The Catholic University of America

(Left) Robert P. George, McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence, Princeton University; and Douglas W. Kmiec, Caruso Family Chair in Constitutional Law, Pepperdine University, squared off on May 28, 2009.

CUA-Sponsored Discussion at National Press Club
Draws Widespread Attention

An impressive mix of national, regional and religious media gathered on May 28 as two leading Catholic scholars sparred over the Obama Administration's record and future intentions on abortion, stem cell research and related issues.

Sponsored by Catholic University's Center for Law, Philosophy and Culture, the 90-minute exchange of views on, "The Obama Administration and the Sanctity of Human Life: Is There a Common Ground on Life Issues? What is the Right Response by Pro-Life Citizens?", was held at the venerable National Press Club in downtown Washington, D.C. It drew media coverage from the Washington Post, the New York Times, C-SPAN, which broadcast the discussion live, and Catholic media such as EWTN, America Magazine, and the National Catholic Reporter.

The discussants were Douglas W. Kmiec, a professor of constitutional law at Pepperdine University law school and former dean of The Catholic University of America's Columbus School of Law, and Robert P. George, constitutional law professor at Princeton University. The two men, both of whom have spoken and published extensively about the issues at the intersection of faith and public policy, went head-to-head about whether the Obama Administration's policies have any common ground with the pro-life movement. (See transcripts of Professor Kmiec's and Professsor George's opening remarks).

The talk's moderator, former Ambassador to the Vatican Mary Ann Glendon (above, middle) aptly summed up its tone by noting at the end that "it's a great achievement to reach real disagreement. Most of what passes for disagreement is simple confusion."

No confusion this time. Professors Kmiec and George made it clear that their disagreements were stark and fundamental.

Kmiec surprised people when he broke ranks with many Catholics by-as a Republican- endorsing Barack Obama for president and saying Catholics would not be violating the tenets of their faith by supporting him. He has consistently supported the president since then.

Noting that 54 percent of all Catholics voted for President Obama, Kmiec decried the efforts of certain Catholic bishops to oppose pro-choice Catholics. "It is neither an effective nor a Catholic approach," said Kmiec. "Nor should churches allow materials in their vestibule saying it is a sin of the highest order to cast a vote for Barack Obama."

Although the event was billed as an exploration of potential common ground between pro-life and pro-choice philosophies, Professor George forcefully argued that there is little terrain to share. In his view, the Obama Administration has shut off most meaningful dialogue by its unwavering refusal to regard the unborn fetus as a human being with any rights before birth. The president, he said, has staffed his administration with people who believe that "nothing is wrong with abortion because the child in the womb actually has no right not to be killed."

"[Obama's] views on the status and dignity and rights of the child in the womb are irreconcilable," he added.

L-R: Professor William Wagner, director of Catholic University's Center for Law, Philosophy and Culture; Veryl V. Miles, dean of the Columbus School of Law; Professor Robert George, Princeton University; Mary Ann Glendon, former U.S. Ambassador to the Vatican and Professor Doug Kmiec, Pepperdine University School of Law.

The two professors presented very different notions of how a Catholic voter and citizen might engage on one of the most controversial topics in American society. While they appeared unlikely to sway each other, Kmiec saw merit in having the debate anyway, especially in a forum as prominent as the National Press Club.

"Are we as Catholics expected to sit on the sidelines, aloof with the truth, talking to ourselves," he asked, "or are we to engage our fellow citizens and offer that faith? The 2008 election was very much a test of that."