Princeton´s Robert George on Reasonableness of Christian Morality

Tells Why Moral Principles Outdo Secularist Ideologies

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PRINCETON, New Jersey, JAN. 10, 2002 ( Christian moral principles are rationally superior to secularist ideologies that now command the elite sectors of Western culture, says a leading political philosopher.

Robert P. George, the McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence and director of the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions at Princeton University, spells out his ideas in «The Clash of Orthodoxies: Law, Religion, and Morality in Crisis» (ISI Books).

In this interview with ZENIT he elaborates on his ideas.

Q: What are some of the key topics you explore in your new book?

George: «The Clash of Orthodoxies» is about the contemporary conflict of worldviews in the political domain, in the courts of law, and in the Church.

Part 1 considers abortion and other life issues, as well as marriage and sexual morality, pornography and other matters of public morality. I challenge liberal secularist ideologies that have established themselves as orthodoxy on college campuses and in the elite sector of the culture generally.

My complaint is not that these ideologies are out of line with faith — though plainly they are — but rather that they fail the test of reason. My argument is that Judeo-Christian morality is rationally superior to the secularist orthodoxy.

Part 2 looks at these and other issues, including the issue of civil rights, as they figure in debates over fundamental law. This is particularly important in the United States, where these issues are frequently considered by courts exercising the power of constitutional judicial review.

An example is the tragic decision of the U.S. Supreme Court in the 1973 case of Roe v. Wade, which stripped away all meaningful legal protection of the unborn. The question of the power of the judiciary to advance secularist ideological goals is important not only in the United States, but increasingly in Europe and other parts of the world as well. So I hope that readers outside the United States will find some of what I say on this question to be useful.

Part 3 examines the «clash of orthodoxies» within the Church. As I see it, many Catholics and other Christians have abandoned authentic Christian moral principles in favor what is sometimes called «lifestyle liberalism.» Of course, they still consider themselves to be faithful Christians; but the morality they embrace on abortion, homosexuality and other fundamental issues is essentially secularist rather than Christian.

They typically claim that «reason» or «conscience» requires them to dissent from the firm and constant teaching of the Church. Indeed, they demand that the Church revise her teachings on sexuality and the sanctity of human life to bring them «up-to-date.» It seems to me, though, that these people have things completely backward. The Church´s moral teachings are in line with reason; secularist ideology is not.

Q: How can you defend the rational superiority of Christian morality over secularist ideology?

George: Philosophically. I argue that Christian principles comport with facts and logic; secularist ideology does not. Let me give an example.

Secularists seek to justify destructive research on embryonic human beings, and even the creation of human embryos by cloning and other processes for the precise purpose of experimentation. This requires them to argue either that human embryos are not human beings — which is contrary to fact — or that embryonic human beings are not persons — which is contrary to logic.

The fact is that each of us is, and has been from conception, a whole, living member of the species homo sapiens, possessing from the earliest stage of our existence the epigenetic primordium for internally directed maturation and growth as a distinct, complete, self-integrating human organism — a human being.

Modern science shows that even in the embryonic stage, the new human being is already actively developing himself or herself — for sex is determined from the beginning — to the next more-mature stage along the continuum of development of a single, determinate, enduring human life. He or she is directing from within his or her own integral organic functioning as he or she develops seamlessly through the embryonic, fetal, child and adolescent stages, and ultimately into adulthood.

Through the course of this development, his or her determinateness and identity remain intact. Not even the possibility of monozygotic twinning alters these facts. The bottom line is that the human embryo is — actually and not merely potentially — a human being.

But is he or she a «person»? Those who acknowledge the scientific facts while still seeking to justify destructive research on human embryos are driven to hold that he or she is not. They must claim that human beings at certain stages or in some conditions of life are not persons. Embryonic human beings, they typically say, are not yet persons; they are, for now, «human nonpersons.»

But any such claim presupposes the philosophically untenable position that normal, mature human beings are non-bodily persons who somehow inhabit and use non-personal bodies. No logically coherent account can be given of this putative dualism of «body» and «person,» and it makes nonsense of the experience all of us have in all of our activities as unified embodied and rational agents.

We are not «ghosts in machines»; each of us, rather, is a dynamic unity of body, mind and spirit. Our bodies are not subpersonal instruments or possessions, but are aspects of our personal reality. You and I are essentially human, physical organisms. We are not mental or spiritual entities that «have» organisms that we possess and use; rather, we are rational-animal organisms.

Therefore we — that is, the persons we are — came to be precisely as and when the bodily organisms we are came to be. A human being does not become a person only after he or she comes to be — nor do human beings cease being persons except by ceasing to be.

Because the human person is a bodily entity — not a mere consciousness inhabiting and using a body — all human beings, including embryonic and fetal human beings, newborn infants, retarded human beings, and frail, demented and dying human beings, are persons whose rights deserve respect and protection. This, of course, is precisely what the Church teaches, and it is fully vindicated by rational inquiry.

Q: In a nutshell, what is the problem with Catholic politicians supporting abortion in a pluralistic society?

George: Catholic politicians who support legal abortion and its public funding typically claim to be personally opposed to abortion while respecting women´s right of freedom of choice.

The idea — famously proposed by former New York Governor Mario Cuomo at a speech at Notre Dame University, and since adopted by other Catholic politicians in the United States and elsewhere — is that one can support the right to abortion without being responsible in any morally significant way for the abortions sought or performed by people exercising that right.

There is, they insist, no problem in remaining faithful to the Church´s teaching on the sanctity of unborn human life, while at the same time honoring what they take to be a necessary freedom in pluralistic democratic societies. The fallacy at the heart of their argument is, however, glaring.

