Thomas Fleming: "Clueless Catholic"

Clueless Catholic
by Thomas Fleming
February 20th, 2009

A regular correspondent on our website sent me this priceless paragraph (from NRO) from that noted philosopher George Weigel, commenting on the Popeâ€s meeting with Nancy Pelosi, with the question: What does this mean?

He told Pelosi, politely but unmistakably, that her relentlessly pro-abortion politics put her in serious difficulties as a Catholic, which was his obligation as a pastor. He also underscored — for Pelosi, Joe Biden, Ted Kennedy, John Kerry, Barbara Mikulski, Rose DeLauro, Kathleen Sebelius, and everyone else — that the Churchâ€s opposition to the taking of innocent human life, at any stage of the human journey, is not some weird Catholic hocus-pocus; itâ€s a first principle of justice than can be known by reason. It is a “requirement of the natural moral law” — that is, the moral truths we can know by thinking about what is right and what is wrong — to defend the inviolability of innocent human life. You donâ€t have to believe in papal primacy to know that; you donâ€t have do believe in seven sacraments, or the episcopal structure of the Church, or the divinity of Christ, to know that. You donâ€t even have to believe in God to know that. You only have to be a morally serious human being, willing to work through a moral argument — which, of course, means being the kind of person who understands that moral truth cannot be reduced to questions of feminist political correctness or partisan political advantage.

The answer is: It means very little.  Mr. Weigel is one of many victims of modern Catholic education and the Neo-Thomist ideology that has more to do with Hegelian rationalism than with the traditional teachings of the Church.  Obviously, the pre-Christian world included large numbers of  morally serious  people who believed in god or gods but did not entirely condemn either abortion or infanticide.  The argument, then, that all seriously moral people would oppose abortion  cannot be true.  It is a little like saying anyone remotely interested in science would agree with Newton or Einstein.  Obviously, something happened to change the discourse: the Incarnation.  A self-described Catholic is supposed to know these things.

Now, there is an element of truth in the argument, which is that just as we do not wish to be killed unjustly, we should not kill unjustly.  But what if abortion is not unjust?  What if we regard it as, in some cases, a necessity or at least a preferable option?  After all, just because we do not wish to be executed does not mean that we necessarily oppose the death penalty.  We might even say that were we to commit a cold-blooded murder, we should deserve killing.  Thus, if we think life is not worth living without an IQ above 75 or without a reasonably healthy body or without loving parents, we might say that abortion in such cases is reasonable and just and might even, honestly or not, say that we would apply the same criteria to ourselves.

It is also true that most of the arguments used to defend abortion are irrational arguments from analogy, implying that an unborn child is an alien space monster implanted in the womb or merely the seed from which a tree might grow.  Like virtually everything said  by the Left,  the arguments are childish and irrational.  But the fact remains that natural reason did not teach the Greeks and Romans that it is wrong to kill an unborn or newborn child, though some thought abortion shameful.  There was no prohibition on abortion in Roman law, except where the father was not consulted.  In that case, she was guilty of depriving him and his ancestors of an heir.  This is, at least, a more wholesome approach than our current abortion law, though it rests not on reason but on family loyalty.

From the beginning Christian women did not kill their babies.  This is one of the things we can learn from the early Apostolic Fathers.  Christians did not practice either infanticide or sodomy.  For both prohibitions, there is ample justification in natural law, as that phrase  was understood by Aristotle, Cicero, and St. Thomas.  We were not made sexual beings to violate each others†anuses or to enjoy ourselves while disposing of the fruits of our coition.  Mothers, in this tradition, do not have a universal obligation to prevent abortion but a specific obligation not just not to kill their children but to nurture and cherish them.   This is not like some corollary deduced from a basic logic axiom: It is a specific duty that arises both from the nature that God created and from Godâ€s love for us.

The real question is not  whether abortion is consistent with reason but rather,whether  it is  right  to lie in a good cause.  That is, at best, what Weigel has done.    Many  pro-life arguments I have studied come down to well-intentioned lying, by which I understand not only a conscious and deliberate lie but the reckless disregard for truth engaged in by pseudo-intellectuals who pretend to learning and authority they do not possess.

