Who’s Delegitimizing Whom?

Published October 27, 2004

The Catholic Difference

The editors of the New York Times would rather brush their teeth with barbed wire than see George W. Bush re-elected. All the more reason, then, to ponder the Times’ portrait of the difference between President Bush and Senator John Kerry on a key moral issue in the 2004 campaign:

“When President Bush took on the issue of embryonic stem cell research in 2001, he framed it as a moral dilemma. He summoned members of the clergy and ethicists, as well as scientists, to counsel him. He prayed over it. His verdict – he imposed strict limits on medical research using the cells derived from human embryos – paid homage to human life as ‘a sacred gift from our creator.’

“When Senator John Kerry highlighted the issue…he framed it as a matter of clinical science, surrounded himself with university researchers and doctors in white laboratory coats and disease sufferers. Mr. Kerry seized on the stem cell issue to portray himself as the champion of human reason and scientific progress versus what he called Mr. Bush’s stubborn devotion to ‘extreme right-wing ideology.’

“At a town hall forum…the senator never uttered the words faith, moral, religion, prayer, conscience, or God, instead conjuring Galileo and other scientists who once drew the wrath of organized religion.”

About the time the Times’ story appeared, the National Catholic Reporter editorially accused Archbishop John Myers, Professor Robert George, Father Richard John Neuhaus, and me of “a deliberate…attempt to delegitimize the Democratic Party in the eyes of American Catholic voters.” This was, the editorial continued, an unprecedented attempt by a “small band of ideological partisans…to make their narrow reading of a political race the undisputed view of the Church.”

Oh. Really?

The truth of the matter, as Senator Kerry’s ill-informed approach to the stem cell and abortion issues reveals, is that the Democratic Party has delegitimized itself in the minds of millions of Catholic voters (including many former Democrats) who require no instruction on these matters from the archbishop of Newark, the holder of Woodrow Wilson’s chair at Princeton, America’s most influential Catholic public intellectual, or me. It’s not the Reporter’s Gang of Four who have misrepresented the Catholic position on the inalienable right to life as a sectarian quirk that cannot be “imposed” on others; it’s the Democratic Party and its presidential candidate. Myers, George, Neuhaus, and I did not devise an approach to embryonic stem cell research that plays on the fears of the sick and the elderly through misleading promises of medical silver bullets, and that dismisses the considered moral judgment of the Pope and the bishops of the United States as “extreme right-wing ideology;” the Democratic Party and its presidential candidate did that all by themselves.

All we have done is to point out the obvious: that the Democratic Party today rejects the teaching of Centesimus Annus on the true meaning of freedom and the teaching of Evangelium Vitae on the life issues. Centesimus Annus teaches that freedom must be tethered to moral truth and ordered to goodness; the Democratic Party and its candidate promote a thin notion of freedom as “choice,” period. Evangelium Vitae makes a powerful argument that the protection of innocent life is a fundamental tenet of natural justice that can be known by every reasonable person; the Democratic Party’s presidential candidate habitually describes this as a sectarian view peculiar to Catholics.

Is the Republican Party a completely comfortable home for Catholics? Of course not; no political party is, or ever will be. But it didn’t take my writing or that of my colleagues to demonstrate to millions of Catholics what my friends at the NCR can’t, or won’t, grasp: that the Republican Party is a more secure platform from which Catholics can work on the great issues of the day than a party in thrall to abortion “rights,” gay activism, and a utilitarian approach to the biotech future that is disturbingly reminiscent of Brave New World.

America would be much better served by a big-tent Democratic Party that didn’t ape the fashionable secularism of European parties. That kind of Democratic Party won’t be built if the present, sorry facts about the party’s moral meltdown aren’t recognized for what they are.

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.

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