"Freedom Is a Two Way Street"
VATICAN CITY, 21 APRIL 2007 (ZENIT)
Here is the text of an address by
Robert George on political obligations and moral conscience.
* * *
XIII General Assembly
Program of the Preparatory Meeting of September 29-30, 2006
Casa Bonus Pastor
Political Obligations, Moral Conscience, and Human Life
Robert P. George
McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence
The Catholic Church proclaims the principle that every human being
without regard to race, sex, or ethnicity, and equally without regard to
age, size, stage of development, or condition of dependency
is entitled to the full protection of the laws.
The Church teaches that human beings at every stage of development
including those at the embryonic and fetal stages
and those in every condition
including those who are mentally retarded or physically disabled, and
those who are suffering from severe dementias or other memory and
possess fundamental human rights. Above all, each of us possesses the
right to life.
Now this teaching is disputed by some. There are those, including some
Catholics, who deny that human embryos are human beings. They assert
that and human embryo is merely "potential" human life, not nascent
The trouble with this position is not theological but scientific. It
flies in the face of the established facts of human embryology and
developmental biology. A human embryo is not something distinct in kind
from a human being
like a rock or potato or alligator.
A human embryo is a human being at a particular, very early, stage of
development. An embryo, even prior to implantation, is a whole,
distinct, living member of the species Homo sapiens. The embryonic human
being requires only what any human being at any stage of development
requires for his or her survival, namely, adequate nutrition and an
environment sufficiently hospitable to sustain life.
From the beginning, each human being possesses
actually and not merely potentially
the genetic constitution and epigenetic primordia for self-directed
development from the embryonic into and through the fetal, infant,
child, and adolescent stages and into adulthood with his or her unity,
determinateness, and identity intact. In this crucial respect, the
embryo is quite unlike the gametes
that is, the sperm and ovum
whose union brought a new human being into existence. You and I were
never sperm or ova; those were genetically and functionally parts of
other human beings.
But each of us was once an embryo, just as each of us was once an
adolescent, and before that a child, an infant, a fetus. Of course, in
the embryonic, fetal, and infant stages we were highly vulnerable and
dependent creatures, but we were nevertheless complete, distinct human
As the leading textbooks in human embryology and developmental biology
unanimously attest, we were not mere "clumps of cells," like moles or
tumors. So the basic rights people possess simply by virtue of their
including above all the right to life
we possessed even then.
Another school of thought concedes that human embryos are human beings;
however, it denies that all human beings are persons. There are,
according to this school of thought, pre-personal and post-personal
human beings, as well as severely retarded or damaged human beings who
are not, never will be, and never were, persons.
Proponents of this view insist that human beings in the embryonic and
fetal stages are not yet persons. Indeed, logically consistent and
unsentimental proponents say that even human infants are not yet
persons, and therefore do not possess a right to life; hence, the
willingness of Peter Singer, Michael Tooley, and others to countenance
infanticide as well as abortion.
Permanently comatose or severely retarded or demented human beings are
also denied the status of persons. So euthanasia is said to be justified
for human beings in these conditions. Although some who think along
these lines will allow that human individuals whom they regard as "not
yet persons" deserve a certain limited respect by virtue of the purely
biological fact that they are living members of the human species, they
nevertheless insist that "pre-personal" humans do not possess a right to
life that precludes them from being killed to benefit others or to
advance the interests of society at large.
Only those human beings who have achieved and retain what are regarded
as the defining attributes of personhood
whether those are considered to be detectable brain function,
self-awareness, or immediately exercisable capacities for
characteristically human mental functioning
possess a right to life.
The trouble with this position is that it makes nonsense of our
political, philosophical, and, for many of us, theological commitment to
the principle that all human beings are equal in fundamental worth and
It generates puzzles that simply cannot be resolved, such as the puzzle
as to why this or that accidental quality which most human beings
eventually acquire in the course of normal development but others do
not, and which some retain and others lose, and which some have to a
greater degree than others, should count as the criterion of
The superior position, surely, is that human beings possess equally an
intrinsic dignity that is the moral ground of the equal right to life of
all. This is a right possessed by every human being simply by virtue of
his or her humanity. It does not depend on an individual's age, or size,
or stage of development; nor can it be erased by an individual's
physical or mental infirmity or condition of dependency.
