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Paul Ryan and Joe Biden: A Tale of Two Catholics?

By Andrew M. Greenwell, Esq.
September 5th, 2012
Catholic Online (www.catholic.org)

Given Joe Biden's support for what his Church has identified as intrinsic evils - and thereby persistently against the common good - and given Paul Ryan's position consistent with the indisputable and unchangeable teachings of his Church on these issues, it seems that what is involved is not a "Tale of Two Catholics" but rather a tale of one Catholic and one . . . well, whatever we call him, it is something considerably less than Catholic. An intrinsic evil is always against the common good, regardless of the circumstances.  No Catholic politician can advance an intrinsic evil.

CORPUS CHRISTI, TX (Catholic Online) - This election season we are presented with some fundamental contrasts on a whole series of levels, politics, economy, health care, and so forth.  But perhaps no contrast is more interesting than the contrast between two supposedly Catholic vice presidential candidates, the Republican Representative Paul Ryan and the current Vice President, the Democrat Joe Biden. 

Numerous articles have been written on the face-off between these two under the title, "A Tale of Two Catholics," for example, the Huffington Post, the Washington Post, the Underground, and CBN News.

Now political differences are political differences, and they ordinarily do not touch on fundamental matters of faith and morals.  This is because politics, which has classically been defined as the art of the possible, is, in the main, involved in prudential decisions. 

There simply is no "one right answer," much less "one right Catholic answer," when it comes to issues relating to elements of social welfare, the budget, health care and assuring access to it, and similar matters that relate to the common good.  People can have all sorts of opinions--all of them very probably valid--regarding the proper application of Catholic Social Doctrine's main principles such as solidarity, subsidiarity, the preferential option for the poor, and so forth.

Ordinarily, therefore, it is in bad faith to demonize your political opponent by suggesting he is being untrue to Catholic social or doctrinal principles merely because he has a political opinion different than yours.  Where prudential decisions are involved, I would go so far as to say that it is always in bad faith to suggest your opponent is untrue or unfaithful at the level of doctrine.  Here, the saying often erroneously attributed to St. Augustine, but actually stemming from the 16th century Archbishop of Split, Marco Antonio de Dominis, applies: "In necessary things unity; in doubtful things liberty; in all things charity."

In matters of prudence, we truly can have a tale of two Catholics.

But the general rule does not always apply, and we might say it is subject to an exception when there is an intrinsic evil involved.  No Catholic politician can advance an intrinsic evil, for the simple reason that no person can, in the exercise of prudence, advance an intrinsic evil as something that is in the common good. 

An intrinsic evil is always against the common good, regardless of the circumstances.  At best, they ought to be worked against.  At worst, one may have to tolerate an intrinsic evil because to extirpate it would cost more good than good gained through its suppression, or cause more evil than the evil reduced by its suppression. 

For this reason, St. Thomas Aquinas famously stated that prostitution--an intrinsic evil if there ever was one--may have to be tolerated, since "in human government," there may be instances where "those who are in authority rightly tolerate certain evils, lest certain goods be lost, or certain evils be incurred: thus Augustine says: 'If you do away with harlots, the world will be convulsed with lust.'"

Whether an intrinsic evil ought, in a given civil society, be suppressed or tolerated is generally a prudential decision which would depend upon the evil involved, the virtue of the population, its legal traditions, its homogeneity, and other pertinent circumstances. 

Some intrinsic evils, however, cannot be tolerated without an abrogation of the government's legitimacy.  A government that tolerates rape, incest, torture, murder, or genocide, for example--and one must here include abortion--for example, has serious questions as to its continued legitimacy. Failure to support the natural institution of marriage is another such abrogation which puts into question a government's legitimacy.

But toleration of an intrinsic evil in those circumstances where it may be warranted is something altogether different than promotion or support of an intrinsic evil.

And it is in the area of intrinsic evils where the comparison of Ryan and Biden as a "tale of two Catholics," falls apart. 

This is because there are some areas where Biden promotes (and does not merely advocate toleration of) things the Church considers to be intrinsic evils, something no Catholic can in any circumstances do.  And he tolerates things no government ought ever to tolerate without the loss of legitimacy.  Ryan, on the other hand, has never, so far as I know, advanced or promoted something the Church considers an intrinsic evil.

There are two such areas that might be pointed out: abortion and homosexual "marriage."

First, indisputably and without doubt, the Church teaches that abortion is an intrinsic evil.  The Church also teaches that homosexual sexual acts, which are legitimized in homosexual "marriage," are indisputably and without doubt intrinsic evils.  Therefore, Catholic lawmakers are morally compelled to express opposition to any laws that legitimate abortion and homosexual "marriage," and publicly to vote against laws that would promote in any way abortion or homosexual "marriage." 

What are Biden's views regarding these two intrinsic evils? 

Well, we might just let him speak:

Biden on abortion: "My position is that I am personally opposed to abortion, but I don't think I have a right to impose my view on the rest of society.  I've thought a lot about it, and my position probably doesn't please anyone.  I think the government should stay out completely.  I will not vote to overturn the Court's decision [in Roe v. Wade].  I will not vote to curtain a woman's right to choose an abortion." 

(N.B. Of course, if a woman has a "right," then the state must enforce that right, so for him to stay that the "government should stay out completely" is a falsehood or at least absolutely inconsistent with his prior statements.)

Biden on same-sex "marriage":  "I am absolutely comfortable with the fact that men marrying men, women marrying women, and heterosexual men and women marrying another are entitled to the same exact rights, all the civil rights, all the civil liberties.  And quite frankly, I don't see much of a distinction--beyond that."

Now compare Ryan:

Ryan on abortion: "I cannot believe any official or citizen can still defend the notion that an unborn human being has no rights that an older person is bound to respect."  "How long can we sustain our commitment to freedom if we continue to deny the very foundation of freedom--life--for the most vulnerable human beings?"

Ryan on same-sex "marriage":  "I believe that marriage should remain between a man and a woman, and I have heard from many of the people I represent who are concerned about activist judges abusing their power and rewriting our society's definition of marriage."

Given Joe Biden's support for what his Church has identified as intrinsic evils persistently against the common good, and given Paul Ryan's position consistent with the indisputable and unchangeable teachings of his Church on these issues, it seems that what is involved is not a "Tale of Two Catholics," but rather a tale of one Catholic and one . . . well, something considerably less than Catholic.

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Andrew M. Greenwell is an attorney licensed to practice law in Texas, practicing in Corpus Christi, Texas.  He is married with three children.  He maintains a blog entirely devoted to the natural law called Lex Christianorum.  You can contact Andrew at agreenwell@harris-greenwell.com.

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