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October 10, 2012

The "On All of Our Shoulders" statement

This statement, "On All of Our Shoulders:  A Catholic Call to Protect the Endangered Common Good", is signed by a number of Catholic theologians and scholars and it says a number of things that, in my view, are true and important.  That said, and at the risk of being dismissed, given yet another post about Ryan, as one of those "Republican Catholics who have been attempting to provide Catholic cover for the Ryan budget" (see Michael Sean Winters' discussion of the statement, here), I think the statement has some flaws and is disappointing in some respects.

First, the statement reminds readers, correctly, that the Church's social doctrine has a kind of unity, integrity, and coherence and that it needs to be engaged and applied in a way that is true to this fact about it.  Second, the statement notes, correctly, that Ayn Rand's "objectivism" is inconsistent with the Gospel, and that an excessively individualistic libertarian stance with regard to social-policy questions is not compatible with Christian moral anthropology or social teaching.  Third, the statement, correctly, insists that, even when it comes to questions regarding economic and social-welfare policy, some answers will plausibly cohere with Christianity and others will not.  "Prudence", as the statement says, "demands both knowledge of the principles of Catholic Social  Doctrine and honest attention to the details and realistic consequences of policies."  And, the five "principles" that the statement says are in danger of being "forgotten or distorted" are, indeed, fundamental principles of the Church's social doctrine that should not be forgotten or distorted. 

But, the statement also misfires, I think.  First, 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.  This is important, because the political choice that the statement is clearly trying to inform has to involve, again, "honest attention to the details and realistic consequences of policies."  It is not, notwithstanding what is said by those who are trying to make this election about the extent to which Ryan's thinking has been shaped by Ayn Rand, really likely, given political and social realities, that, in a Romney presidency, we would see changes that can fairly be described as "radical" (or "draconian", or "cruel", or "gutting" . . . or Randian).  We might, though, spend several trillion dollars less, over the next ten years or so, and maybe improve the debt-and-deficits situation somewhat, and maybe reform (in a way the preserves them by making them sustainable) important (and expensive) social-welfare programs.

Relatedly, I think the statement overstates generally the influence in our politics of "Randian," or even "libertarian" thought.  The statement says, "We live at  time when the social indifference of libertarian thought is achieving broad  cultural legitimacy and political power.  This vision of the human person and society are fundamentally at odds  with the Gospel and the principles of Catholic Social Doctrine."  As I see it, though, the "libertarianism" that is operative in our politics is not a deep, philosophical individualism or "social indifference."  It's not a disciplined, "no government! tax is theft!" program, but just a sense, or mood -- a frustrated but sincere one -- that government at all levels is spending too much and doing too much in some areas (and not enough in some others).  "Libertarianism" can be "fundamentally at odds" with the Gospel, if it actually involves "social indifference" and lone-individual atomism.  And, some rhetoric on the political right today does seem to involve these mistakes.  More common, though, and more influential in reality (David Brooks' complaints notwithstanding), is a "libertarianism" (if it can be called that) that worries about the sustainability of our current practices, that is concerned about the liberal state's tendency and present-day efforts to crowd out civil society and illiberally impose a certain understanding of liberalism on mediating and religious institutions, that thinks its important to have judges and administrators who are faithful to the Constitution and appropriately respectful of the limits on their power, and that is entirely compatible "the Gospel and the principles of Catholic Social Doctrine."

Third, while the statement notes several times the Church's teaching on the dignity of the human person, and agrees that it is important for the Church's teachers to speak clearly on the issue of abortion, it does not, in my view, do enough to take advantage of what it clearly regards as an important "teaching moment" (my quotes, not the statement's).  It is the fact of Ryan's candidacy, and the fact of his Catholicism, that seems to make this, to the statement's authors, a "teaching moment," and yet the serious and glaring inconsistency between the Church's social teaching and the policies and views of the other Catholic candidate for Vice President are almost entirely ignored.  I realize that the statement's authors think that inconsistency has already been addressed, and is not in danger of being forgotten.  After watching and reading about much of the convention of the political party for which many Catholics will, as Catholics, enthusiastically vote, I think they are wrong to think this. 

In my view, a statement that aspires to be more than a partisan, day-before-the-debate intervention -- a statement that sees our "common good" as "endangered" and the unity and integrity of the Church's social teaching as being misunderstood -- would frame the "moment" as one in which both tickets include a Catholic.  It would, in addition to what this statement says, note to "liberal"-leaning Catholics attracted to the Democrats' social-welfare-spending policies that the Democrats' commitments and policies on abortion, religious liberty, and school choice -- and, for that matter, an indifference to the burdens we are imposing on future generations through our current spending practices -- are inconsistent with the unity of the Church's social teaching about the "common good."

Posted by Rick Garnett on October 10, 2012 at 10:16 AM in Garnett, Rick | Permalink


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