George of the Neocon Jungle -- Part 1
Frank Cocozzelli printable version print page     Bookmark and Share
Sat Nov 03, 2007 at 09:53:45 AM EST
The Catholic Right, Forty-four in a Series

No discussion of the Catholic Right would be complete without a discussion of Robert P. George -- the Princeton University professor of law who wants to substitute his notions of Catholic natural law for national policy.

As the philosophical mouthpiece for the Catholic Right battalion, he is a busy man.  His lofty academic credentials lend an air of authoritativeness to many a theocratic, neoconservative policy position. He has a law degree as well as a Master of Theological Studies from Harvard, and has studied at Oxford. These lofty credentials are helpful when arguing against marriage equality, embryonic stem cell research, justifying the war in Iraq on religious grounds, and opposing women's reproductive rights.

But his academic pedigree not withstanding, Robert P. George is never above demagoguery or dissembling. These are skills that undoubtedly bring extra value to his roles in several neoconservative-oriented Religious Right think tanks, including The Ethics Public Policy Center, The Witherspoon Institute, as well as The Institute on Religion and Public Life .

Most recently he assumed the chair of the board of new National Organization for Marriage.  It is small wonder that he was appointed by George W. Bush to serve on the The President's Council on Bioethics, which advises the Chief Executive on biotechnical issues, including matters concerning embryonic stem cell research.

It was in my stem cell advocacy work that I first encountered George's writings. I was not only struck by his rigidly neo-orthodox agenda as much as by the way he fudged facts. For example, in an article entitled, The First Fourteen Days of Life, George (along with co-author Patrick Lee) makes this claim:

More recently, William Neaves, president of the Stowers Institute for Medical Research in Kansas City, has similarly claimed in public hearings that the embryo does not become a human being until implantation. According to Neaves, not until the embryo receives external, maternal signals at implantation is it able to establish the basic body plan of the human, and only then does it become a self-directing human organism. According to Neaves, these signaling factors somehow transform what was hitherto a mere bundle of cells into a unitary organism.

In reply to Hatch, Neaves, and others who make this argument, the first point to notice is that the standard embryology texts locate the beginning of the human individual at fertilization, not at implantation. See, for example, William J. Larsen, Human Embryology, 3rd ed. (2001); Keith Moore and T.V.N. Persaud, The Developing Human, Clinically Oriented Embryology, 7th ed. (2003); and Ronan O'Rahilly and Fabiola Mueller, Human Embryology and Teratology, 3rd ed. (2000). Most people who point to implantation as the beginning of an individual human life-Senator Hatch is a prime example-offer not the slightest bit of evidence to support their claim, relying instead on an alleged intuition. But since such intuitions can be matched by contrary intuitions, and since the alleged intuitions of Hatch and others contradict the evidence supplied by embryological science, they have no evidential weight whatsoever.

What George is claiming is that there is a scientific consensus that a human individual exists from the moment of conception.  When I questioned the noted University of Pennsylvania Emanuel & Robert Hart Professor of Bioethics Chair, Department of Medical Ethics and Director of its Center for Bioethics Arthur Caplan about the validity of this claim, he responded, "there is no [such] consensus at all."

While some form of cellular "life" exists at the moment of conception, it is clearly not on par with being a natural born person. George's statement ignores the fact that often one embryo will split into multiple embryos or two embryos will merge to form a single embryo. If that is the case, then how can George claim that a human individual exists from conception? As Arthur Caplan further explains:

While it is true that there is a seamless flow of development from embryo to adult those who would treat human embryos as human beings ignore some key biological facts.  While it is true that all human beings begin as embryos, it is not at all true that all human embryos can become human beings.  Many human embryos fail to implant in the womb after sex due to genetic errors and chromosomal mistakes.  They do not have the capability of developing into anything.  Similarly many implanted embryos miscarry and spontaneously abort.  It would take a very generous conceptual taxonomy to equate a 32 cell misprogrammed human embryo that fails to implant in a woman's body with George W Bush as moral and legal equals.

What Robert George has essentially done is to substitute his religious beliefs for actual scientific consensus; an academic version of the ends justifying the means.

George has also exhibited a factious streak. For example, writing on the subject of abortion and the US Supreme Court in the November, 1996 edition of Richard John Neuhaus's periodical First Things he stated the following in an article entitled The Tyrant State:

In upholding the abortion license in the Casey decision, a plurality opinion of Justices Souter, O'Connor, and Kennedy called upon pro-life Americans to stop their resistance to legalized abortion and accept "a common mandate rooted in the Constitution." For reasons the Pope makes clear, this is a proposition that Catholics and other pro- life Americans cannot accept. The doctrine of the necessary conformity of civil law to moral truth imposes on conscientious citizens of a regime that authorizes the killing of the unborn and infirm a clear obligation of resistance. It is not merely that the claim of these justices to have found a pro-abortion "mandate" in the Constitution is manifestly ludicrous. The value of constitutional democracy lies ultimately in its capacity to serve and secure the common good, which demands, above all, the protection of fundamental human rights. If the Constitution really did abandon the vulnerable to private acts of lethal violence, and, indeed, positively disempowered citizens from working through the democratic process to correct these injustices, then it would utterly lack the capacity to bind the consciences of citizens. Our duty would not be to "accept a common mandate," but to resist.

