Notre Madame et le President
There Was No Moral Common Ground
Well, the long-awaited commencement chez Notre Madame is past, God be thanked, with the father of the college and the father of our country fairly falling into one another’s arms in an ecstasy of mutual admiration and relief. I’ll leave it to the right people to express their feelings of betrayal—I mean the Catholics who have spent many years praying in front of abortuaries, passing out literature on abortion to their students in Catholic schools, donating time and goods and money to homes for unwed mothers, and fighting the patient and frustrating political fight one fence-sitting politician at a time.
Instead, I’d like to focus on the moral aphasia of our times. I don’t know how else to describe what President Obama said, and how it was received by faculty and students at the commencement on May 17—people who one presumes have had at least a passing acquaintance with moral philosophy. The President said—by way of holding forth what he believes is a compromise between his position and that of every Christian group before the last misbegotten century—that we should all work together to reduce the number of “unwanted pregnancies.”
And with a single phrase he showed, to anyone there who was paying attention, that there is no compromise possible between his position and the ancient Christian teaching.
Let us suppose I have a fancy revolver with twenty chambers. Suppose that we put one bullet in the revolver, in one of the chambers. Suppose also that I and my pal enjoy the frisson of terror and risk that rushes up our spines when we spin the chambers and hold the revolver to the other fellow’s head and pull the trigger. Of course, I do not want to kill my friend, and he does not want to kill me. But we are both willing to incur the risk of death to have that spasm of glee and fright.
Now, it won’t do to compare our actions to those of, say, a bridge-painter, who knows when he climbs up his ladder that there is a measurable chance that he will fall to his death (it is, I’m told, one of the most dangerous jobs in the country, and therefore fabulously well remunerated). That is because the purpose of a ladder is that it be climbed, not that it be fallen from, whereas the very purpose of a gun is to shoot a bullet.
Suppose that my friend and I play this game of American Roulette once a year, on one of our birthdays. Now suppose that my friend’s number comes up, and I shoot him through the head. By law, and by the moral philosophy that undergirds the law, I do not get to plead that I did not intend his death. Perhaps I did not want him to die, but I certainly did intend the chance that he would die: I intentionally used a weapon against him, a weapon whose purpose it is to kill, and I used it in a way that would ensure his death, if the right chamber came up. It would be up to judge and jury to assess the correct punishment in my case, but as a matter of fact, I am a murderer.
Except in the case of rape, there are no “unintended pregnancies,” none. There are plenty of women who do not want to be pregnant, and plenty of men who do not want them to be pregnant, but in all those cases the pregnancies are the results of intentional actions that have pregnancy as their perfectly natural and perfectly predictable consequence.
Contraception does not change the nature of the act itself; indeed, it makes the actors more keenly aware that they are doing what makes babies, since otherwise they would not go so far out of their way (donning or inserting into the body uncomfortable devices, or flooding the system with pregnancy-mimicking hormones) to thwart the body’s natural functions. The “problem” in the case of Sexual Roulette is not that the body fails, but that it succeeds.
So the pregnancies are the result of intention. The problem is that the children are not wanted, and that is a very different thing. For the question we should immediately ask is not, “How do we dispose of this child we do not want?” but “What is wrong with us that we do not want this child?” The abominable Peter Singer has said that, given the choice in a fire to save a kennel full of beloved dogs, a clinic full of newborns, and an orphanage full of unwanted children, he would save the dogs. What a disgusting display of self-justification on the part of whoremaster man. He sins first by not wanting those who need his love, and then justifies disposing of them by saying that, well, he does not want them.
He never asks why not; he takes his egocentric desires, or in this case his egocentric callousness, as normative. So it is that President Obama stands on the wrong side of an unbridgeable chasm, separating those who believe that good and evil are independent of what we happen to want at the moment, and those who believe that our wanting determines what is “good for us.” It is the very principle of the Culture of Death that the “value” of human life depends upon the valuers, and not upon the God-given nature of the human being in question.
What compromise with that principle is possible? “Human life is sacred,” say the Christians, and “Human life in the womb is to be valued according to the price list provided by the pregnant woman,” says the President. There is no middle position between these principles, exactly as there is no middle god between the God of Israel and Baal or Moloch. Though perhaps I am being unfair to the old Moloch-worshipers. They at least did not sacrifice their children for the sake of mere convenience.
What we need, of course, is not to reduce “unintended pregnancies,” but to grant children what we owe them, which is, at the minimum, a married mother and father. We want, in other words, to reduce unwed motherhood, not by killing the children, but by persuading people to get married before they start acting as if they were married.
But that is quite impossible if one accepts the tenets of Sexual Roulette—a thrill for everyone, and everyone for a thrill. And President Obama cannot reject the sexual spin-the-revolver of our times without leaving his party, which is committed to it, lock, stock, and barrel.
And that brings me to the callous, self-serving, and hypocritical plea that each side stop “demonizing” the other. Again, what kind of moral philosophy is this? Courtesy in a debate implies nothing about who is right and who is wrong. Worse, what looks like courtesy is sometimes only moral tepidity; and a plea for courtesy is sometimes just an a priori denial of the rights of one side to plead its case most truly and forcefully.
Should the West in the time of Hitler have treated the madman with more courtesy? Was it not at fault for failing to show him, as soon as possible and as forcefully as possible, for the demon he was? And does this plea not ring hollow, anyway, from someone who has supported using racketeering laws against abortion protesters, and whose allies are attempting to compel their opponents to provide abortion services against the dictates of their conscience?
Sometimes the rational thing to do is to recognize that one’s opponent has denied the very foundations of moral reasoning. At that point, to continue to debate is like arguing with a drunk. But the chief procurer at Notre Madame apparently likes to keep the champagne flowing.
— Anthony Esolen, for the editors
Anthony Esolen is Professor of English at Providence College in Providence, Rhode Island, and the author of The Ironies of Faith (ISI Books), The Politically Incorrect Guide to Western Civilization (Regnery), and Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child (ISI Books). He has also translated Tasso's Gerusalemme liberata (Johns Hopkins Press) and Dante's The Divine Comedy (Random House). He is a senior editor of Touchstone.
Letters Welcome: One of the reasons Touchstone exists is to encourage conversation among Christians, so we welcome letters responding to articles or raising matters of interest to our readers. However, because the space is limited, please keep your letters under 400 words. All letters may be edited for space and clarity when necessary. firstname.lastname@example.org
“Notre Madame et le President” first appeared in the July/August 2009 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
An introductory subscription (six copies for one year) is only $29.95. This issue, as well as other issues, can be purchased at our online store. Read issues in digital format at the Touchstone digital archives! You can also subscribe to Touchstone at amazon.com to read on your Kindle.