Robert George, professor of jurisprudence at Princeton University, is renowned as one of the United States’ leading thinkers in the area of natural law and public policy.
A former member of President Bush’s Council on Bioethics, he is also a former judicial fellow at the Supreme Court of the United States, where he received the Justice Tom C. Clark Award.
While in Rimini, Italy, last month to address Communion and Liberation’s 30th Meeting for Friendship Among Peoples, he spoke about the challenges of communicating the natural law to those who cannot accept the pro-life position — in particular members of the Obama administration — and what his hopes are for the new U.S. ambassador to the Holy See.
George also calls on all Catholic media to pay careful attention to the way the current administration operates.
Many people still seem unable to recognize the injustice of killing an unborn or defenseless human life. Would you say this is because of an inability to recognize the natural law within themselves?
Yes, that’s right. This has been true throughout history for lots of things. Many people did not see the injustice of slavery. It took a long time to persuade the majority of people that there was something profoundly morally wrong and deeply unjust about treating human beings as chattel, property — buying, selling them, trading them, using them and exploiting them.
So it falls to those who do see the truth of these matters to remain faithful to the cause of reforming the law, persuading their fellow citizens to accept a more just system of laws, one that is truly in line with the principle of the profound, inherent equal dignity of every member of the human family.
Yet it can seem incomprehensible that many people are unable to reason and see the injustice of abortion, that they do not recognize the natural law inscribed on their hearts when it comes to preserving innocent human life.
The same was true of slavery. There were lots of good people who you would otherwise think were laudable people, who supported slavery.
Take the president of the Confederacy, a man called Jefferson Davis, a senator in the Civil War from Mississippi, who was admired by people from the North and the South. He was a man of high personal integrity and honesty; he would never take a bribe as a politician; he was honest; he wouldn’t lie or cheat; he was entirely trustworthy; he had high personal ethical standards — yet he believed in slavery. He believed that blacks were inferior to whites and that whites were within their rights in enslaving them. A horrible thing to believe, but he did believe it, and he believed it in faith.
He was not a moral monster simply out for himself. He sacrificed a great deal for a bad cause that he believed in, the cause of the Southern Confederacy, and he was willing to sacrifice himself for it because he believed in it.
So in this vale of tears all of us can be misguided, we can be mistaken — which means, by implication, that all of us should maintain an attitude of self-criticism.
When the Pope was head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, he said we perhaps need to find another term for the “natural law” to make it more understandable to people. Do you agree with that?
The words or labels don’t matter, but the phrase “natural law” is perhaps misleading because there’s another concept that we might describe as the law of nature, that might describe the laws of physics and chemistry and the natural sciences, and, of course, those laws have nothing to do with human freedom.
The natural law, understood as practical reasoning, has everything to do with human freedom.
The principles of natural law, the norms of morality, are all principles and norms for the guidance for free choices.
If there were not free choices, then the norms would make no sense. There would be no point in having such norms.
So in dealing with policies of the Obama administration on these issues, would you advocate using other terminology than the natural law to try to reason and get your point across?
I don’t think it’s necessary to use the phrase natural law. You do have to [use the content] in arguing for or against anything in the moral domain. If you’re arguing against slavery, you will need the concept of human dignity, you will need the concept of freedom, you will need the concept of value, you’ll need the concept of justice — all these concepts which play a big role in natural law theory have to be deployed in thinking about ethics and in arguing about public policy.
So whether we use the label natural law or not, the content will be the same.
Consider the case of abortion, or embryo-destructive research. We need to make an argument that the life of a human being is not a mere instrument or means to another end, but is an end in itself. We need to know whether it can be justified to kill innocent human beings at some stages for the sake of benefiting other human beings, solving social problems, reducing poverty, fighting overpopulation (if one is silly enough to believe that overpopulation is actually a problem today). We need an argument against utilitarianism and consequentialist ways of thinking. So, all that work has to be done. Of course, when it comes to abortion and embryo-destructive research, there’s an additional question which is itself not a question of natural law but rather a question of biological fact. And the answer to that question provides a crucial premise to the argument, and that question is: Is the early embryo or the developing fetus a member of the species Homo sapiens? Is that creature a human being?