The question is not whether it is psychologically possible for a legislator to will that women have a choice as to whether to have abortions while hoping that they never choose that option. The problem for pro-choice Catholics is that it is impossible to will that women have the freedom to abort without at the same time willing that the unborn as a class be denied the elementary and fundamental legal protections against being killed that all of us desire and support for ourselves and others whose lives we believe are worthy of the law´s pro

Unavoidably, then, legislators who support legal abortion and its public funding violate the principle of human equality and implicate themselves in the grave injustice of abortion. They render themselves complicit in the killing of the unborn that their legislative choices facilitate and make possible.

However sincerely they may hope that women will forgo the freedom to abort and opt instead for pro-life alternatives, the blood of abortion´s unborn victims is on their hands.

Q: Where do you see the United States heading in the next 10 or 20 years in major bioethical issues such as abortion, human-embryo research, euthanasia, assisted suicide and cloning?

George: We in the United States and all of humanity today are at a crossroads. Developments in science mean that there is no question of maintaining the status quo. We will go in either one direction or the other.

Either we will rededicate ourselves to the sanctity of human life and the equality in fundamental dignity of all human beings, or we will finally and definitively abandon these principles and descend into what Pope John Paul II calls the culture of death.

A sober social scientist looking at the data and reading the signs of the times would, I suppose, predict that ours will be the latter course. He would note that the elite sectors of Western culture are already profoundly in the grip of post-Christian secularist ideologies, and that the scientific establishment appears to be determined to proceed into the «brave new world.»

Like my dear friend Father Richard John Neuhaus, I am, however, hopeful. I believe that it is not too late for us, with God´s help, to turn things around. As George Weigel´s splendid book «Witness to Hope» makes clear, Holy Father believes this, too; and his vision and leadership have been inspiring.

I would further note, however, that we must join with our many Protestant and Jewish brothers who remain faithful to biblical principles in the cultural and political struggle ahead. Sincere and honest ecumenism is a practical necessity. Disharmony among believers deeply damages our cause.

Although the Catholic intellectual tradition provides great resources for the critique of liberal secularism, important contributions need to be made, and are being made, by Jewish thinkers such as Hadley Arkes and Rabbi David Novak and Protestants such as Gilbert Meilaender, Timothy George and Robert Jenson.

Similarly, in the cultural sphere valuable work is being done by Rabbi Marc Gellman, who with his colleague Monsignor Thomas Hartman does a brilliant job of communicating key moral principles to general audiences, and by Protestant leaders such as Charles Colson, James Dobson and Ken Connor.

Ecumenical publications, such as the magazines First Things and Touchstone, are playing a vital role. The task ahead is daunting; we need all who honor the fundamental God-given dignity of the human person to work together in a true spirit of brotherhood to build the culture of life.

Q: Does your emphasis on the reasonableness of faith and biblical morality create a risk of alienating evangelical Protestants who are suspicious of the concept of «natural law»?

George: Interestingly, I find that American evangelicals are among the most eager and enthusiastic to learn about the philosophical resources available to defend Christian faith and morals.

It is true that some evangelicals don´t warm to the idea of natural law, fearing that it underestimates the noetic effects of man´s fallenness or implies the possibility of salvation by «works.» But many others recognize natural law as the law «written on the hearts» even of the Gentiles in St. Paul´s Letter to the Romans.

Increasingly, they look for guidance to the great tradition of Christian philosophy, a tradition that counts St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas as its most profound thinkers. They recognize that natural law theory not only provides a language with which to engage people who do not accept biblical authority, but also provides concepts and distinctions that are critical to the full understanding of biblical moral principles.

Take, for example, the conception of marriage in Genesis and the Gospels as a one-flesh union of a man and a woman. This conception is under assault today from liberal secularism. For Christians to defend it, they must first understand its meaning.

Here, the teachings of Scripture must be elucidated and fleshed out by philosophical moral reflection. It is such reflection that enables us to grasp the profound truth that the one-flesh communion of spouses is no mere metaphor. Rather, it is precisely in sexual unity apt for procreation that spouses become, as Germain Grisez says, «a single procreative principle» — one flesh.

Even where children cannot be conceived, spouses enjoy a biological, and thus interpersonal, unity precisely in fulfilling procreation´s behavioral conditions. This is yet another implication of the fact that the body is no mere instrument of the human person, but is a part of the personal reality of the human being.

It is thus that the union of spouses in conjugal acts consummates and actualizes the great good of their marriage. It is the biological matrix of the multilevel — that is, bodily, emotional, dispositional, spiritual — sharing of life that marriage is. This philosophical understanding — which John Finnis has pointed out was grasped in essence by the greatest of the pre-Christian Greek and Roman thinkers — makes sense, in ways that contemporary secularist understandings simply cannot make sense, of marriage´s distinctive requirements of exclusivity, fidelity and permanence of commitment.

Q: The concluding chapter of «The Clash of Orthodoxies» is a commentary on John Paul II´s encyclical on faith and reason, «Fides et Ratio.» Do you think that this encyclical is of ecumenical import?

George: Profoundly so. Catholics, Eastern Orthodox and Protestant Christians alike can affirm faith and reason as, in the Pope´s evocative metaphor, «the two wings on which the human spirit ascends to contemplation of truth.»

The Holy Father has made his motto our Lord´s words: «Do not be afraid.» These are quoted by professor John DiIulio in his wonderful foreword to my book. One thing of which we certainly need not be afraid is the pursuit of truth by honest rational inquiry.

All truth — whether in science, history, philosophy, theology or any other discipline — is God´s truth. Whoever sincerely pursues truth, existentially as well as in scholarly fields, seeks — and thereby honors — the God who is Truth.

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