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Frustration with Ryan and Biden

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Oct 12, 2012

It was frustrating to hear both Catholic Vice Presidential candidates botch the question of the relationship of abortion to their Catholic Faith in the debates. Joe Biden, of course, simply repeated the same canards that faithless Catholics have always used to justify being pro-abortion. Paul Ryan’s remarks were far more sound, but in the end he too foundered on the rocks of inconsistency and lost opportunity.

Biden’s argument that he accepts the Church’s teaching that life begins at conception but refuses to impose that view on others is obviously as disingenuous now as it was when it was first introduced over a generation ago. This argument turns abortion into a purely religious issue, asserting that the evil of abortion can be known only through Revelation, which would mean that avoidance of abortion cannot be required of unbelievers—and this manner of framing the question is false. Moreover, the argument does not distinguish between a government which fails to punish an evil and a government which actively works to make an evil more widespread, including proclaiming it a right and coercing others into supporting and extending it.

Biden even slipped into the usual contradictions, admitting that the child in the womb is a separate person, yet framing the issue in terms of a woman’s right to control her own body. That this line of argument—a tissue of self-serving inconsistencies—should continue to provide a safe political haven is an irrefutable testimony to our fallen nature.

But sadly Ryan also left himself open to criticism. He rightly stressed that we know abortion is wrong through reason. He did not use the term natural law, but his argument makes sense only in light of natural law, for he asserted first that science establishes that the fetus is a human being and second that taking the life of an innocent human being is morally wrong. But given that the Republican ticket would permit abortion in cases of rape, incest and to save the life of the mother, Ryan failed utterly to make the distinctions necessary to salvage what otherwise appears to be a glaringly inconsistent position.

The lack of moral clarity actually concerns me here more than the policy, which is old news. Ryan was on the right track with his unnamed appeal to the natural law, but he failed to argue that it is precisely this natural human perception of the moral order which makes it perfectly moral for government to make laws which restrict even those evils that some citizens cannot (or will not) admit—insofar as a proposed restriction is consistent with government’s obligation to secure the common good. Instead, Ryan reduced the argument to a claim that the Republican position was moderate as compared with the extremism of the Democrats. That may be a politically effective point, yet on Ryan’s own reading, it is morally wrong for a government to favor abortion under any circumstances.

To come at this from a slightly different direction, Ryan was also on the right track in protesting the Obama Administration’s violations of religious liberty. But again, the effectiveness of these remarks was vitiated by his failure to make the necessary moral distinction between a government choosing not to punish a violation of the natural law and a government promoting a violation of the natural law. For with respect to abortion, the issue is not primarily a question of religious liberty. The argument from religious liberty, while valid, is introduced chiefly because it might work under the Constitution of the United States even in courts which no longer recognize the natural law.

The real truth of the matter is that the Republican position, even if one does not agree with it, may be argued in a morally coherent way. Indeed, if the incidence of abortion is ever to be reduced, it is absolutely vital to argue about this matter in a morally coherent way. For Ryan’s implication that it is always wrong for government to favor abortion does not exclude the possibility of government choosing not to restrict and punish it in particular circumstances. This case must be made to distinguish a so-called right to abortion, or even a requirement for abortion (positions which are always false and evil), from governmental toleration of abortion, which may, like toleration of other evils, be justifiable on prudential grounds.

Thus the only unconfused position on this question—and the argument Ryan should have made—runs as follows:

  1. Abortion is the taking of an innocent human life, which we know is immoral by reason through the natural law;
  2. Adherence to the natural law, unlike adherence to truths known only by Faith, is morally binding on all persons and may be justly required of them by government when necessary for the common good;
  3. This, and only this, justifies government prohibition and punishment of naturally recognized evils such as fraud, theft, assault, sexual abuse, and murder;
  4. However, it is not always best for government to prohibit and punish particular violations of the natural law;
  5. Whether or not to do so is a matter of the legitimate purposes of government (which clearly encompass the prevention of murder) and prudence, which is necessary to determine whether government can act effectively and without doing more harm than good;
  6. Government, therefore, may choose not to restrict or punish some moral evils which are otherwise within its legitimate scope;
  7. But in any case government must never—never—encourage or promote these evils, give them the status of rights, or coerce people into supporting them.

