True and False Reason: Obama’s Choice

"The strong too often dominate the weak, and too many of those with wealth and with power find all manner of justification for their own privilege." —US President Barack Obama, May 17, 2009

"When the Church addresses her social teaching to issues of the common good… her aim, which is our aim as patriotic Catholics, is simply to help purify reason and to contribute, here and now, to the acknowledgment and attainment of what is just (Deus caritas est , no. 28)." —Archbishop Raymond Burke, May 8, 2009

"Understand — I do not suggest that the debate surrounding abortion can or should go away. No matter how much we may want to fudge it… the fact is that at some level, the views of the two camps are irreconcilable. Each side will continue to make its case to the public with passion and conviction. But surely we can do so without reducing those with differing views to caricature. Open hearts. Open minds. Fair-minded words." —US President Barack Obama , May 17, 2009

"As Catholics, we can never cease to work for the correction of gravely unjust laws. Law is a fundamental expression of our culture and implicitly teaches citizens what is morally acceptable." —Archbishop Raymond Burke, May 8, 2009

Two different interpretations of justice, two different visions of law, and two different understandings of reason were on display for the nation and the world to see this past week in America.

One was presented by an American Catholic prelate from Wisconsin: Archbishop Raymond Burke , formerly bishop of La Crosse, Wisconsin, then of St. Louis, Missouri, and now Prefect of the Apostolic Signature in Rome, the highest judicial authority (the equivalent of a Supreme Court) of the Roman Catholic Church.

The other was presented by US President Barack Obama , formerly a community organizer, professor of law, and state representative from Illinois.

Burke’s remarks were made on May 8 in Washington D.C. before a crowd of about 2,000 people, mostly Catholics, at the National Catholic Prayer Breakfast.

Obama’s remarks were made on May 17 at the University of Notre Dame ("Our Lady" in French, in honor of the Virgin Mary), in front of tens of thousands.

The crux of the issue, the place where the visions of the two men conflict and cannot be reconciled, is simple to understand. It is the question of human life — the life of the unborn baby — and whether that human life has a claim to be protected by law.

Burke’s position is that all human life has a right to be protected.

In essence, Burke is a defender of the right of every human being to live, and not be murdered by others for no cause. In this sense, he is "pro-life."

For Burke, reason (natural law) teaches that all just human societies should provide a benevolent protection for human life through laws.

A society that does not do so, a society which allows a class or group of human beings to be killed without any legal sanction, introduces, in Burke’s view, a profound injustice into its legal system, with consequences that ripple out in unpredictable ways, undermining the respect for justice throughout the society.

Burke further believes that reason (natural law) teaches that it is the purpose of all law to strive for justice.

Thus, reason urges us — reason, not the Christian or any other religious faith — to make laws that protect innocent human life, and repeal laws that sanction injustice.

If we are to be true servants of reason (servants of the Logos at the origin of all things), Burke argues, then we must acknowledge that taking the life of an innocent human being is always and everywhere unjust, that is, evil, and can never be described as just, that is, good.

Obama presented a different vision.

He argued — or seemed to argue — that justice is something relative, that there are different views about what is just, and that the highest principle of human social order, therefore, is not to find justice itself, and protect it with just laws, but to honor and respect the moral judgments of others, even if those judgments are unjust.

In this vision, wrong has rights.

It has rights because the goal is to reconcile competing visions of an uncertain moral law, not to arrive at justice itself.

This is Obama’s principle of "common ground," where wrong and right are equally at home.

Here is the salient passage where Obama sets forth his viewpoint:

"When we open our hearts and our minds to those who may not think like we do or believe what we do — that’s when we discover at least the possibility of common ground," Obama said. "That’s when we begin to say, ‘Maybe we won’t agree on abortion, but we can still agree that this is a heart-wrenching decision for any woman to make, with both moral and spiritual dimensions. So let’s work together to reduce the number of women seeking abortions by reducing unintended pregnancies, and making adoption more available, and providing care and support for women who do carry their child to term. Let’s honor the conscience of those who disagree with abortion, and draft a sensible conscience clause, and make sure that all of our health care policies are grounded in clear ethics and sound science, as well as respect for the equality of women.”

In these words, Obama does grant considerable space to the "pro-life" position — and for this, he was applauded by many, even in Rome.

Indeed, he is proposing, in this passage, just actions.

Still, in these words, Obama avoids granting any validity to the pro-life contention: that it is unjust to kill an innocent human being.

Is it, or is it not, just to kill a baby in his mother’s womb?

From the president, no answer.

Burke says it is not just.

For Burke, the highest principle is justice: if an action is unjust, it cannot be justified by any human law.

Obama seems to be saying, "maybe it is, maybe it isn’t."

For Obama, the highest principle seems to be social peace: if an action is unjust, it can still be permitted for the sake of the general peace of society.

Burke finds the measure of human action in a principle: justice; Obama, seemingly, in a different principle: utility, the useful.

And out of this difference, it would seem, two different types of human society inevitably unfold and develop, one based on justice, on what is good and right, the other on utility, on what is useful at the moment, without regard to transcendent considerations of the good or the just — our present society.

And the consequences are grave in all areas of human life, including family life, including the justice or injustice of the society’s financial system and the organization of its economy — areas where the upcoming social encyclical of the Pope will clarify how justice must also be the goal of economic systems and laws.

First Reactions

The Vatican newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano , gave a rather superficial and unsatisfying report on Obama’s address this morning. (Burke’s talk a week earlier was almost universally ignored worldwide.)

