Saturday, May 30, 2009

Kmiec and George discuss abortion politics

I know many of the other Catholic-related blogs have already covered this, but on Thursday, the Catholic University of America hosted a discussion between Doug Kmiec and Robert George.  Kmiec is the Pepperdine Law professor, who despite having long standing Republican ties and despite working on Mitt Romney's campaign, became a leading voice in the attempt to justify Catholic votes for Obama and George is a Princeton professor of politics with more solidly conservative credentials, who just launched the American Principles Project to promote knowledge of the academic arguments for social conservatism.  The discussion (this was not a debate, they tell us) was moderated by Harvard Law professor Mary Ann Glendon, former US Ambassador to the Apostolic See and president of the Pontifical Academy on Social Sciences.  All three, of course, are Catholic.

If you have some spare time, I strongly encourage you to watch the discussion, which is available here.  If you don't have time for that, the transcript for his main remarks is availablehere.

Now for my take.  First, for Kmiec.  His statements left me unconvinced.  For one thing, I disagreed with his characterization of bishops who enforce Canon 915 as "intimidation."  Is it really that farfetched to say that Kathleen Sebelius' support for late term and partial birth abortion drives a wedge between her and the Church?  915 tells us that "those who obstinately persist in grave manifest sin are not to be admitted to Holy Communion.”  Support for the taking of innocent human lives certainly seems to count as a grave sin.  Her support for it is public.  And, it is obstinate, as her Bishop has addressed this point with her in the past.  I agree with the general idea that the Sacraments should not be wielded as a political weapon.  It seems entirely possible that the priest who denied Kmiec Communion was overstepping prudential bounds (a matter which I'll leave up to our bishops and canon lawyers.)  But I do not believe that it was his place to question Archbishop Naumann's decision in the case of Ms. Sebelius.

Furthermore, I think "intimidation" is a mischaracterization because it ignores the very legitimate motivations behind Canon 915.  For one thing, it is absolutely the purview of our bishops to shepherd their flock, and this means limiting the harm inflicted by scandal.  With public figures, it is sometimes their job to step in and make an example of them, lest their misconduct lead other Catholics astray.  Secondly, I fear that this "intimidation" characterization is symptomatic of decreased reverence for the Holy Eucharist among many Catholics.  All Catholics should respect the validity of the concern that the Body and Blood of Christ might be disrespected by giving it to people not in Communion with the Church.  And, thirdly, when people are not in Communion with the Church, it is wrong for them to receive the Eucharist, and thus refusing it to them can be an act of  mercy as it prevents them from continuing on to act wrongfully.  

I'd additionally like to add that even if it is "intimidation," while I certainly understand that Kmiec sees his own viewpoints as entirely valid, might it be appropriate to use some level of intimidation against the Sebeliuses and maybe the Bidens of the world?  If we could get all Catholics on board in the battle to stop abortion, the current regime of abortion-on-demand would be gone.  It is the complicity of many Catholics that makes the killing of a million unborn humans in the US each year possible.  If a little bit of intimidation would right this wrong, it would be entirely worth it.  And, if such intimidation keeps people on a more righteous path, it might be the most merciful option.  There would be nothing right or merciful about a shepherd  nonchalantly watching his sheep walk right into a fiery pit.  It is the responsibility of our bishops to keep the well-being of our eternal lives in mind when determining how to work with us.

More on the topic of the overall debate, Kmiec tried to drive home a focus on "common ground," an emerging catchphrase for liberal Catholics and or the Obama administration especially since the Notre Dame uproar.  Robert George, however, responded very well to this idea.  For one thing, the pursuit of common ground should not eliminate our goal "to frustrate at every turn the administration’s efforts, which will be ongoing and determined, to expand the abortion license and the authorization and funding of human embryo-destructive research."

And while, obviously, we would not object to the actions of our president where we share beliefs, our common ground with the president is, in fact, much more limited than those in Kmiec's camp might like to claim.  For one thing, the President does not share our conviction that abortion is wrong.  He sees it as a very legitimate solution to an unfortunate problem.  He does agree that unwanted pregnancy is unfortunate, and I think that's supposed to be the basis for our common ground.  While George didn't address this in his remarks, this turns out to be pretty shaky common ground with orthodox Catholics because for the American left, a reduction in unwanted pregnancies means widespread promotion of contraception.  Obama is in the process of cutting federal support for abstinence education.  Those of us in the pro-life community need to realize that there is a cultural struggle going on here, and that a worldview that de-commoditizes sexuality and restores it to its proper place of value within the context of the human person is the only means of restoring an ethic of life.  Without an understanding of the dignity of humanity, we will continue to face the onslaught of abortion, embryo-destructive research, euthanasia, etc.  President Obama does not affirm this fundamental truth.

As professor George points out, he doesn't believe in the universal value of human life.  Here, I'll go back to quoting him...  

The President speaks of human rights, and I do not question his sincerity. But he does not understand the concept of human rights, as Professor Kmiec and I do, to refer to rights—above all the right to life—that all human beings possess simply by virtue of our humanity. For the President, being human is not enough to qualify someone as the bearer of a right to life. Professor Kmiec and I, by contrast, believe that every member of the human family, simply by virtue of his or her humanity, is truly created equal. We reject the idea that is at the foundation of President Obama’s position on abortion and human embryo-destructive research, namely, that those of us who are equal in worth and dignity are equal by virtue of some attribute other than our common humanity—some attribute that unborn children have not yet acquired, justifying others in treating them, despite their humanity, as non-persons, as objects or property, even as disposable material for use in biomedical research...Even in opposing the Illinois Born-Alive Infants Protection Act, which was designed to assure that such babies were rescued if possible or at least given comfort care while they died, Barack Obama did not deny the humanity of the child. What he denied, and continues to deny, is the fundamental equality of that child—equality with those of us who are safely born and accepted into the human community."

So, on the fundamentals, we do not share common ground.  If we both happen to support a common piece of legislation of course both sides should "work together" to pass it.  For example, pro-lifers and Barack Obama are both likely to support the Pregnant Women Support Act proposed by the Democrats for Life, and should feel free to see it passed.  (NOTE: Obama has not actually endorsed this legislation.) The "search for common ground," however, does not provide an excuse to be derelict in our duties to affirm our fundamental values.  And, contrary to Kmiec's suggestion, the fact that Obama slightly softened his embryonic stem cell research policies does not make his policies on ESCR acceptable, nor does it make it respectable for the pro-life community to accept them in the name of dialogue.  We have a moral obligation to do everything we can to advance the respect for human life.  If cooperation on a particular side issue does that, then absolutely that should be pursued, but we cannot waver in our affirmation of what is true, and we certainly should not commend policies simply because they only make things a little bit worse rather than a lot worse.

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