The answer to that is very easy because the science of human embryology and developmental biology are now very advanced, and we know that from the earliest stage we have a living member of the species Homo sapiens, a human being who like other human beings has a wholeness, integrity, biological completeness, so that even the earliest embryo already is directing its own integral organic functioning as a unified organism, developing itself to the next stage of maturity.
You recently held a “Public Debate on Life Issues” with Pepperdine law professor and U.S. ambassador to Malta Douglas Kmiec, someone who was for a time tipped to become the next U.S. ambassador to the Holy See. The new ambassador, Miguel Diaz, has just arrived in Rome. What advice would you give him as a Catholic representing the Obama administration to the Holy See?
I’m more interested that he might use his abilities, position and experiences to communicate to the Obama administration, because the Catholic Church, including Pope Benedict XVI, has been at the forefront of showing that belief in the profound and inherent equal dignity of each human being is not a mere sectarian Catholic view.
Although it is taught by the Church, though not the Church alone, but rather is a matter of reason that can be affirmed by believers and unbelievers alike, it should therefore be affirmed by everyone, including the Obama administration.
So I hope the new ambassador will take to the president who appointed him the message that you must not dismiss as the “Catholic View” the position taught by the Church, but not only by the Church: these great issues of morality, whether abortion or embryo-destructive research or euthanasia or marriage and sexual morality.
There seems to be a dearth of people such as yourself and other like-minded Americans who will stand up for the truth and say it like it is. How can Americans help Europeans to stand up for these issues, and bring them to greater public awareness?
It speaks well for my country that, despite our terrible policy of abortion that has been imposed on us by seven unelected and unaccountable judges, we have built and sustained — for 36 years — the most powerful pro-life movement in the world.
And it would be my wish and my prayer for Europe that a similar movement in defense of the innocent, unborn child would be built in every nation and across the borders in Europe — one that would be influencing policy when it came to abortion, embryo-destructive research, euthanasia, assisted suicide and so forth.
In the United States, we have been blessed with great intellectuals such as Mary Ann Glendon who spoke here, and not only Catholic intellectuals, but great Protestant thinkers such as Gilbert Meilaender, the Lutheran theologian, Rabbi David Novak, the great Jewish moral thinker — so many others.
Our intellectuals have not been afraid or in any way reluctant to speak out in very plain terms and to challenge those on the other side to debate the issue.
We have everything to gain by engaging in very public discussions — civil but intense discussions — with people on the other side because they have no argument that can, in the end, prevail. They have no way to show that the unborn child, developing embryo or fetus is something other than a human being.
As you probably know, a few months ago L’Osservatore Romano caused a stir with its editorials, which seemed to look with favor on the Obama administration and take a soft line on its life policies. What was your view on this?
I think it’s important for all European media and all Catholic media, whether in the Vatican or in dioceses around Europe — and in the United States for that matter — to pay very close attention to the Obama administration’s policies on life-and-marriage issues. It is very easy to be deceived by evasive language and elusive rhetoric.
For example, the Obama administration, and President Obama himself, says that the health-care reform proposals he’s making will not include the coverage of abortion. Well that is a deception, to put it plainly.
It is true that the word abortion doesn’t appear in the legislation, but nor does the word appendectomy, or heart surgery, or anything like that. But he knows that, under Roe v. Wade, abortion is lawful in the United States.
Unless the legislation includes language prohibiting paying for abortion, or covering abortion in its insurance package, then it will be included. That’s the way the courts will interpret the law, which is why Obama and his supporters in Congress have resisted every effort simply to include a provision — one sentence — that would say there can be no government funding under this litigation for abortion or no coverage for abortion.
Why do they keep on rejecting that language if they are telling the truth to us that they do not favor abortion coverage?
Now Obama, for his entire career, has said he’s in favor of public funding for abortion, so it’s no surprise in reality his plan would cover abortion, but he shouldn’t be lying about it; he shouldn’t be practicing this deception.
So the newspapers have to be careful to tend to those little nuances and not be taken in by claims such as: “Oh, there’s nothing about abortion in this legislation.”
They need to see it in its context and assess whether that’s true, and they will find the deception if they do.
Obama’s attractiveness and popularity should not cause the media to treat him less in need of careful monitoring than any other political leader.
Edward Pentin writes from Rome.