WASHINGTON-The scuffle among Catholics over President Obama's appearance at Notre Dame University's commencement continued Thursday evening when two sides of the interchurch debate sat down to air their arguments.
Robby George, who sees Obama's abortion policies as egregious, is a legal scholar at Princeton University. Doug Kmiec, who is pro-life but continues his vocal support of the president, is a legal scholar at Pepperdine University and served as legal counsel to President Reagan. Both are Catholic, and so the debate began in a room at the National Press Club filled with nuns, priests, and Catholics from across the country-though the moderator tried to tame expectations by framing it as a "discussion" to find "common ground."
Kmiec said he has been on a "journey . . . motivated by the quality of our president to actually seek common ground." Last year, when Kmiec announced his support for Obama, one priest denied him Mass-but he has risen to defend not just candidate Obama but President Obama in op-eds and most recently in a book titled Can a Catholic Support Him? (His answer was yes.)
"Are we as Catholics expected to sit on the sidelines, aloof with our truth, talking among ourselves, reinforcing our goodness," he said, "Or are we to engage?" Kmiec advocates trying to find compromises politically on abortion.
"Our goal must be at every turn to frustrate the administration's efforts," countered George, referring to abortion policies.
"The issue cannot be fudged," said George, but added he would like to begin the conversation if the administration would ban late-term abortions as well as sex-selective abortions. "I would just like them to do anything that would give some indication that they're open," he said.
Obama, George said, is creating two classes of people-those who have worth and embryos who don't-in supporting abortion. Kmiec, however, pointed out that science couldn't provide a legal definition of personhood-obliging a pluralistic country to seek common ground on the issue. "We have to recognize that there are people not of our faith that see that embryo as in fact a gift of science," he said, adding, "I'm not saying this is my position."
"Our dispute is about the principles of worth and justice," said George, not science.
The administration's new ethics guidelines for embryonic stem cell research, put out by the National Institutes of Health, specify that only embryos marked to be discarded in infertility clinics can be used, and that no embryos may be created or destroyed for research-a step that Kmiec says shows Obama is "listening." The president had signed an executive order in March removing President Bush's limits on embryonic stem cell research.
The key, Kmiec said, is that politicians like Obama don't have the "intent to advance the moral evil of abortion." In fact, he pointed out that the annual number of abortions coincides with the state of the economy-more abortions if it's bad-and implied that President Bush's policies could be partly responsible for higher instances of abortion. Afterwards he said to me, "What did he give us? Overturning Roe gets us nowhere."
In his address at Notre Dame, Obama acknowledged that the pro-life and pro-choice camps are at some level "irreconcilable"-and even two pro-life Catholics found little common ground Thursday. "We owe a great debt to both of our speakers tonight for achieving real disagreement," concluded moderator Mary Ann Glendon.