It is what makes the life of even a severely retarded child equal in
fundamental worth to the life of a Nobel prize-winning scientist. It
explains why we may not licitly extract transplantable organs from such
a child even to save the life of a brilliant physicist who is afflicted
with a life-threatening heart, liver, or kidney ailment.
In any event, the position that all human beings equally possess
fundamental human rights, including the right to life, is the
definitively settled teaching of the Catholic Church. It is on this
basis that the Church proclaims that the taking of human life in
abortion, infanticide, embryo-destructive research, euthanasia, and
terrorism are always and everywhere gravely wrong.
And there is more. For the Church also teaches that it is the solemn
obligation of legislators and other public officials, as servants of the
common good, to honor and protect the rights of all. The principle of
equality demands as a matter of strict justice that protection against
lethal violence be extended by every political community to all who are
within its jurisdiction.
Those to whom the care of the community is entrusted
above all those who participate in making the community's laws
have primary responsibility for ensuring that the right to life is
embodied in the laws and effectively protected in practice. Notice, by
the way, that the obligation of the public official is not to "enforce
the teaching of the Catholic Church," it is, rather, to fulfill the
demands of justice and the common good in light of the principle of the
inherent and equal dignity of every member of the human family.
Yet, today many Catholic politicians, including the Democratic leaders
of both houses of the United States Congress and the Republican governor
of New York and the former Republican governor of Pennsylvania, are
staunch supporters of what they describe as a "woman's right to
Most of these politicians also support the creation and government
funding of an industry that would produce tens of thousands of human
embryos by cloning for use in biomedical research in which these
embryonic human beings would be destroyed.
Catholic politicians in the United States and in other nations who
support abortion and embryo-destructive research typically claim to be
"personally opposed" to these practices but respectful of the rights of
others who disagree to act on their own judgments of conscience without
Former New York Governor Mario Cuomo famously articulated and defended
this view in a speech at the University of Notre Dame in 1984. Recently,
Cuomo revisited the issue, speaking in Washington at a Forum on Politics
and Faith in America. He offered an argument which, if successful, not
only justifies Catholic politicians in supporting legal abortion and
embryo-destructive research, but requires them to respect a right of
people to engage in these practices despite their admitted moral
Cuomo asserted that holders of public office
including Catholic office-holders
have a responsibility "to create conditions under which all citizens are
reasonably free to act according to their own religious beliefs, even
when those acts conflict with Roman Catholic dogma regarding divorce,
birth control, abortion, stem cell research, and even the existence of
According to Cuomo, Catholics should support legalized abortion and
embryo-destructive research, as he himself does, because in guaranteeing
these rights to others, they guarantee their own right "to reject
abortions, and to refuse to participate in or contribute to removing
stem cells from embryos."
But Cuomo's idea that the right "to reject" abortion and
embryo-destructive experimentation entails a right of others, as a
matter of religious liberty, to engage in these practices is simply, if
spectacularly, fallacious. The fallacy comes into focus immediately if
one considers whether the right of a Catholic (or Baptist, or Jew, or
member of any other faith) to reject infanticide, slavery, and the
exploitation of labor entails a right of others who happen not to share
these "religious" convictions to kill, enslave, and exploit.
By the expedient of classifying pro-life convictions about abortion and
embryo-destructive experimentation as "Roman Catholic dogmas," Cuomo
smuggles into the premises of his argument the controversial conclusion
he is trying to prove. If pro-life principles were indeed merely
such as the teaching that Jesus of Nazareth is the only begotten Son of
then according to the Church herself (not to mention American
constitutional law and the law of many other republics) they could not
legitimately be enforced by the coercive power of the state.
The trouble for Cuomo is that pro-life principles are not mere matters
of "dogma," nor are they understood as such by the Catholic Church,
whose beliefs Cuomo claims to affirm, or by pro-life citizens, whether
they happen to be Catholics, Protestants, Jews, Muslims, Hindus,
Buddhists, agnostics or atheists. Rather, pro-life citizens understand
these principles and propose them to their fellow citizens as
fundamental norms of justice and human rights that can be understood and
affirmed even apart from claims of revelation and religious authority.
