They called it a discussion rather than a debate, and no one cursed, raised his voice or turned purple with fury. Yet it was still the Catholic Thrilla in Manila – the much-anticipated face-off between two preeminent pro-life thinkers, only one of whom thinks it's OK to support Barack Obama anyway. To be honest, my side did not win.
Side? That pro-lifers -- all of whom, as moderator Mary Ann Glendon noted at the packed, invitation-only Catholic University Law event held at the National Press Club Thursday night, agree that "abortion is an unspeakable crime'' -- might nonetheless be divided on the practical application of that belief still seems unfathomable to much of the political world.
Yet throughout the '08 presidential campaign, the Catholic argument was not, for a change, between pro-life and pro-choice believers. Instead, it was between pro-lifers -- some of whom, like me, saw in Obama overriding reasons to say "yes, we can.' And though this may be just the sort of chasm Freud called "the narcissism of small differences,'' for those of us caught up in the conversation, it is no trivial matter.
Harvard Law's Glendon, who was a Bush ambassador to the Vatican, made news a couple of weeks ago for turning down Notre Dame's prestigious Laetare Medal because the school had also chosen to honor the pro-choice Obama. Yet though there was no question where the "moderator' of the discussion stood – two-on-one, anyone? – tone and demeanor do matter, and Glendon's let's-play-fair opening remarks set the stage for as constructive an exchange as possible on this hottest of hot-button issues.
The soft-spoken Kmiec (pronounced k'mick, with just a quick flick of the K; it helps if you can say kvetch correctly, as I for example cannot) won the coin-toss and thus the right to go first. He began by saying he had concluded that to engage only with perfectly like-minded politicians was completely self-defeating: "Are we as Catholics expected to sit on the sidelines -- aloof with the truth -- talking to ourselves? Or are we to engage our fellow citizens and offer that faith? You already know the answer I would give, and the 2008 election was very much a test of that." Obama easily won the Catholic vote, taking 54 percent, and did well even among those who attend Mass regularly.
Kmiec cited Obama's positions on health care, anti-poverty programs, immigration, and the environment as pro-life in a broader sense, and further justified his support for the president with the words of Pope John Paul II, who wrote that "Catholic voters can have proportionate reasons to approve of a candidate who is not pro-life so long as the Catholic does not have an active intent to advance the intrinsic evil of abortion.''
In his mild way, he also struck back at those who believe it appropriate to withhold communion from pro-choice politicians, or even those who support them; Kmiec was himself denied communion on one occasion in 2008, though the priest later apologized: "The denial of Communion is intimidation," Kmiec said. "To be separated from the body of Christ even once is intimidation.'' Bishops who he paraphrased as saying, "Mr. Kmiec, don't come to St. Louis, Mr. Biden, if you're in Denver, think twice about coming to the altar rail. Kathleen Sebelius, stay away'' are doing the church no favors, he argued.
That "is not either an effective nor a Catholic approach. Nor is it a Catholic approach to endorse candidates -- yet certain bishops endorse candidates. Nor should churches allow materials in their vestibule saying it is a sin of the highest order to cast a vote for Barack Obama."
As Kmiec praised Notre Dame's president, the Rev. John Jenkins, for inviting the president to address graduating seniors, the huffing and puffing in the audience got louder. Someone behind me whispered the word Nazis, and Republican former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum, who was sitting in front of me, shook his head in disagreement.
The crowd also buzzed over Kmiec's argument that Obama was committed to reducing the number of abortions – and that "he's already demonstrated he's listening'' to pro-lifers by supporting funding for adult stem-cell research and by affirming, in his Notre Dame speech, that he supports conscience-clause laws that protect the jobs of pro-life health care workers.
"It's wrong to make the perfect the enemy of the good,'' Kmiec said in summing up. "And wrong not to recognize the good heart'' of a good man like Obama.
George was more forceful in his presentation, and he talks faster. "One does not treat an interlocutor with respect if one does not speak plainly,'' he began, and by that measure, he proceeded quite respectfully. "I find myself at odds, deeply at odds, with the Obama administration'' on life issues, he said. And for all who agree on those issues, "our goal must be to frustrate at every turn'' the president's efforts. If there is any common ground to be found, he added, it is the government who should "find common ground with us in this great struggle'' for human rights.
He said he quite appreciated Obama's candor at Notre Dame, where the president did say that as much as we might like to fudge it, the differences between those who view abortion as morally permissable and those who do not are at bottom "irreconcilable.'' And what divides the two camps is not a difference of opinion over whether an abortion involves "a living individual of the human species,'' George said, but whether that being "may rightly and freely be killed.''
"The president speaks of human rights and I do not question his sincerity,'' he said. But "for the president, being human is not enough to qualify someone for the right to life...He knows the blood shed by the abortionists' knife is human blood.'' Yet "he does not believe human beings acquire rights until after birth.''
George also charged that in the president's view, "the equality of women depends on denying the equality of the children they carry.''
Unlike Bill Clinton or Mario Cuomo or Joe Biden, George said, Obama does not even say he finds abortion personally objectionable, or any more immoral than a knee replacement, really – more wrenching a decision, yes, and never a procedure one hopes to have to have – but still a morally neutral one, and "a legitimate solution to a problem.''
And though, especially now that Gallup reports a pro-life majority in this country, Obama has backed off his support for the Freedom of Choice Act (FOCA) for political reasons, George said his own view is that "he was not lying when he made that promise'' -- that if elected, he would make FOCA's passage a priority.
During an all-too-brief question-and-answer period – of course, we would still be there if all questions had been answered – George made his best point of the evening. When he asked Kmiec to cite one way in which Obama had reduced the need for abortions, Kmiec pointed to "the creation of the faith-based office'' and the president's assurances that reducing the need for abortions was the highest priority of that office. Only, it was President Bush who created the office, and the smallness of the example only seemed to make George's point.
Then again, Kmiec also landed his best punch at evening's end, taking issue with George's reference to the "blood and bones'' of the unborn as precisely the kind of language that makes the arguments of pro-lifers impossible for others to hear.
Glendon, too, ended with her best material, quoting John Courtney Murray's line that "it's a genuine achievement to reach real disagreement, because so much of what passes for disagreement is just confusion.''
But afterwards, many in the audience grumbled that the discussion had been unsatisfyingly polite: "I'm from New York, and I like a good argument,'' said a priest who didn't want his name used. "It's no fun kicking somebody if they don't know they're bleeding.''
New York Times reporter David Kirkpatrick told Kmiec, only semi-encouragingly, "You certainly won on earnestness,'' and Kmiec sighed: "Well, I am that.'' Anti-abortion activist Jill Stanek informed him, "I think you have a misunderstanding'' of Obama's true views. "Clearly, he's pro-infanticide.'' Kmiec took this in stride: "Send me your best stuff,'' he told her, "and I promise I'll read it.''
So how did Kmiec feel about coming here, I asked him, and he sighed again, and said that if we want to change the culture we live in, we first have to engage those who disagree: "So many of us on the pro-life side make no effort to understand the other side,'' he said. "This business about bones and blood is just not right.''
Still, "after being the target of everyone's invective'' ever since coming out for Obama, he said, "I figured this would be at least a civilized crowd.''
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