Neoconservatism, the Catholic Church And Stem Cells
Frank Cocozzelli printable version print page     Bookmark and Share
Sun Oct 15, 2006 at 03:16:51 PM EST
I will take a break from my ongoing reports on Tom Monaghan and his efforts to transform pluralist American society into one based upon ultra-orthodox Catholic notions of morality. Next week's installment will take a closer look at some of the Pizza-man's political contributions. But for this one week I will focus upon the issue of Stem Cell Research, by reviewing the current book by Eve Herold, Stem Cell Wars (in which my personal story is discussed). the Catholic Church (to which I belong) and the growing alliance among those on the Catholic Right with neoconservatives.
As I have written before embryonic stem cell research ("hESC") is compatible to Christian thought. Objective opinion poll after opinion poll indicates that a clear majority of Americans want this research to go forward with federal funding and federal oversight. As a person afflicted with muscular dystrophy, this is research that could conceivably help me walk again. My neurologist recently told me that while science is now closing in on curing the defect that causes my muscle atrophy via gene therapy, if I am to rebuild enough muscle mass to be ambulatory, stem cell research seems to be my best hope.

Over the past few weeks two significant events concerning the research have occurred; the first being required reading for those who want to understand the stem cell debate.  Coming on the heels of President Bush's veto of the bi-partisan supported HR810 (this legislation would have significantly increased the number of available hESC lines available for research), a book for which I was profiled was released, Stem Cell Wars.  The book lays bare much of the Religious Right's dissembling on this important issue.

Eve Herold's Stem Cell Wars
And this brings us to the book Stem Cell Wars.

I wish to disclose out the outset that I know the author as well as Bernard Siegel of the Genetics Policy Institute.  Both Mr. Siegel and I have appeared at several events in support of expanded embryonic stem cell research.

With that said, Eve Herold's book is a concise work that explains much of fight over the research. It is an excellent primer for anyone who wants to cut through the obfuscation that surrounds this important national debate. And while it does so from a pro-hESC point of view, it accomplishes the task in honest fashion. For example, it explains the hope and disappointment of South Korean researcher Woo Suk Hwang who dishonestly claimed to have succeeded to have cloned a human embryo.

More importantly, the author methodically takes apart the unsubstantiated arguments and exaggerated claims of many opponents of hESC research who constantly claim that adult stem cell research renders hESC research unnecessary. In the chapter entitled "Hijacked by the Politics of Abortion," Ms. Herold details how the Religious Right is digging in its heels to stop the research as means to not only curtail a woman's right to abortion, but to contraception.

The author points out how the opposition, which so often resorts to the "slippery slope" argument, is intent on passing legislation that would give an embryo the same rights as a natural born person. The often overlooked implications would be severe. Any woman using an IUD device could then be charged with murder. A very chilling thought, indeed.

The only significant criticism is that Ms. Herold has not taken her analysis of the research foes far enough. She understandably miscasts many of the research opponents as "conservatives." In fact there are many conservatives, mostly of a libertarian bent such as Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger (R-Ca.) and Rep. Mike Castle (R-De.) who strongly support the federal funding of hESC research. There are even religious conservatives such as US Senator Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) and former US Senator John Danforth (R-Mo.) who take the same supportive stance. The heart of the Right's opposition lies primarily (although not totally) within the neoconservative movement.

Neoconservatism's strategy is to harness ultra-orthodox religious "myths" (Strauss' term, not ours) so as to incorporate its most authoritarian characteristics into the doctrine of America's mainstream denominations.

Originally inspired by the teachings of philosopher Leo Strauss, then further developed by neoconservative godfather Irving Kristol and is now being carried to fruition by his son William Kristol. The plan is a simple and straightforward: always be on the offensive by condemning dissenters of good will, inveigh against sound science and most importantly, preach a generic but wrathful orthodoxy that is exclusionary to the point of bitterness. It is a conscious attempt to impose a new American morality by using the power of certain corporate wealth to control the social policies of mainstream Christian denominations while essentially neutralizing the more progressive, but ancient teachings of Judaism. Their goal is a theocracy of sorts, based upon a conglomeration of traditionalist, but always wrathful Christian orthodoxies channeled to serve both a foreign policy based upon American hegemony as well as a lassiez-faire economic climate.

