Notes from Across the Atlantic
Notes from Across the Atlantic

Notes from Across the Atlantic

Joseph Bottum FAITH Magazine January-February 2010


Extracts from a Dec 09 First Things article "Understanding the Difference"

You've heard of him, of course: Francis Cardinal George, the archbishop of Chicago, current president of the U.S. Bishops' Conference, and the de facto intellectual dean of the American episcopate. Perhaps what's most interesting about his new book-The Difference God Makes: A Catholic Vision of Faith, Communion, and Culture (Crossroad, 384 pages, $26.95) - is the sheer fact of it, for no one besides Cardinal George has both the talent and the ecclesial weight to attempt what he's after in the book. And what he's after is a theological vision with enough breadth and depth to move beyond the crippling polarization among American Catholics over moral questions of political moment. [...]

Like John Courtney Murray, he argues that Catholics can influence culture and politics in ways that genuinely appeal even to non-believers. But, unlike Murray, he does not believe this can be done politically without mining a distinctively Catholic theological patrimony, one that runs deeper than the Church's current defence of natural law.

The patristic and medieval "metaphysics of participation" (in which God is seen as the Being whose essence is to exist, rather than as one being among others) undergirds a theology and politics of communion that, George argues, late-medieval theology abandoned the overall argument in The Difference God Makes is a strong one. If the metaphysics of participation undergirds a theology of communion, in which relationality is ontologically prior to individuality, then the radical autonomism of secular liberalism cannot survive. There are no pure individuals to determine themselves freely apart from a network of givens that shape identity and make communal life possible, enabling the experience of life as gift. The meaning of human life is primarily something to be discovered andreceived in love rather than created from the nihil of an individual freedom with no prior vision of what freedom is for. Such a network precludes characterising human self-interest and freedom in terms of a mutual conflict, along Hobbesian and social-contract lines, in which government's purpose is to limit the conflict and maintain at least a facsimile of justice. Thus solidarity comes to the fore. [...]


Fr Jenkins, the president of Notre Dame, has written an apologetic letter to the university's community in the wake of last spring's agitation over the awarding of an honorary law degree to President Obama. Well, kind of apologetic. Actually, not really apologetic. In fact, completely unapologetic. The letter concludes that "division", not moral scandal, is the incident's most regrettable consequence. Jenkins begins by indicating the need to engage our culture's "struggle with the morality and legality of abortion, embryonic stem-cell research, and related issues" - the aim of which, he suggests, is to "witness to the sanctity of life". How President Obama's honorary degree constitutes such a witness is lost on many in the Notre Dame community. And Jenkins' refusal to dismiss trespassingcharges against eighty-eight pro-life protesters - whose single intention was to give witness - makes one wonder how he plans to discern witness in the future. Fr. Jenkins goes on to mention his intention to participate in this year's March for Life and to announce the formation of the "Task Force on Supporting the Choice for Life", which, with faculty support, will sponsor "serious and specific discussion" about pro-life concerns. He also calls attention to his advisory role in the Catholic-run Women's Care Centre. So the man is privately pro-life - which no one ever doubted. But, see, privately opposed just isn't enough. It's not enough for a Catholic politician, and it surely isn't enough for a Catholic university.


In a recent interview with the Washington Post (part of their ominously titled "Voices of Power" series), Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius discussed Archbishop Joseph Naumann's request that she not present herself for communion because of her public support for legalised abortion: "Well, it was one of the most painful things I have ever experienced in my life, and I am a firm believer in the separation of church and state, and I feel that my actions as a parishioner are different than my actions as a public official and that the people who elected me in Kansas had a right to expect me to uphold their rights and their beliefs even if they did not have the same religious beliefs that I had. And that's what I did: I took an oath of office and I have taken anoath of office in this job and will uphold the law." It would be painful to parse completely this jumble of worn excuses, but at its heart lies the old "personally opposed, but publicly supportive" line of the Catholic politician ever since Mario Cuomo. But the logic behind it has changed. It is no longer despite the fact that Catholic politicians are personally opposed to abortion that they publicly support it. It is because their opposition to abortion is personal, because it is religious, that they must publicly support it and with gusto. The underlying premise seems to be that for any Church teaching, there cannot be a nonreligious argument, simply because it is Church teaching. It must be as mysterious as the Incarnation and followed in the sameway a Catholic follows the Church's call for Friday fasting.


