to say that his position in the debate was “a wishy-washy mélange of moral intuitions,” when in truth it was a coldly cynical betrayal of all moral reasoning, and of the faith in which Biden was reared. If we are to believe that Biden’s moral intuition includes even the feeble “wrong for me personally” view of abortion, we might like to know whether he has ever spoken at fundraisers for crisis pregnancy centers, ever uttered a word in public to persuade his fellow Catholics and fellow citizens to choose life over death, ever spoken at Catholic schools about living chastely and respecting life. There are no recorded instances of Biden’s ever having done any of these things.
We could all do more to promote respect for the sanctity of life. Paul Ryan has done a lot. Joe Biden has spent decades in public life assiduously doing the opposite.