Many neoconservatives begin with the premise that that Founding Fathers erred by inserting the Establishment Clause into the Bill of Rights. Irving Kristol is in the forefront of this Strauss inspired argument. Like Strauss, Kristol believes that a strict, orthodox religion is vital to national cohesion. Not only is the "myth" of religious belief necessary to maintain societal order, but the "myth" to be imposed must be one that calls for a vengeful, furious deity that inspires fear into the governed.

But the greater issue here is Modernity. Both Straussian-neoconservatives as well as ultra-orthodox Catholics rail against it. Their common opposition to hESC research is classic manifestation of such a belief. Value Pluralism is not acceptable, only submission by all to one selective version of "the truth." Embryonic stem cell research clearly interferes with this scenario because it begins to demystify science and in their eyes, removes the virtue of human heroism (something Eric Cohen has elaborated upon in his writings).(i)  

And thus Eve Herold's very forgivable shortcoming ties into the second significant event concerning the battle over hESC research.

On October 7, 2006 when the Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn held "a convening" on stem cell research at St. John's University's Queens, New York campus. As a advocate of hESC research for the last five years, this event came as no surprise since the current bishop for the area, Nicholas DiMarzio is a member of Opus Dei. The lay group's members and  cooperators such as US Senators Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) and Sam Brownback (R-Ks.)are among the research's most outspoken opponents.

The Event
During the first half of the session Catholic anti-hESC research speakers made their presentation. They provided the standard talking points, saying it won't work; that adult stem cells renders hESC research unnecessary; and that hESC is not being about curing disease, but making money for patent holders. During the Q&A period I pointed out that there is nothing in the Gospels that would indicate that Jewish Jesus would oppose this research. Furthermore, there is a high presumption that quite the opposite, He would not opose it. And His constant healing of the sick and disabled was in accordance with the halakic notion of Pikuach nefesh I also pointed out that under Jewish Law the embryo has a status of the equivalent of water for the first 40 days. None of the morning speakers were able to give an effective answer to this argument. Instead, one speaker made the mandatory Dr. Mengele mischaracterization, deliberately miscasting of the research as taking organs and body parts from natural-born human beings.

Still, I do give these people some credit. They did not censor me and let me say my piece based upon religious belief. And unlike neoconservative opponents of hESC research, I believe their motives come from a purely religious interpretation. For that I respect them.

After lunch Eric Cohen gave his presentation.

A fellow at Ethics and Public Policy Center a far-Right "Astroturf" think tank. Its funders are a "who's who" of Radical Right foundations.  As Right Web reports about EPPC, "It has been on the cutting edge of the neoconservative-driven culture war against liberalism and the associated effort to ensure right-wing control of the Republican Party."  Cohen, like others at EPPC is a he is a Leo Strauss-style neoconservative. He has written numerous articles on bio-ethics with loaded titles such as "How Liberalism Failed Terri Schiavo."

EPPC describes its mission as:

"...dedicated to applying the Judeo-Christian moral tradition to critical issues of public policy. From the Cold War to the war on terrorism, from disputes over the role of religion in public life to battles over the nature of the family, EPPC and its scholars have consistently sought to defend the great Western ethical imperatives -- respect for the inherent dignity of the human person, individual freedom and responsibility, justice, the rule of law, and limited government."

For the record, many members of EPPC's board of directors are, by no coincidence, deeply involved with the infamous Institute on Religion and Democracy. As Andrew Weaver succinctly reported, the IRD is a hotbed of neoconservative Catholics, sometimes called "Theocons."

Mr. Cohen started by immediately attacking my observations on Judaism's support for hESC research. While he admitted that Judaism and other religions supported the research he basically stroked the audience. The example he tried to use against me was that he couldn't see Jacob upon his death asking God to clone him to give him a few more years. He also responded to my description of Judaism as seeing the embryo as being the moral equivalent of water by saying what is the difference between a 40 and a 41-day embryo.

I later replied that the 41 day response was irrelevant because the cells are to be extract no later than 14 days and before the appearance of the primitive streak. On this point we chose to disagree. But he was forced to concede that he mischaracterized the death of Jacob. I pointed out that while the Jewish Prophet had already led a long life, while most patients advocating hESC research do not want to live forever, but simply to live a better quality of life over a normal life span.