The report focused on the positive: that Obama had indicated he would work to reduce the number of unwanted pregnancies, to facilitate adoption, and to support women who want to carry their babies to term. The Osservatore also duly noted that Obama had also spoken of drafting a "conscience clause" for medical personnel who are morally opposed to participating in abortions. (Is this a matter for rejoicing? That the government will agree not to force pro-life doctors, whether Catholics, Orthodox Jews, evangelical Protestants, or others of good will, to perform abortions they regard as abominable contraventions of their personal and professional principles? What kind of government would compel such participation?)

"The search for a common ground: This seems to be the path chosen by the president of the United States, Barack Obama, in facing the delicate question of abortion," the Osservatore said, adding that Obama had set aside the "strident tone" of the 2008 political campaign on the abortion issue.

The Osservatore acknowledged the controversy caused by the president’s appearance at what it called "the most prestigious Catholic university in the United States."

"Yesterday, too, as could have been predicted, there were protests. But from the podium set up in the basketball arena, the president invited Americans of every faith and ideological conviction to ‘work in common effort’ to reduce the number of abortions," the paper said.

Missing from this report is any discussion of the deeper issues involved, issues set forth by Burke in his May 8 address.

American Reactions

In America, the press coverage of Obama’s remarks was generally laudatory — sometimes fawningly so.

Perhaps the supreme example of this came in an opinion piece penned by E. J. Dionne, who covered Vatican affairs for the New York Times for several years in the 1980s, before becoming a leading political commentator in America.

Here is how Dionne opened his piece, published in the Washington Post [yesterday] morning: "Facing down protesters who didn’t want him at Notre Dame, President Obama fought back not with harsh words but with the most devastating weapons in his political arsenal: a call for ‘open hearts,’ ‘open minds,’ ‘fair-minded words’ and a search for ‘common ground.’"

Clearly, Dionne is presenting Obama as the voice of reason, and the pro-life protesters — who did not feel it fitting that a pro-abortion president should receive an honorary degree and speak at length at a university dedicated to Our Lady — as unreasonable.

And Dionne is correct when he sums up the "conventional wisdom" on the result of Obama’s speech: "By facing their arguments (the arguments of the pro-life protesters) head-on and by demonstrating his attentiveness to Catholic concerns, Obama strengthened moderate and liberal forces inside the Church itself. He also struck a forceful blow against those who would keep the nation mired in culture-war politics without end. Obama’s opponents on the Catholic right placed a large bet on his Notre Dame visit. And they lost."

Yes, that is the generally accepted wisdom: that Obama was reasonable, that the protesters were unreasonable; that the "culture wars" in America (over abortion, embryonic stem cell use, homosexual marriage, etc.) have been a muddy swamp in which the nation has been mired, but that Obama, with his "sweet reason" will guide the nation to higher ground ("common ground"); that Catholic pro-life activists are politically on "the right" as if a conviction about the injustice of killing unborn babies is a political and not a moral position.

The issue is not Obama’s calm demeanor, nor is it his laudable efforts to do things which, objectively speaking, are good or in the direction of the good ("make adoption more available"; "provide care and support for women who do carry their children to term").

The issue is basic, fundamental: does the infant in the womb have human rights, including the right not to be killed?

Obama, clearly, does not believe any child in the womb has this right.

The Larger Picture

The Catholic tradition, the Jewish tradition, the Muslim tradition, the entire ethical tradition of mankind, the natural law tradition, all unanimously have held that the unborn child should be protected, cherished, nourished, cared for, loved.

This is the common conviction of all mankind at all times, except, it would appear, our own.

This ethic is a true "seamless garment" — protect the unborn child (no intentional abortion), protect the newborn infant (no infanticide), protect the child (no abuse of children), protect the young (educate them and nourish them and confer on them all the hopes for a better future), protect the middle-aged (so that they can care for their parents and their children, by ensuring good work at decent pay), and protect the old — honor the old (no euthanasia).

This is an ethic of life.

And it is not right-wing or left-wing. It is radical, rooted in what all of us know to be true and just and right. And a society that goes against what all of us know to be true and just and right cannot thrive and flourish.

And the beginning of the ethic, the starting point of the seamless garment, is in the womb, that place of all places which ought to be sacred, and secure, and respected, and not doused with drugs, probed by pincers, cut open, poisoned, scraped, or otherwise disrupted and invaded.

This is true respect for the woman — true feminism.

This is true respect for the human person — true humanism.

And if it took the smooth but ultimately unjust — ultimately unreasonable — words of Obama at Our Lady’s university, Notre Dame, to make this crystal clear, then so be it.

The pro-life movement has not lost.

Sometime, generations hence, our descendants will look back in puzzlement and shame at what we have done, and justified, with specious arguments.

Obama could reflect more deeply, and become a true unifier — uniting with the wise and holy men of previous and coming generations, and not with the utilitarians of the present — if he would embrace the ethic of life.

As it is, Obama — like the University of Notre Dame itself — sounds an uncertain trumpet, and is destined, barring a change, to leave a legacy of injustice defended.

Reason and sanity and good sense and love of life will return once again, and human life will be embraced and cherished as a mysterious, priceless treasure, and the civilization which will spring from that cherishing will outshine our present one as the sun outshines the most distant stars.

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Dr. Robert Moynihan is an American and veteran Vatican journalist with knowledge of five languages. He is founder and editor-in-chief of Inside the Vatican magazine.

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