The most basic error is to cover  Christian truth  with the tinsel trappings of Enlightenment universalism that makes everyone owe everyone else the same duties.   Thus, we hear sweeping claims, expressed in a Kantian idiom,  that it is everyoneâ€s duty to prevent a nonChristian female from killing her child, whether she lives in China or Peru.   Their arguments frequently rely on  misused or misunderstood Scriptural citations, which, if refuted, might unsettle the convictions of a poor Fundamentalist.   Among the worst are the utilitarian arguments that tell us we may be losing countless Beethovens and Shakespeares, to say nothing of millions of taxpayers who will pay my Social Security.  But what if if turns out that in economic terms, abortion is a net gain, in preventing the birth  of millions  of welfare-dependent blacks and Mexicans?   Would that make abortion a civic duty?  Live by bad arguments, die by bad arguments.  The cumulative effect of much of the professional pro-life ideology is to distort and deflect the question, away from the really important thing, which is how to convert nonbelievers,  who will then be far less likely to kill their babies, toward comparatively trivial legislative policies  and judicial agendas.

If everyone is rational enough to understand that abortion is wrong, why is it that so few defenders of the unborn are capable either of entering into a  rational discourse or studying history?

Catholics who call themselves  Neoconservatives  are truly “the kind of person” who reduce truth  to questions of  “political correctness and partisan political advantage.”   They have nothing to offer anyone except conservatives and Christians who wish to sell their birthright for a mess of pottage.  If the Holy Father really wishes to clean up the Augean stables of the American Church–as I sincerely believe he does–he might, after excommunicating Pelosi and Biden, move onto  the people who claim to speak for him in the USA but have  censored and misrepresented his predecessor and continue to defend the immoral war he has explicitly condemned.  If Mr. Weigel really believes that anyone can understand the Natural Law, why is he incapable of understanding either Just War theory or his duty of obedience to the Holy Father?
Thomas Fleming is the one who is clueless here.  Notice how he cunningly equates neo-Thomism with Enlightenment thought.  Weigel is right:  any morally serious human being knows that abortion is wrong.  Yes, that does mean that all those precious pagans whom Fleming mentions, the ones who believed abortion was okay, were not morally serious.  St. Paul did not think that they were morally serious.  He said that they had turned to sodomy because they had substituted the creature for the creator.  That dimmed their minds.  Even the best pagan thinkers were in the dark.  Fleming is right to say that the Incarnation changed the world, but it changed the world by permitting people to be morally serious again. 

Study Fleming's writings, and you will find that he routinely says that the ancient pre-Incarnation pagans were better than "we" are.  This strong preference for dead white idolaters helps explain why he does not see that they were *morally* defective in their understanding of abortion and infanticide.  Weigel's statement to the effect that all right-thinking people condemn abortion is correct.  It is Fleming who is wrong in his assumption that we can designate as "morally serious" the pre-Incarnation pagans who accepted abortion and infanticide.  Those pre-Christian folks who were morally serious rejected the infanticide and abortion that their contemporaries allowed.  We really do have to condemn the pre-Christian centuries as ones of moral and spiritual darkness.
Additionally, Dr. Fleming is hardly the person to be accusing others of misunderstanding the natural law.  He strongly objected to people who tried to save Terri Schiavo's life.  He thought that they were mistaken.  If I recall correctly, he did not believe that her murder was a murder, or at least he did not think that the state should have intervened to save her.
I don't know anything about this Thomas Fleming, but I thought he made excellent points in this article.
I ask folks to read Weigel's comments and ignore the fact that Weigel wrote them.  Are the statements true or not?  Then analyze Fleming's article, paying special attention to the facts that he 1.) refers to a "neo-Thomist ideology" that he says partakes of Hegelianism, and 2.) he claims that morally serious people (before the Incarnation, I assume he means) could disagree on whether abortion is immoral.
A lot would depend on what Fleming considers morally serious. If we include all those who have made statements on morality, or those who wrote laws permitting  abortion, then, yes, there is disagreement, just as there is disagreement about all topics of natural law. So who do we define as morally serious in the ancient world?
In an aside, the arguments for future great things to be accomplished by the child is not very sophisticated without question, but it is the kind of argument that would make an average woman change her mind, whereas an argument of the philosophy behind our position would be useless.

I think the problem is less the "morally serious" part, which I mentioned above.  Rather, it is his conclusion that natural reason did not lead the Romans to reject abortion.  Natural reason cannot lead those who do not follow it.  The Romans followed natural reason only partially.  Otherwise, their minds would not have been clouded by sin and superstition.  Fleming is right that the Incarnation changed things, but it changed things (among other changes) by providing the grace necessary to follow the natural law.  As the pagans as a whole, including their geniuses, simply were not following the natural law, we cannot conclude from their example that Weigel's statement is false. 

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