December 21, 2009


The Conservative-Christian Big Thinker (DAVID D. KIRKPATRICK, 12/20/09, NY Times Magazine)

He has parlayed a 13th-century Catholic philosophy into real political influence. Glenn Beck, the Fox News talker and a big George fan, likes to introduce him as “one of the biggest brains in America,” or, on one broadcast, “Superman of the Earth.” Karl Rove told me he considers George a rising star on the right and a leading voice in persuading President George W. Bush to restrict embryonic stem-cell research. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia told me he numbers George among the most-talked-about thinkers in conservative legal circles. And Newt Gingrich called him “an important and growing influence” on the conservative movement, especially on matters like abortion and marriage.

“If there really is a vast right-wing conspiracy,” the conservative Catholic journal Crisis concluded a few years ago, “its leaders probably meet in George’s kitchen.”

FOR 20 YEARS, George has operated largely out of public view at the intersection of academia, religion and politics. In the past 12 months, however, he has stepped into a more prominent role. With the death of the Rev. Richard John Neuhaus, a Lutheran minister turned Roman Catholic priest who helped bring evangelicals and Catholics together into a political movement, George has assumed his mantle as the reigning brain of the Christian right. And he is in many ways the public face of the conservative side in the most urgent culture-war battle of the day. The National Organization for Marriage, the advocacy group fighting same-sex marriage in Albany and Trenton, Maine and California, has made him its chairman. Before the 2004 election, he helped a coalition of Christian conservative groups write their proposed amendment to the federal Constitution defining marriage as heterosexual. More than any other scholar, George has staked his reputation on the claim that same-sex marriage violates not only tradition but also human reason.

It’s part of a philosophy that has found support among a group of Catholic bishops who have become some of the most persistent critics of President Obama and the Congressional Democrats. George serves as their intellectual point man. In the past few years, many of the evangelical Protestants who once defined the religious right have turned inward after their disappointment with President George W. Bush. In their place, George’s friends among the Catholic bishops have stepped to the fore, hammering Obama for his pro-choice Catholic cabinet nominees, for being invited to speak at Notre Dame’s commencement, for his stem-cell research policies and most recently for his health care proposals.

As Democrats have stepped up their explicitly religious appeals to Catholic voters, these bishops have pushed back against the intrusion on their turf. While Democrats talked of finding common ground on abortion, Archbishop Charles Chaput of Denver, the informal leader of this side of the American church, gave a much-publicized speech denouncing Obama as “the most committed abortion rights candidate in history.” Chaput chose to publish his remarks on the Web site of a think tank co-founded by George — the man who had himself argued in an essay disseminated widely last fall through conservative circles, Fox News and Christian radio that Barack Obama was “the most extreme pro-abortion candidate ever to seek” the presidency. [...]

At 54, George has thick gray-brown hair, bright blue eyes and a certain boyishness. Seemingly everyone from Rove to Cardinal Rigali calls him, simply, Robby. A few dozen graduate and star-undergraduate students had traveled from as far away as Cambridge and Poland for a seminar on the new natural law. He is by all accounts a terrific teacher. (“Awesome,” several undergraduates said in a stack of glowing evaluations he showed me.) Part of the reason may be that he brings almost every philosophical question back to a central debate about the nature of the self, a battle between reason and the passions. Moral philosophy, as George describes it, is a contest between the Greek philosopher Aristotle and the Scottish enlightenment thinker David Hume.

Aristotelians, like St. Thomas Aquinas, hold that there is an objective moral order. Human reason can see it. And we have the free will to follow or not. “In a well-ordered soul, reason’s got the whip hand over emotion,” George told the seminar, in a favorite formulation borrowed from Plato. Humeans — and in George’s view, modern liberals are usually Humeans — disagree. Against Aristotle, Hume argued that the universe includes facts but not values. You cannot derive moral conclusions from studying the world, an “ought” from an “is.” There is no built-in, objective reason for me to choose one goal over another — the goals of Mother Teresa over the goals of Adolf Hitler, in George’s hypothetical. Reason, then, is merely a tool of whatever desire strikes my fancy. “Reason is and ought only to be the slave of the passions and may pretend to no office other than to serve and obey them,” George said, paraphrasing Hume, just as he does in seemingly every essay or lecture he writes.

In George's view, if I have no rational basis for picking one goal over another, then I have no free choice, only predetermined “passions” — the result of genetics, a blow to the head, whatever made me prefer either curing the sick or killing the Jews. We have reason and free choice, he teaches, or we have amorality and determinism.

George’s thinking draws on a system of ethics first developed against the backdrop of the 1960s debate inside the Catholic Church over contraception. In the tradition of Aquinas, Catholic thinkers had for centuries tried to establish moral laws of nature by studying biology, anthropology and history. When it came to sex, the church taught the idea of a “perverted faculty.” Sex was intended for the dual purpose of procreation and marital unity, so deliberate ejaculation in any other context — oral or anal sex, artificial contraception, masturbation, premarital sex, adultery — demeaned sex and contravened the natural law. (Female orgasms, incidental to conception, were not an issue.)

But by the late 1960s, most secular philosophers had abandoned the project of finding moral norms in nature. Amid the openness of the Second Vatican Council, some of their Catholic counterparts began to wonder if they should give up, too. Then came the pill. Some Catholic scholars, all the way up to the level of papal advisers, questioned whether a form of birth control that did not put a physical barrier between the partners might be permissible. Some began to suggest that the church should shift its focus from the act of sex to the totality of marriage, as Protestants did, and stop worrying as much about ejaculation and contraception. Wasn’t it marital love that was meant to be fruitful and that gave sex its meaning?

An orthodox-minded Georgetown University philosopher named Germain Grisez mounted a novel defense of the birth-control ban. Instead of beginning with science or history, he started by listing certain basic human goods that he believed anyone could see were “integral to human flourishing,” like friendship, knowledge, excellence in work and play, religion, life and procreation. Each was an end in itself, not a means to anything else. You could never prove each’s value by referring to other values — only assert and defend each one on its own.

Grisez argued that contraception violated the “basic good” of “the handing on of new life.” For George and the new natural lawyers, Grisez’s tactic of starting from self-evident human goods gave “the whip hand” back to reason.

In practice, George and his allies have usually found the rules of sexuality quite absolute, while the church’s teachings about social justice come out more contingent. That may be why he is almost uniformly popular among evangelicals but controversial among many of his fellow Catholics, particularly those who prefer the church's peace-and-justice liberalism to its conservative bioethics.

Posted by Orrin Judd at December 21, 2009 6:55 AM
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