President Obama’s debate flop has thrown the outcome of the 2012 election back into the who-can-say category, adding some near hysterical energy to the final weeks of the campaign. Just take a gander at Andrew Sullivan’s frustrated teardown of the president’s performance. Other Dem pundits are desperately seeking solace in increasingly arcane theories aimed at explaining the president’s apparent boredom with the whole thing in Denver. Was he afraid to appear the angry black man and scare off elderly white voters? Was he shocked into jaw-gaped silence by the silver-templed one’s audacious personality and policy makeover? Maybe it was altitude sickness?
Thursday’s debate was already notable since for the first time both candidates for the V.P. spot are Catholic, but as a result of the debate debacle, the winner-takes-all showdown tomorrow between the two candidates for vice president has gained a great deal more urgency. Romney has reclaimed the lead in the polls (which have suddenly become accurate again now that they are no longer giving Obama a 10 point advantage), and the Obama camp would love to stall his momentum with a good showing from Biden. Another apparent reversal by the Republican candidate on abortion today should help. His decision to try to capitalize on an alleged encounter in 2009? 2010? with Glen Doherty, one of the security team killed in Benghazi, could backfire also. Romney’s attempted homey-ness was deplored by Doherty’s mom.
Much credit for spiking the 2012 election rhetoric with a heady dose of Catholicism goes to G.O.P. candidate Paul Ryan. Ryan’s efforts to keep his Catholic cred after previous avowals of affection for scowly founder of the me generation Ayn Rand drew a lot of attention from Catholic academics and social justice wonks. Repeated use of scary Catholic terms like subsidiarty, the common good and solidarity in reviews of Ryan’s budget proposals had befuddled secular journalists thumbing through the Compendium of Catholic Social Teaching and offered the nation a somewhat haphazard intro to CST (here’s a better one!). Ryan ultimately claimed that Aquinas not Ayn Rand was his political guiding light, but his vigorous denials in the face of much evidence to the contrary, and his running mate’s recent fast and loose relationship with his own policy positions, have me wondering if the G.O.P. ticket reserves some philosophical love for a previous Republican administration’s intellectual heartthrob, Leo Strauss, and his fondness for elitist prevarications.
Meanwhile current V.P. Joe Biden has come to be perceived as something of the blunderbuss of American politics because of his frequent mispoketations on the campaign trail and a weakness for biker chicks who should know better. Mainstream media pundits will be lining up the mics and the cameras Thursday night in eager anticipation of the next blunder from said buss-er. The Obama campaign hopes he will disappoint and offer a sturdy, steady defense of the administration’s last four years without resorting to Gore-y sighs and grimaces.
In the build-up to the debates, a small parade of U.S. bishops have been active NOT!-endorsers of the Romney campaign and the Ryan budget, but in Newark Archbishop Myers raised the bar on episcopal authoritarianism by prohibiting Catholics who did not in their hearts endorse the church’s position on same-sex marriage from Communion. If opinion surveys are accurate this will soon mean very short wait-times at the Communion rail in Newark.
A few bishops likewise argue that a vote for a prochoice dem like Obama would be a moral impossibility for a Catholic. This is, of course, a controversy that revives regularly during presidential election seasons despite efforts by a fella named Ratzinger in 2004 and the bishops themselves in Faithful Citizenship to put it to rest. The church has said that Catholics should not be single-issue voters. In weighing all the reasons to vote for one person or the other they must make a prudential judgment about which candidate best reflects their values and policy beliefs. This can mean voting for a prochoice candidate as long as the vote is not cast as an explicit endorsement of that prochoice position.
All the same most Catholic Dems will no doubt struggle over a vote for this prochoice candidate, one many rationalize by pointing out that Republicans, with an eye on public sentiment, are unlikely to actually do something about abortion. (Romney’s recent turnabout of his turnabout on abortion suggests that they do not believe so without cause.) Some Catholics, like Catholic University's Steve Schneck, co-chair of Catholics for Obama, go further, though. Schneck argues that a vote for Obama is likely to mean fewer abortions in the United States because his policies will mean greater social supports for people who may be driven to “choose” abortion because of personal economics. Speaking during the Democratic Convention on a Democrats for Life panel, he called poverty “the most powerful abortifacient in America.” Schneck has been getting roasted by conservative and conservative Catholic bloggers because of that sentiment.
Not to be outdone by the bishops in NOT endorsing candidates, a group of Catholic theologians and academics have issued their own non-endorsement of the Democratic ticket. A lengthy dissection of Congressman Ryan’s beliefs and budget proposals, the “On All of Our Shoulders” letter (get it Atlas Shrugged fans?) is signed by more than 100 moral theologians, Catholic economists and scholars. Charles C. Camosy, assistant professor of theology at Fordham University, and one of the letters signees, says the campaign should not be seen as a plug for the Democrats. “The church’s broad social teaching transcends the narrow ideological agendas of either political party,” he says, “and we want to be absolutely clear that this statement was not circulated and released to support Democrats—a group which also finds itself seriously at odds with Catholic social teaching.”
Fair enough, but it’s hard to find much in the statement that isn’t a strong refutation of the Ryan budget and the political and social philosophies which presumably guide it. The “on all of our shoulders” academics write: "We do not question Paul Ryan's faith. We are concerned however, that defenders of Ryan have gone beyond highlighting the aspects of Catholic moral teaching with which his political positions are laudably consistent, to argue that his Ayn Rand ‘inspired’ individualist and anti-government vision and the policies they inform are themselves legitimately Catholic. They are not.”
According to the statement: “America is at a tipping point where the traditional commitment of our government to protecting and advancing the common good is in very real danger of being dismantled for generations. Members of the ‘Tea Party,’ libertarians, Ayn Rand followers and other proponents of small government have brought libertarian views of government into the mainstream; legitimating forms of social indifference. After decades of anti-government rhetoric and ‘starve the beast’ tax cuts, some even appear to exploit predictable fiscal problems to establish a privatized, libertarian order that reduces society to a collection of individuals and shrinks the common good to fit the outcomes achievable by private, for profit firms.”
The statement lists five principles of Catholic social doctrine that are “in danger of being forgotten or distorted”: that the Catholic view of the human person is social not individual; that government has an essential role to play in protecting and promoting the common good; that subsidiarity both limits government and demands that it act when local communities cannot solve problems on their own; that the "preferential option for the poor" demands both individual and collective action, including the acts of the state; and finally that economic forces must be included among any serious account of the threats to society and human dignity.
There’s a lot to digest in the statement, particularly if you want to do so before tomorrow night’s festivities begin, so read the rest here.
As the recently retired director of the U.S.C.C.B. peace, justice and human development office John Carr always said Catholics do not have a home in either party. That’s true enough, but not exactly helpful in the voting booth when faced with just the two choices. There are of course other options short of not voting at all, a write-in for Pennsylvania’s Sen. Bob Casey, for instance. Could this be the year that the mythological protest vote among Democratic Catholics fed up with their party’s prochoice celebrations and Republican Catholics who can’t abide policies that enrich the few and wound the many finally materializes?
Probably not. Don’t believe me? Just check out the comments below.