Response to critics of NYT op-ed on Paul Ryan: Part 1
Yesterday I received hundreds of emails and some phone calls. I’m working through them, but it will take a few days, since the normal duties of classes and meetings still go on. I also see that several Catholic publications and websites have responded to my op-ed, and I’ll be sure to respond as soon as I can and as appropriate to each venue.
For today, I have time only for some quick notes, and then I’ll work on longer responses for later.
The Headline: As those involved in print journalism know, contributors don’t write the headlines. That only happens in blogs, as far as I’m aware.
“Wafer Watch”: This is not a phrase I invented, which was called “crude” and “frivolous” by my critic from Mirror of Justice, Michael Moreland. As someone who follows religion and politics carefully in the media, and has taught courses and convened conferences on it, I had mistakenly presumed that this was a well-known phrase. It began in 2004 as a shorthand for the now normal election-year tradition of some bishops declaring certain Catholic politicians in the Democratic party as unwelcome at the altar rail — and the subsequent tradition of journalists watching them at Mass to see if they present themselves for Holy Communion. The phrase was shorthand meant not to denigrate the Eucharist but, quite the contrary, to mock the politicization of the Eucharist.
Condescension: The condescension directed my way was colorful. From First Things and Mirror of Justice, two blogs which I enjoy reading, I received the following: “ruse”; “so darn clever”; “an embarrassment”; “the argument refutes itself”; “a sad failure”; not “coherent”; “folk political observations along the way”; “crude, frivolous”; “profoundly misstates Catholic doctrine.” Whew!
Evangelium Vitae 73: This is related to the condescension category. I was chastised for not “hav[ing] bothered to take account” of EV 73. Now we all know that a block quote from an encyclical was not going to become part of the small word count for an op-ed. I am happy to discuss my take on this text, along with Faithful Citizenship, in a longer post later. In short, I’m not persuaded that the Romney-Ryan “policy” qualifies as a “proposal[s] aimed at limiting the harm done by such a law and at lessening its negative consequences at the level of general opinion and public morality.” I stand by my judgment that the so-called policy is “expedient political rhetoric.” The “policy” is not realistic. It’s not actually a policy at all. It’s not going to happen. It won’t work.
I note that my critics do not take issue with that part of the argument, which is central. The Romney-Ryan policy is in the rhetorical realm of promising to “end tyranny” or “end poverty.” But don’t take it from me, listen to the man himself: Gov. Romney said last week, “There’s no legislation with regards to abortion that I’m familiar with that would become part of my agenda.” That’s from an interview with the editorial board of the main paper in a swing state, not from a secret video or a gotcha question. I also highly recommend Cathleen Kaveny’s article on what is realistic regarding abortion and voting at the national level. An excerpt:
Let me emphasize that I am not implying that abortion is not important or even fundamental. I mean only to say that part of the reason abortion is such an intractable issue is that social patterns have crystallized around the fact that abortion is a readily available, widely used, and legal option. Moreover, the fundamental legal status of abortion is not subject to significant immediate change by any elected official, including the president. Because the Supreme Court has conferred constitutional protection on a woman’s right to choose abortion, it will take the Supreme Court to reverse its own holding—or a constitutional amendment. It is true that the president appoints Supreme Court justices who then go on to serve life terms. No president, however, can control how many nominations he or she will get to make, or whether the Senate will confirm them—or, for that matter, how a justice votes after he or she is confirmed. Finally, there is good reason to think that the justices are acutely aware that overturning Roe could be as destabilizing to the legal system as the original opinion was some forty years ago.
(In other news, nor is opposing the HHS mandate a part of Romney’s agenda. I see that the First Things writers are not in agreement about what level of betrayal this is. I think Anna Williams sees it pretty clearly.)
“Pro-abortion”: I fail to see anything in my op-ed that should lead to my being called this label. On the other hand, a staunch pro-choice (or pro-abortion, if you prefer) position was articulated yesterday in the Times, but not by me. It was on the opposite page, in the lead editorial by the paper’s staff. On the contrary, I articulated the Church’s clear and unyielding position on abortion on the op-ed page of the New York Times. Let me repeat that: “The Catholic stance on abortion is not political but prophetic — a holistic and unyielding defense of the sacredness of life.” That’s what I wrote in the New York Times.
“Anti-abortion”: On the topic of terminology, my normal practice in life and in writing is to refer to people and groups by the titles with which they want to be called. At one point in the article, the Times’ editorial staff replaced my “pro-life” with “anti-abortion.” In what was an arduous and complicated editing process with excellent and professional editors, one has to prioritize which battles to fight.
The Phoenix case: Another change occurred in the editing of the summary of the Phoenix case. As many of you rightly pointed out, this case involved the emergency removal of the placenta, which indirectly terminated the fetus. A two-sentence description of the case was thought by the editors to be expressed more succinctly with the phrase “emergency abortion.” I would have preferred the precise bioethical terminology.
The Catholic League: I was surprised by the argument aimed at me by the Catholic League. I’d like to disagree with that press release (which, having been issued very early in the day to their email list, was the means by which many of my friends and family learned about my op-ed. That was a bizarre experience.). In that press release, I was shocked not only to be thought of as “pro-abortion,” but also for the Catholic League to have compared Mr. Ryan to a “less extreme pro-abortion” candidate. That’s an awkward description of him.
Further on, it describes Mr. Ryan as “a man whose position on abortion would save the lives of over 1 million babies a year.” Positions don’t save lives. Policies do. What Paul Ryan believes in his heart doesn’t save anyone. New policies might. Do I wish Vice President Biden articulated some common ground on reducing abortion rates? Of course I do. But does Mr. Ryan have a reasonable chance of enacting his proposed policies, via the executive branch of government, with current demographics, to reduce abortion rates? I don’t think so. I’ll work on a longer response to that crucial question later in the week.
The Speeding Ticket analogy: I have heard lots of analogies over the years in discussions about abortion. A common one on the pro-life side is an analogy to slavery, used by my critic at First Things, Matthew J. Franck, whose full criticisms I’ll address in a future post. But the speeding ticket analogy from the Catholic League is a new one to me. If anyone is reducing the gravity of the abortion issue here, it’s not me — it’s the Catholic League. Is it the case that when Democrats permit lots of abortions, that’s like slavery or the Holocaust, but when Republicans permit a smaller number, it’s like a speeding ticket? These analogies fail to illuminate this complicated matter, and the speeding ticket analogy is — let’s see, what was I called earlier — crude and frivolous. There is no analogy to abortion that aids moral reasoning more than it obscures it.
And one more: Where do I defend Vice President Biden’s policy? I just checked again, and I don’t.
As I said, I’ll work on the rest of the big issues and get back to you.
In the meantime, I’m going to go find my marked-up copy of Evangelium Vitae, the one which I used in the fall of 2000, when I was co-teaching a small seminar on the text for high-school seniors (and first-time voters). The other teacher that night was Charles Chaput, then Archbishop of Denver. Before class, we ate fish tacos. It was a Friday. So yes, I’m familiar with that text.