Late last year, when Italian philosopher and cabinet minister Rocco Buttiglione was denied the post of European Minister of Justice because his convictions on sexual ethics and marriage were unacceptable to a gaggle of libertine Euro-parliamentarians, there was a certain plausibility to the whole exercise – at least from the point of view of secularists, leftists, and the establishment European media. Buttiglione, after all, was a minister in a center-right Italian government; Buttiglione is a devout, intellectually astute Catholic whose thinking is shaped by natural law reasoning and Catholic moral theology; and it’s an article of faith in the left-leaning worlds of European secularism (which include most of the mainstream Euro-media) that Catholic + conservative = in vitro fascist.
Why, then, has Britain’s Ruth Kelly been getting the Buttiglione Treatment in recent weeks?
Who, you ask, is Ruth Kelly? Let me introduce you.
Born in Northern Ireland in 1968, Ruth Kelly is a graduate of Oxford and the London School of Economics, where she earned a masters degree in the dismal science. After working as an economics correspondent for the (very left-oriented) Guardian, and later at the Bank of England, Kelly was elected to Parliament at age 29 in 1997 as a Labor Party candidate. Having held a series of sub-cabinet posts, Ruth Kelly was appointed to the cabinet last month by Prime Minister Tony Blair as Education Secretary. (At which point, observers remembered that Britain’s first female prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, was another Oxford graduate who’d begun her ministerial career in the department 36-year old Ruth Kelly now headed.)
Then came the Buttiglione Treatment.
The fact that Ruth Kelly doesn’t conform to certain feminist conventions – she’s a Catholic, a daily communicant, married once, the mother of four small children, and vigorously pro-life – evidently didn’t agree with one fellow-MP (another woman, no less), who labeled Kelly “that cow.” Kelly’s previous decisions to decline the Health and Overseas Development cabinet portfolios because those jobs would have entangled her with contraception and abortion didn’t sit well with the keepers of the feminist flame, either.
The British science establishment quickly went into its default mode in such matters: the Galileo case was back! A senior geneticist, Dr. Robin Lovell-Badge, told newspapers that it was “very worrying” that someone with Kelly’s religious convictions might, in overseeing government funding of scientific research, impede embryo-destructive stem-cell research, thus producing a “schizophrenic” and “confused” situation like that in the United States. (By which adjectives, Dr. Lovell-Badge apparently evidently means a situation in which the law requires that scientific experimentation take place within boundaries that protect innocent human life.) The Times of London summed up this change in the Ruth Kelly indictment by writing that “some MPs [Members of Parliament] fear her religion may cloud her judgment.”
“Cloud” was the give-away, of course. In an objective news story, that sentence would have concluded, “…inform her judgment.” But in the intellectually insular world of European secularism – which has many parallels on this side of the Atlantic – religious faith in general and Catholicism in particular are, by definition, obscurantist and irrational. How could Catholic moral theology “inform” anyone’s judgment? Catholicism, according to the settled mythology of the Euro-secularist left, clouds judgment. Or distorts judgment. Or replaces “judgment” with robotic obedience.
Inflamed by The Da Vinci Code, British conspiracy theorists are in a lather because Ruth Kelly has participated in activities organized by Opus Dei. What really earned Ruth Kelly the Buttiglione Treatment, though, is the fact that she’s a myth-breaker: day by day, her public life refutes the canard that serious public Catholicism in the 21st century means incipient fascism. For who could plausibly accuse this bright and accomplished trade union member of being – gasp! – one of those dreaded conservatives? Conservatives and former Guardian writers don’t get elected Labor MP for Bolton West.
Ruth Kelly isn’t just a sign of contradiction for Britain’s secular left, though. What will accommodationist Catholic legislators in America – Nancy Pelosi and Barbara Mikulski, for example – make of a popular, competent, liberal, Oxford-certified Catholic woman and politician who’s convinced that Humanae Vitae and Evangelium Vitae got it right?
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.