The protection of the lives of those under its jurisdiction from attack, including unborn children, is clearly the first purpose of government. For this reason, it is also a sine qua non of its legitimacy. It ought to be extremely unusual, then, for any competent government to admit that it does not intend to do everything in its power to diminish a particular class of murders. Nonetheless, the preceding argument is not only sound but essential for a coherent discussion of this issue.

Now it may be that it is not possible to win a Presidential election in America by insisting on the truth of the second point in this argument. Too many people may fear that, given the right circumstances, a natural law advocate might deem it prudent to restrict and/or punish them for their favorite vices. The potential restriction of pornography and contraception, for example, terrifies huge portions of the American electorate. Nonetheless, when these questions are raised, they must be answered truthfully and coherently. The failure to do so contributes to the confusion of the electorate, as well as making it far more difficult for those who wish to do what is right to figure out how they should cast their votes.

One Vice Presidential candidate did better than the other on this issue, but neither articulated a coherent moral and civic understanding of faith, reason, abortion and the public order.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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  • Posted by: AgnesDay - Oct. 16, 2012 4:57 PM ET USA

    @molly: You are correct. I should have not used the word Catholic. We should be strengthening our Catholic outreach at secular colleges and universities. Paul Ryan never received a background in college level theology. Neither did I. I have a hard time cobbling together a background just when I need it. Jeff Mirus is correct: the Natural Law binds everyone, not just Catholics.

  • Posted by: John J Plick - Oct. 13, 2012 12:04 PM ET USA

    This obsession with what might be called "Catholic idealism" mystifies me. Ryan is running to be Vice-President..., NOT to become a Bishop or a Cardinal...

  • Posted by: koinonia - Oct. 13, 2012 7:33 AM ET USA

    Thus the need for a return to basics in all areas- the need not only to do (and say) the right things, but to do the right things for the right reasons. Even in getting things right these days, there is so much disorientation and confusion that there is often problematic or misguided argumentation. This year of Faith might prove the occasion to redirect us to the fundamentals in all things so that we might proceed forth rooted in the sound Christian principles of Tradition and scripture.

  • Posted by: - Oct. 13, 2012 4:41 AM ET USA

    Well, Mr. Mirus, I found it frustrating to read a piece that hounded Mr. Ryan for the alleged failings of his argument. I think he laid out the best right to life argument that I've heard from a politician in some 20 years. His argument had much more teeth to it than normal too. If we want to see candidates nail every little jot of Catholic doctrine, we'll need our bishops to exercise their disciplinary authority more often. I'm amazed Mr. Ryan has as strong a view as he does!

  • Posted by: TheJournalist64 - Oct. 12, 2012 7:50 PM ET USA

    I've often commented that most "unwanted" pregnancies in unmarried moms involves some sort of physical or moral coercion. That is the definition of rape. So the "rape exception" is a stalking horse. It would "justify" any abortion. I remember a relative, who engaged in consensual non-marital sex, asking if the child conceived could be aborted because it was rape. She had cried rape only after learning she was pregnant. This in a Catholic girl in a Catholic HS.

  • Posted by: - Oct. 12, 2012 7:19 PM ET USA

    I am at a loss to understand how reforming Catholic colleges ( which is certainly a necessary goal) would have changed Ryan's education at Miami of Ohio. But I am also at a loss to understand your criticism of Ryan, given the brief time allowed for such an answer. He made me proud. Biden will never make a Catholic proud. We should give Ryan more support, not less.

  • Posted by: AgnesDay - Oct. 12, 2012 2:16 PM ET USA

    Paul Ryan does not have a good background in college theology. He attended Miami of Ohio, where he obviously got good grounding in government and law. All the more reason to reform our Catholic colleges and universities. It was indeed a wasted opportunity.