It will not do to suggest, as Cuomo seems to suggest, that the sheer
fact that the Catholic Church (or some other religious body) has a
teaching against these practices, and that some or even many people
reject this teaching, means that laws prohibiting the killing of human
beings in the embryonic and fetal stages violate the right to freedom of
religion of those who do not accept the teaching.
If that were anything other than a fallacy, then laws against killing
infants, owning slaves, exploiting workers, and many other grave forms
of injustice really would be violations of religious freedom. Surely
Cuomo would not wish to endorse that conclusion.
Yet he provides no reason to distinguish those acts and practices
putatively falling within the category of religious freedom from those
falling outside it. So we must ask: If abortion is immunized against
legal restriction on the ground that it is a matter of religious belief,
how can it be that slavery is not similarly immunized?
If today abortion cannot be prohibited without violating the right to
religious freedom of people whose religions do not object to abortion,
how can Cuomo say that the prohibition of slavery by the Thirteenth
Amendment to the United States Constitution in 1866 did not violate the
right to religious freedom of those in the 19th century whose religions
did not condemn slaveholding?
Cuomo says that the Catholic Church "understands that our public
morality depends on a consensus view of right and wrong," but it would
be scandalous to argue that Catholics should have opposed a
constitutional amendment abolishing slavery in the 19th century, or
legislation protecting the civil rights of the oppressed descendants of
slaves in the mid-20th century, on the ground that "prudence" or
"realism" requires respect for "moral pluralism" where there is no
"consensus" on questions of right and wrong.
At one point at the forum on Politics and Faith, Cuomo suggested that
laws against abortion and embryo-destructive research would force people
who do not object to such things to practice the religion of people who
do. But this is another fallacy. No one imagines that the constitutional
prohibition of slavery forced those who believed in slaveholding to
practice the religion of those who did not.
Would Cuomo have us suppose that laws protecting workers against what
he, in line with the solemn teaching of every Pope from Leo XIII to
Benedict XVI, considers to be exploitation and abuse have the effect of
forcing non-Catholic factory owners to practice Catholicism?
At another point, in denying that there was any inconsistency between
his willingness as governor to act on his anti-death penalty views but
not on his anti-abortion views, Cuomo denied ever having spoken against
the death penalty as "a moral issue." He claimed, in fact, that he
"seldom talk[s] in terms of moral issues" and that, when he speaks of
the death penalty, he never suggests that he considers it a moral issue.
Then, in the very next sentence, he condemned the death penalty in the
most explicitly, indeed flamboyantly, moralistic terms: "I am against
the death penalty because I think it is bad and unfair. It is debasing.
It is degenerate. It kills innocent people." He did not pause to
consider that these are precisely the claims made by pro-life citizens
against the policy of legal abortion and its public funding
policy that Cuomo defends in the name of religious liberty.
The fact is that Catholics and others who oppose abortion and
embryo-destructive research oppose these practices for the same reason
we oppose postnatal homicide. Pro-life citizens of every faith oppose
these practices because they involve the deliberate killing of innocent
Our ground for supporting the legal prohibition of abortion and
embryo-destructive research is the same ground on which we support the
legal prohibition of infanticide, for example, or the principle of
noncombatant immunity even in justified wars. We subscribe to the
proposition that all human beings are equal in worth and dignity and
cannot be denied the right to protection against killing on the basis of
age, size, stage of development, or condition of dependency.
One cannot with moral integrity be "personally opposed" to abortion or
embryo-destructive research yet support the legal permission of these
practices and even, their public funding as so many Catholic politicians
do, including most Catholic Democrats and some Catholic Republicans in
the United States. For by supporting abortion and embryo-destructive
research they unavoidably implicate themselves in the grave injustice of
Of course, it is possible for a person wielding public power to use that
power to establish or preserve a legal right to abortion, for example,
while at the same time hoping that no one will exercise the right. But
this does not get such a person off the moral hook. For someone who acts
to protect legal abortion necessarily wills that abortion's unborn
victims be denied the elementary legal protections against deliberate
homicide that one favors for oneself and those whom one considers to be
worthy of the law's protection.
