Mirror of Justice

A blog dedicated to the development of Catholic legal theory.
Affiliated with the Program on Church, State & Society at Notre Dame Law School.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Taking the President at His Word

A week ago at Notre Dame, President Obama indicated his willingness to “honor the conscience of those who disagree with abortion, and draft a sensible conscience clause.”  Given his actions to date, some, like Wesley Smith, are inclined to view Obama’s words with a jaundiced eye.  As Smith notes, the Obama administration has not worked to revise the Bush administration’s rules on conscience protection for those who object to abortion on moral grounds, but to revoke them.



Still, Francis Cardinal George, Archbishop of Chicago and President of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, is more welcoming of the President’s remarks.  In response to President Obama’s comments concerning conscience protection at Notre Dame, Cardinal George made the following statement:


“I am grateful for President Obama’s statement on May 17 that we should all ‘honor the conscience of those who disagree with abortion,’ and his support for conscience clauses advancing this goal.


            “Since 1973, federal laws protecting the conscience rights of health care providers have been an important part of our American civil rights tradition.  These laws should be fully implemented and enforced.  Caring health professionals and institutions should know that their deeply held religious or moral convictions will be respected as they exercise their right to serve patients in need. 


“Catholic providers, in particular, make a large and essential contribution to health care in our society.  Essential steps to protect these conscience rights will strengthen our health care system and enhance many patients’ access to necessary life-affirming care.


“A government that wants to reduce the tragic number of abortions in our society will also work to ensure that no one is forced to support or participate in abortion, whether through directly providing or referring for abortions or being forced to subsidize them with their tax dollars.  As this discussion continues we look forward to working with the Administration and other policy makers to advance this goal.”


I think that Cardinal George not only advocates the right position, he also, quite helpfully, assumes the right tone and outlook.


That is, we should assume, in the first instance, that the President meant what he said.  Charity demands as much.  By all means, the Catholic community should try to move forward with the President Obama on the important issue of conscience protection.  If, however, the President’s language rings empty in practice, if it turns out that the President’s carefully chosen words (i.e. the call for a “sensible” conscience clause) are mere verbal forms without substance (a rhetorical device designed to generate good will among the members of the audience while creating a useful soundbite), then I hope that the entire Catholic community – both those who supported the Obama candidacy and those who did not – would be of one voice in demanding more from the President and holding him to account.





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