Immediately after Pope John Paul II received President Bush at Castel Gandolfo on 23 July, the spin-masters got to work — and made a hash of things.
In his formal remarks, the Holy Father tried to describe briefly the advance of the culture of death in our times. A “tragic coarsening of consciences,” beginning with the legalization of abortion, had led in short order to euthanasia and infanticide. Most recently, the Pope noted, this coarsening of consciences had produced morally reprehensible “proposals for the creation for research purposes of human embryos, destined to destruction in the process.” Because the Pope did not explicitly mention the use in research of “spare” embryos created during in vitro fertilization, some spin-masters immediately concluded that the Pope was trying to create “space” for a “compromise” that President Bush could propose to Congress on the heated issue of embryonic stem cell research. The next day, papal spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls put an end to that implausible speculation by citing the 1995 encyclical “Evangelium Vitae” and its unambiguous condemnation of the destruction of embryos from whatever source for research purposes.
Why did more than a few reporters and politicians read the Pope’s remarks to the president in such a bizarre way?
Part of it has to do with Washingtonitis. Those who suffer from this peculiar form of myopia only see what the Washington filter on reality allows them to see. For example: prior to the papal meeting with the president, a lot of Washington types were arguing (however illogically) that there is a moral difference between “spare” embryos created during in vitro fertilization and embryos created solely for research-and-destruction; the Pope then condemns the latter explicitly; therefore, he must be at least tacitly endorsing research on the “spares.”
The conclusion makes no moral sense at all. But one of the side-effects of Washingtonitis is that those suffering from it can’t tell a negotiable political issue from a non-negotiable moral judgment. The Pope is not another pol trying to find that elusive “middle ground.” The Pope is the custodian and servant of a tradition of moral truths
Which brings us to the second, and perhaps deeper, problem. Politicians, and the reporters and commentators who track their doings, live by necessity in a world of compromise and accommodation. Does the new highway have two lanes or three? Does the local school board get new textbooks this year or must it wait a year? Having watched more than a few Christian leaders accommodate themselves and their communities’ doctrinal and moral standards to lobbying and other pressures over the years, too many politicians, reporters, and commentators simply assume that everything is negotiable in the moral order, too.
That is not, however, the Catholic view. In Catholicism, some things are non-negotiable: not because the Catholic Church is less enlightened or more stubborn than other Christian communities, but because the moral truths the Church teaches are anchored in reality itself. And no combination of intentions and consequences can change those rooted-in-reality moral facts.
One such fact — one such moral truth — is that human beings, from conception until natural death, possess an inalienable dignity and value. Because of that, no human being may ever be used as an means to another end, no matter how noble that end may be (for example, curing Parkinson’s disease). Our human dignity is not something ascribed to us. It simply is, by reason of our existence.
The Catholic opposition to embryonic stem cell research is not susceptible to negotiation because it is rooted in moral facts: the inalienable dignity of the person; the universal proscription against using human beings as mere tools for manipulation; the absolute and invariable moral norm which holds that the direct and willful killing of the innocent is always a grave evil. In fact, to call this “the Catholic position” is something of a misnomer, for the biological and moral facts that make the conclusion inescapable are accessible to anyone.
These facts are not “for-Catholics-only.” They’re for anyone willing to recognize that nothing that will become a human being is ever anything other than a human being — and willing to accept the moral conclusion that follows, inexorably, from that fact of life.
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.