Thus one violates the most basic precept of normative social and
political theory, the Golden Rule. One divides humanity into two
classes: those whom one is willing to admit to the community of the
commonly protected and those whom one wills to be excluded from it.
By exposing members of the disfavored class to lethal violence, one
deeply implicates oneself in the injustice of killing them
even if one sincerely hopes that no woman will act on her right to
choose abortion. The goodness of what one hopes for does not redeem the
the grave injustice
of what one wills. To suppose otherwise is to commit yet another
If my analysis so far is correct, the question arises: What should the
leaders of the Church do about people like Cuomo and his successor as
New York's Governor, Republican George Pataki who evidently takes the
same position? What should they do about those who claim to be in full
communion with the Church yet promote gravely unjust and scandalous
policies that expose the unborn to the violence and injustice of
In the run up to the last election, St. Louis Archbishop Raymond Burke
offered an answer. He declared that public officials who support
abortion and other unjust attacks against innocent human life may not be
admitted to Holy Communion, the preeminent sacrament of unity.
Pro-life citizens of every religious persuasion applauded the
archbishop's stand. Critics, however, were quick to condemn Archbishop
Burke. They denounced him for "crossing the line" separating church and
But this is silly. In acting on his authority as a bishop to discipline
members of his flock, who commit what the Church teaches are grave
injustices against innocent human beings, Archbishop Burke is exercising
his own constitutional right to the free exercise of religion; he is not
depriving others of their rights.
Freedom is a two way street. No one is compelled by law to accept
ecclesiastical authority. But Archbishop Burke
and anyone else in the United States of America or other
has every right to exercise spiritual authority over anyone who chooses
to accept it. There is a name for people who do accept the authority of
Catholic bishops. They are called "Catholics."
In many cases, the charge that Archbishop Burke and other bishops who
adopt the policy of excluding pro-abortion politicians from Communion
"are crossing the line separating church and state" is also
hypocritical. A good example of this hypocrisy comes from the Bergen
Record, a prominent newspaper in my home state of New Jersey.
Bishop John Smith of Trenton did not go as far as Raymond Burke had gone
in forbidding pro-abortion Catholic politicians from receiving
communion. Bishop Smith did, however, in the words of the Bergen Record,
"publicly lash" Governor James McGreevey, a pro-abortion Catholic, for
his support of abortion and embryo-destructive research.
For criticizing the governor on these grounds, the Record lashed the
bishop in an April 25th editorial. The paper accused him of jeopardizing
the delicate "balance" of our constitutional structure, contrasting
Bishop Smith's position unfavorably with President John F. Kennedy's
assurance to a group of Protestant ministers in Houston in 1960 that he,
as a Catholic, would not govern the nation by appeal to his Catholic
Since the Record had seen fit to take us back to 1960 for guidance, I
thought I would invite its editors to consider a case that had arisen
only a few years earlier than that. In a letter to the editor, I
proposed a question that would enable readers to determine immediately
whether the editors of the Bergen Record were persons of strict
principle or mere hypocrites.
I reminded readers that in the 1950s, in the midst of the political
conflict over segregation, Archbishop Joseph Rummel of New Orleans
publicly informed Catholics that support for racial segregation was
incompatible with Catholic teaching on the inherent dignity and equal
rights of all human beings.
Archbishop Rummel said that "racial segregation is morally wrong and
sinful because it is a denial of the unity and solidarity of the human
race as conceived by God in the creation of Adam and Eve." He warned
Catholic public officials that support for segregation placed their
souls in peril. Indeed, Rummel took the step of publicly excommunicating
Leander Perez, one of the most powerful political bosses in Louisiana,
and two others who promoted legislation designed to impede desegregation
of diocesan schools.