Then Mr. Cohen did something rather interesting. While opposing the research, he told the audience that while he opposed hESC research, it would wrong to claim that no cures will come from it. In fact, he expects medical breakthroughs to result if hESC were fully pursued. But he then said his objection was using embryos as the basis for all future medical research--something that according to the researchers I've spoken to is a significant mischaracterization (it leaves out significant contributions yet to be made by gene therapy and pharmaceutical research). He also gave six possible alternatives to legislation such as HR810 expanding hESC lines, one of which, cell fusion, would--if proven--involve using some of the lines approved by Bush--that didn't go over too well. In essence, while agreeing with the Church's opposition, he undercut much of their argument.

Mr. Cohen did get edgy when I "esoterically" commented about the Straussian nature of his thinking. In rebuttal, I stated "My concern is not that you arrive at your conclusions either by Rome or Jerusalem, but by ancient Athens."(ii)  Even more telling of Mr. Cohen's neoconservative agenda was his response when one audience member asked if he believed embryos have souls. After some initial hesitation and looking a bit uncomfortable, he replied that he did not know.

The Unhealthy Alliance
What I personally found sad is that this event took place in the diocese where one of the most progressive and tolerant Catholic bishops ever, Francis J. Mugavero, once stood as Sheppard. But what was more troublesome about the October 7, 2006 event was that an openly Opus Dei Bishop was willing to embrace a neoconservative as a featured speaker.

Eric Cohen is a neoconservative who supported President Bush's invasion of Iraq--a military action strongly opposed by then-Pope John Paul II. Mr. Cohen sees nothing hypocritical about sending natural born Americans to die in an ill-chosen battle in what is supposed to be a war on terrorism, but finds revulsion in using spare embryos destined for destruction to be used to heal the sick and disabled. Straussian neoconservatives constantly celebrate in their writings the virtue in war, as if peace were sinful. And while an Opus Dei Cardinal once floated the idea of excommunicating politicians who support hESC research, he and others affiliated with "the Work" are curiously silent about Catholic politicians such as Senator Rick Santorum who do the bidding of tobacco merchants and enabled a war the Vatican opposed.

The neoconservatives are the very "nefarious friends" of the Church who ultimately contribute to apostasy. Wilfred Parsons, SJ warned against making such alliances in 1936. Their ill-intentions are not designed to steel the Church as a vehicle for peace and dignity, but for ivory-towered elitism and plutocracy that will wield Magisterium as a club to stiffle secular as well as religious dissent.

(i)  To this end, Cohen has written that is noble for a parent to let his small child die of a disease than to have the child be cured by a treatment derived from embryonic research.
(ii)  Straussians are said to have their own "code words" to communicate with each other. One of Leo Strauss's beliefs was that the great ancient works had both an esoteric message that could be understood by "philosopher-kings" and exoteric meanings designed to keep order among the masses. In fact many neoconservatives are "closet" atheists who would impose an orthodox-tinged society upon other atheists who do not want a society that would be hostile to their beliefs.

The common theme I see running through both neoconservatives and ultra-traditionalists Catholics, (especially within Opus Dei) is a basic distrust of humanity. Unlike the common American belief in the individual, they seem to believe that faith can only be autocratic and not freley chosen. To that end, they seek to expel the spiritual in place of the hierarchical. For many neoconservatives, religion is just a tool for societal order.

by Frank Cocozzelli on Sun Oct 15, 2006 at 03:31:16 PM EST

Thanks again. The distrust of humanity ties in with the book I just read on Pope Benedict XVI, David Gibson's The Rule of Benedict. The present Pope shares this distrust of humanity. I fear where it might lead.

by khughes1963 on Sun Oct 15, 2006 at 11:00:29 PM EST
Karen, as always, thank you.

Where as Pope John XXIII and to a great extent, Pope Paul VI were were advocates of Aggiornomento, which essentially means "letting in the daylight, Ratzinger and perhaps Weigel and company--if in fact they accept any part of Vatican II are of the Resourcement school, which calls for a rediscovery of tradition.

Pope John XXIII seems to have wanted a balance of both, with a tilt towards Aggiornomento. The current crowd either wants to use Vatican II as a pretext to go totally Resourcement, which is nothing more than an undoing of John XXIII's vision, who instead of standing upon principles of infallibility, saw the Church as a people on a pilgrimage, constantly trying to better understand the meanings of the Gospels--even if the new knowledge challenges some traditions.

Good man, great pope.

by Frank Cocozzelli on Tue Oct 17, 2006 at 07:47:09 PM EST

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