CONSCIENCE AND ITS ENEMIES: CONFRONTING THE DOGMAS OF LIBERAL SECULARISM
By Robert P. George
ISI Books, $29.95, 290 pages
Robert Peter George has to be one of the most civilized people laboring around these parts to make sense of the muddle we call modern life. The word "civilized" I use in its, shall we say, civilized sense — as marking ownership of, or attachment to, qualities formerly associated with the good life: judgment, propriety, dignity, reasonableness, not to mention old-fashioned common sense.
The McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence at Princeton University — that's Robby George — is constructively visible in national debates over various threats to our used-to-be-ordered ways of understanding human duty and obligation. He pops up in books, on television, at conferences — always, insofar as I can know, with useful things to say, things arising from a perspective formed by studious recourse to Aristotle, Aquinas, Dante and the whole range of Western philosophers. Abortion, marriage, free speech, religious liberty — such are his concerns as the good old Western world we used to be so proud of sinks into attitudes of dangerous, heedless self-indulgence.
The current book is a collection of pieces Mr. George has contributed to publications such as First Things, National Review and the New Criterion. You see the kind of company he keeps — the kind that MSNBC sages conventionally dismiss as irrelevant to "modern" concerns.
I confess to shrinking from "collections," which tend to oblige rapid shifts in mental gears as the author takes us here, there and all over the place. "Conscience and Its Enemies," it needs to be noted, isn't that kind of collection. There's not a boring or humdrum essay in the lot. Much of what's here, in fact, is highly relevant to 2013 concerns.
Take immigration. Himself the grandson of immigrants, Mr. George makes the case for a hard-headed, non-sentimental policy recognizing both that "immigration has been a great strength for America," and that to renew that strength we have to maintain somehow a culture reflective of the same American ideals into which earlier immigrants bought successfully.
Speaking of current concerns, there's marriage and family. Can't we just scrape the moss off our understandings of what it means to love and marry? Not really. Not without overturning (by Mr. George's reckoning) the "stabilizing norms" that inhere in "the traditional understanding of marriage as a male-female partnership." That's from his chapter, "What Marriage Is — and What It Isn't." Notice the to-be verb. The "is-ness" of marriage is grounded in physical and metaphysical reality. "Reality" isn't a word favored on the cultural left, the left's project being that of freeing the human race from the traditional constraints affecting body and soul.
Mr. George knows what's going on around here — the attempt, namely, to replace the idea of norms with something more, shall we say, personal and invitational. The title "Conscience and Its Enemies" is well and accurately selected. Mr. George wants us to remember that John Henry Cardinal Newman, more than a century ago, showed us the dimensions of the matter. "Conscience, as Newman understood it, "is the very opposite of 'autonomy' in the modern liberal sense. Conscience identifies one's duties under the moral law." Not permissions — duties. Gad. Restraints on me and on my personal choices? What kind of civilization is that?
It's the kind of civilization, as Mr. George reminds us, that accords dignity and importance to — yes — the unborn, as over against the desire for autonomy in the matter of giving birth. Mr. George is very, very up to date in his strictures concerning the Obama administration's onslaught against the right to understand life as something other than a blob of tissue. "President Obama," he writes, "is attempting to require religious employers (and everybody else) to provide health-care coverage not only for contraceptives and sterilization, but also for abortion-inducing drugs such as Ella. And so it falls to us to resist. "
There's not a dull or insignificant page in the whole volume, which isn't to say "Conscience and Its Enemies" is a beach book, from start to stop. Mr. George, good writer as he is, is a philosopher. Some of his enriching pages on natural law — isn't it enriching to read anything intelligent on natural law these days? — may oblige non-philosophically inclined readers to brake suddenly from 70 mph to 35. That's fine. I urge careful attention to all that Mr. George has to say. He's talking principles. Contemplating non-contradictable truths can do a world of good in a world of anything goes.
I recommend, additionally, some acute personal portraits the author gives us: the Rev. Richard John Neuhaus, the liberal shut out by liberals once he joined the pro-life cause; Bernard Nathanson, the abortion doctor converted to pro-life crusader; Gene Genovese, the Marxist historian professor — well, he called himself that — who hated political and economic dogmas because he loved the truth. You see the unitive factor here — people who thought they were one thing, but turned out to be different things; different and far better.
Speaking of "better" — I don't think we get better, or more consequential, commentary on the modern crisis (which is a crisis, whatever our personal doubts on that score) than Mr. George affords us. As "The Book of Common Prayer" would have it: read, mark, learn, inwardly digest.
William Murchison is a nationally syndicated columnist.