And then he dropped this bombshell:

Has the regime of American democracy forfeited its legitimacy? One way of avoiding an affirmative answer to this question is to observe that the judicial decisions at issue are gross misinterpretations of the Constitution.

And finally;

Let us, therefore, speak plainly: The courts, sometimes abetted by, and almost always acquiesced in, federal and state executives and legislators, have imposed upon the nation immoral policies that pro-life Americans cannot, in conscience, accept. Since the legitimacy of institutions of governance-be they democratic or otherwise-depends ultimately on their capacity and willingness to preserve and promote the common good by, above all, protecting fundamental human rights, the failure of the institutions of American democracy to fulfill their responsibilities has created what is truly a crisis. People of good will-of whatever religious faith-who are prepared to consider seriously the Pope's teaching in Evangelium Vitae cannot now avoid asking themselves, soberly and unblinkingly, whether our regime is becoming the democratic "tyrant state" about which he warns.

What is most striking about Robert George's approach to constitutional law is his referencing of "the Pope's teaching" or in making his trump argument: "for reasons the Pope makes clear."

For Robert P. George liberty is evidently a proposition that falls narrowly within a neo-orthodox notion of   "doing what one ought to do" -- as distinct from the foundational American constitutional tradition of freedom of conscience. With this in mind, next week, we will consider George's latest demagoguery concerning gay marriage, and then consider the type of society we will inhabit if he and his allies got their way.

The Catholic Right: A Series, by Frank L. Cocozzelli :
Part One  Part Two  Part Three  Part Four  Part Five  Part Six   Intermezzo   Part Eight   Part Nine  Part Ten   Part Eleven   Part Twelve   Part Thirteen   Part Fourteen   Second Intermezzo   Part Sixteen   Part Seventeen   Part Eighteen   Part Eighteen   Part Nineteen   Part Twenty   Part Twenty-one   Part Twenty-two   Part Twenty-three   Part Twenty-four   Part Twenty-five   Part Twenty-six   Part Twenty-seven   Part Twenty-eight   Part Twenty-nine   Part Thirty   Part Thirty-one   Part Thirty-two   Part Thirty-three   Part Thirty-four   Part Thirty-five   Part Thirty-six   Part Thirty-seven   Part Thirty-eight   Part Thirty-nine   Part Forty   Part Forty-one   Part Forty-two   Part Forty-three

Robert P. George is yet another neo-orthodox character who believes in protecting unimplanted embryos and four week old fetuses at virtually all costs, but once the kid is born, he's is on his own. But, he has no problem shipping them off when the get a bit older to die in unnecessary and poorly chosen wars such as Iraq.  Even worse, he denigrates Catholicism by twisting its belief to justify this mistake.

by Frank Cocozzelli on Sat Nov 03, 2007 at 09:56:50 AM EST
Excellent as always. In the words of St. Matthew's gospel, Robert George strains at a gnat, and swallows a camel.


by khughes1963 on Sat Nov 03, 2007 at 12:36:16 PM EST

As always, Thank you Karen.

In a 1994 article in First Things entitled, Killing Abortionists: A Symposium, George tried his hand at satire with rather disastrous results. His stab at dark humor turned out rather demented. But then again, so was the fact that Neuhaus would present such an exercise and then label it "a symposium."

It's just par for the course for these self-styled, ivory-towered jokesters.

by Frank Cocozzelli on Sat Nov 03, 2007 at 01:43:00 PM EST

where I can read a good explanation of just what natural law is supposed to be? For the life of me, I have never been able to distinguish it from that which well-fed, conservative clergy and laity are inclined to agree with.

by nogodsnomasters on Sat Nov 03, 2007 at 02:28:55 PM EST
For a pretty decent overview, start here. A truly good book I've read is Aristotle's Children.

From there I would recommend proceeding to Aristotle, Maimonides, Aquinas, Richard Hooker and then John Locke; touch on all their main works.

As you're well aware by now, there is no single school of what constitutes "natural law." The more strident members of the hierarchy of my faith (as well as their allies such as Weigel, Neuhaus and of course, Robert P. George) obfuscate by using the term as if the Catholic notion of natural law is the only one that exists. The Founders view of natural law did not come directly from St. Thomas Aquinas, but through a reconsideration by Richard Hooker.

This is the very kind of comment I truly like to see. For me, it means that a vital goal of this series--and whatever else I write about--is being accomplished; getting the readers to begin educating themselves. You made my day.

by Frank Cocozzelli on Sat Nov 03, 2007 at 03:44:53 PM EST

I knew I could rely on you.

by nogodsnomasters on Sat Nov 03, 2007 at 04:25:32 PM EST
I have no idea why I called you Don!

by Frank Cocozzelli on Sat Nov 03, 2007 at 05:10:08 PM EST
But thank you for all the great information. I think of you as an extremely important resource.

by nogodsnomasters on Sat Nov 03, 2007 at 06:48:56 PM EST

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