Monday, January 11, 2010

Robert P. George, the Catholic Bishop's Karl Rove

The New York Times reported the following regarding Robert P. George, a Princeton University professor of jurisprudence and a Roman Catholic who is this country’s most influential conservative Christian thinker.

Last spring, George was invited to address an audience that included many bishops at a conference in Washington. He told them with typical bluntness that they should stop talking so much about the many policy issues they have taken up in the name of social justice. They should concentrate their authority on “the moral social” issues like abortion, embryonic stem-cell research and same-sex marriage, where, he argued, the natural law and Gospel principles were clear. To be sure, he said, he had no objections to bishops' “making utter nuisances of themselves” about poverty and injustice, like the Old Testament prophets, as long as they did not advocate specific remedies. They should stop lobbying for detailed economic policies like progressive tax rates, higher minimum wage and, presumably, the expansion of health care — “matters of public policy upon which Gospel principles by themselves do not resolve differences of opinion among reasonable and well-informed people of good will,” as George put it.

A few months later, in a July 17 letter to Congress, the bishops did something close to that in the health care debate. Setting aside decades of calls for universal coverage, the bishops pledged to fight any bill that failed to block the use of federal subsidies for insurance covering abortion. “Stalin famously asked, ‘How many divisions has the pope?’ ” George wrote to me in an e-mail message after House Speaker Nancy Pelosi allowed a vote on an amendment that satisfied the bishops’ demands. “I guess Pelosi now knows.”

“As long as they did not advocate specific remedies.” Yes, yes say you wish to help the poor and the marginalized, but for God’s sake don’t specify HOW. Why does George insist on this vague approach? Because, any “specifics” would almost assuredly contradict the neo-conservative dogmas of the Republican party. Catholic Social teachings are indeed a “nuisance” almost as much of a “nuisance” as the poor and their needs. The beauty of George’s advice to the Catholic Bishops is that by focusing on “the moral social” issues (abortion, stem-cell research and same sex marriage) those other social justice issues can be tabled.

This extends a fig leaf behind which health care corporations can hide their obscene profits. Profits paid for by the deaths of countless Americans and the suffering of exponentially even more Americans. A fig leaf also for financial institutions which have issued billions of dollar worth of bonuses paid for by American tax payers, just as many of those American lose their homes to foreclosure. A fig leaf also for those who refuse to pay living wages to employees. A fig leaf for those who abuse migrant workers. The list goes on and on.

Not only does George’s “Catholic” agenda offer fig leaves to all of these exploiters but, at the same time he even extends to them the luxury of being morally smug. George’s new morality, or is it just the morality of the Pharisees revisited, allows the wealthy and powerful to do nothing for the poor. Well, except to judge them for having abortions, or seeking to establish a home with someone they love who happens to be of the same gender. Yes, this “morality” merely requires the prohibition of certain acts. One does not have to be “my brother’s/sister’s keeper,” just their judge.

All of this is neatly wrapped in a dispassionate appeal to “reason.”

It is a debate at least as old as the Reformation, when Martin Luther broke with the Catholic Church and insisted that reason was so corrupted that faith in the divine was humanity’s only hope of salvation. (Until relatively recently, contemporary evangelicals routinely leveled the same charge at modern Catholics.) “This is a serious issue, and if I am wrong, this is where I am wrong,” George acknowledges.

The problem with an appeal to reason as our guide can be found in our refrigerators. Think of the many times you have opened the refrigerator door and found yourself staring at a slice of chocolate cake or a pint of ice cream. Reason tells us we should have the celery. This is not to say that we should throw reason out the door, but we must recall that human reason is subject to human will.

George’s reason is very appealing to the will of those who don’t want to have to part with profits for the sake of prophets. It is very appealing to brokers of wealth and power in our society. George’s “morality” requires nothing of them, except to prohibit behaviors. It is a “morality” which would have played well at the court of Louis XVI. George states: “Obviously, I am gratified that view appears to have attracted a very strong following among the bishops,” he went on. “I just hope I am right. If they are going to buy my arguments, I don’t want to mislead the whole church.”

Sadly, not only has George misled the Bishops, he had caused them to use their influence to derail universal health care. Ironically, poor women will have to decide to either spend $400.00 on an abortion or, $4000.00 on delivering a baby at a hospital. This makes George and the Catholic Bishops de facto accomplices to the abortions they denounce. A small price to pay for becoming the "choir boys" for the Republican Party and the far right.


In the Kitchen With Don said...

"They should concentrate their authority on “the moral social” issues like abortion, embryonic stem-cell research and same-sex marriage, where, he argued, the natural law and Gospel principles were clear." Funny thing is, the gospel never mentions these things by name but does mention feeding the poor, healing the sick, giving justice to the downtrodden, etc. And maybe he should read some church history. Any time the church gets too entangled with the secular sphere, the church loses. Just look at western Europe, the church is almost meaningless there, even in traditionally Catholic countries. I know in my case, the meddling of the church in US politics has been the major reason she lost me.

Henry said...

Great work Geoff. I admire your courage in challenging the Catholic Church to become more inclusive. But the trend set by JP II and now Benedict is not helpful. I hope you are able to continue to work within the ranks of the priesthood. Blessings to you and your ministry. Henry at