So I asked the editors of the Bergen Record: Was Archbishop Rummel
wrong? Or do Catholic bishops "cross the line" and jeopardize the
delicate constitutional balance, only when their rebukes to politicians
contradict the views of the editors of the Record? To their credit, the
editors published my letter
but I am still waiting for them to reply to my question.
Now, some good and sincere people have expressed concern that Archbishop
Burke and bishops of similar mind are guilty of a double standard when
it comes to demanding of politicians fidelity to Catholic teaching on
justice and the common good.
They point out that the bishops who would deny communion to those who
publicly support abortion and embryo-destructive research do not take
the same stand against politicians who support the death penalty, which
Pope John Paul II condemned in all but the rarest of circumstances, and
the U.S. invasions of Iraq, of which the Pope and many other Vatican
officials were sharply critical.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church indeed teaches that the death
penalty should not be used, except in circumstances so rare these days
as to be, in words of the late Pope, "practically non-existent."
However, two points must be borne in mind in considering the obligations
of Catholics and the question whether Catholic politicians who support
the death penalty have in fact broken faith and communion with the
First, neither the Pope nor the Catechism places the death penalty on a
par with abortion and other forms of direct killing of the innocent.
(Indeed, the Church will probably never equate the death penalty with
these forms of homicide, even if it eventually issues a definitive
condemnation of the practice.)
Second, the status of the teaching differs from the status of the
teaching on abortion. As John Paul II made clear in the great encyclical
"Evangelium Vitae," the teaching on abortion (as well as on euthanasia
and all forms of direct killing of the innocent) is infallibly proposed
by the ordinary and universal magisterium of the Church pursuant to the
criteria of "Lumen Gentium," No. 25.
The same is plainly not true of the developing teaching on the death
penalty. Moreover, Cardinal Avery Dulles and others have interpreted the
teaching against the death penalty as essentially a prudential judgment
about its advisability, not a moral prohibition following from the
application of a strict principle.
As it happens, I don't agree with their analysis, but no one will be
able to say with confidence from a Catholic point of view which side in
this debate is right until the magisterium clarifies the teaching. So,
it cannot be said that supporters of the death penalty are "obstinately
persisting in manifest grave sin," and may or should be denied Holy
Communion pursuant to Canon 915 of the Code of Canon Law.
No one can legitimately claim for opposition to the death penalty the
status of a definitively settled moral teaching of the Church. (Nor can
one claim that the Church teaches or will ever teach that the death
except in cases where it is applied unjustly
involves the grave intrinsic injustice attaching to any act involving
the direct killing of the innocent.)
Regarding the question of the U.S. invasions of Iraq, it is important to
understand the precise terms of Catholic teaching on just and unjust
warfare. These terms are set forth with clarity and precision in the
In line with the Church's historic teaching on the subject, neither Pope
John Paul II nor Pope Benedict XVI has asserted that opposition to the
war is binding on the consciences of Catholics. John Paul II's
statements opposing the use of force in the run up to both invasions
plainly questioned the prudential judgments of political leaders who, in
the end, had and have the right and responsibility (according to the
Catechism and the entire tradition of Catholic teaching on war and
peace) to make judgments as to whether force is in fact necessary.
That is why the Pope and the bishops have not said, and will not say,
that Catholic soldiers may not participate in the war. This contrasts
with their clear teaching that Catholics may not participate in
abortions or other forms of embryo-killing or support the use of
taxpayer monies for activities involving the deliberate killing of
innocent human beings.
I wish to close with a word to those in politics and the media
Catholics and non-Catholics alike
who have expressed anger, even outrage, at the world's Catholic bishops
for teaching that the faithful must never implicate themselves in unjust
killing by supporting legal abortion and embryo-destructive research.
In scolding the bishops, the editors of the New York Times , for
example, have insisted that "separation of church and state" means that
no religious leader may presume to tell public officials what their
positions may and may not be on matters of public policy.
But if we shift the focus from abortion to, say, genocide, slavery, the
exploitation of labor, or racial segregation we see how implausible such
a view is. When Archbishop Rummel excommunicated the segregationist
politicians in the 1950s, far from condemning the archbishop, the
editors of the New York Times praised him.
They were right then; they are wrong now.