In an article in the journal Contraception, Elizabeth Westley, Francine Coeytaux and Elisa Wells worry about the future of emergency contraception. "Two decades ago," the authors reminisce, "Dr. Felicia Stewart, then serving as Medical Director of the Planned Parenthood affiliate in Sacramento, California, began her campaign to let out of the closet 'America's best-kept secret' - emergency contraception. The method had been suppressed because many providers thought the method was 'not effective enough', or would lead women to use it 'too much' (in place of using other more effective methods)." These early objections were swept aside, however, and emergency contraception products are now available worldwide, with a pharmaceutical company in the United States even providing"full-on, direct-to-consumer marketing". But, as it turns out, the early naysayers might have had it right all along: Westley, Coeytaux and Wells now acknowledge that two recent analyses suggest that emergency contraception is "not as effective in reducing unwanted pregnancy rates at a population level as we once hoped". That's putting it lightly. One of the studies, appearing in the journal Obstetrics & Gynecology, concludes that "increased access to emergency contraceptive pills enhances use but has not been shown to reduce unintended pregnancy rates". So more women might be using the morning-after pill now because of relaxed regulation, but overall unintended pregnancy rates have not been affected. How, if this is the case, could EC have rallied so muchsupport, especially when there were vocal critics from the beginning? The authors give us a hint: "Our expectations for EC's effectiveness were biased upward by an early estimate that expanding access to EC could dramatically reduce the incidence of unintended pregnancy and subsequent abortion. This estimate made a compelling story and is likely a key reason why donors and others were willing to support efforts to expand access to EC." So emergency-contraception advocates were able to tell a compelling story - based on false and unsubstantiated claims - and this led donors and politicians to support increasing access. Of course, now that it has "hit the mainstream", news of the method's ineffectiveness will not put the pill back in the box. But perhaps that's the whole point: whenadvocates of the next best thing in sexual liberation want to push their agenda, all they have to do is ratchet up the hopes of the public, exaggerating when necessary. Even if science eventually comes down on the side of the opposition, any efforts to reverse the reforms will be stigmatised.


"He felt his cell phone vibrate. Carhart ignored it, finishing the abortion before checking his phone." That's from the opening scene in a recent Newsweek article that profiles the late-term abortionist LeRoy Carhart. An odd piece of writing. At times, it marvels at Carhart's willingness and determination to continue performing abortions after the murder of George Tiller. Then, as quickly as Carhart is praised, his procedures are described in disturbing detail: "There are a few different procedures to terminate early pregnancies; Carhart uses one called suction dilation and curettage, or suction D&C... In a suction D&C procedure, the cervix is dilated with rod-shaped instruments and the contents of the uterus removed with a tube connected to a suction device. Sometimes athin metal instrument (a curette) is used to scrape out the uterus. Carhart enters the operating room, introduces himself as Lee, and begins operating." If the article seems conflicted, the author seems even more so. In a follow-up piece on Newsweek's website, Kliff described her experience writing the original story, of watching an abortion for the first time: "The suction machine made a slight rumbling sound, a pinkish fluid flowed through the tube, and, faster than I'd expected, it was over. Women spent less than a half hour in the operating room. I'd anticipated some kind of difficulty watching an abortion; it wasn't there. At least not physically. But there was a discomfort I hadn't expected, my emotional reaction to watching -abortions." A discomfort, yes. Speaking of LeRoyCarhart, four of his former employees have reported unsafe and illegal practices at his abortion clinic in Bellevue, Nebraska - including unsanitary conditions and unlicensed staff starting IVs and dispensing medication. "Ex-Employees Aid Abortion Foes", declares the headline of the angry story in the Omaha World-Herald. Those faithless employees! Praise of whistleblowers seems to depend on whose whistle it is.

Faith Magazine

January - February 2010