Declining to Attend Print
By James Schall   
Wednesday, 25 March 2009

A young friend of mine in Philadelphia’s St. Charles Borromeo Seminary sent me a column by Charles Krauthammer entitled “Morally Unserious in the Extreme.” Krauthammer there reacts to the President Obama’s signing the document overturning stem-cell research restrictions. Krauthammer knew that these so-called “restrictions” were, when spelled out, actually incentives for scientists to find more reasonable and ethical procedures to accomplish the very same purposes, which in fact they were doing. Most normal people recognize that “research” predicated on infant deaths has something seriously wrong with it, even if they do not know why. But evidently the president either does not or will not see this fact.

Krauthammer is withering in his analysis of the incoherence of the president’s actions and the reasoning that he presents. We are becoming used to a president who says one thing and does another. As the Canadian journalist David Warren has said, “The president declared that he is against human cloning. This was, typically for him, a rhetorical manoeuvre, belied by his deed. For what can a promise to prevent human cloning mean, when his decision opens the door wide to just such eventualities?”

Yet on life and morality issues, the president is consistent in deed. He ever ends up on the death or aberrant side of things. His record, both voting and rhetorical, all along suggested that he would. In this area, he is consistent.

But what was particularly interesting in Krauthammer’s column was the account of his being invited to the White House to witness the signing. He was on the President’s Bioethics Council, so he was familiar with the ins and outs of the issues. Krauthammer notes that George Bush had given a nationally televised speech on the stem-cell issue that was “the most morally serious address on medical ethics ever given by an American president.” Mr. Obama shows little of this moral seriousness.

Krauthammer speculates on the reason why he was invited. Apparently, he (Krauthammer) does not object to using cell lines from “discarded embryos in fertility clinics.” This somewhat questionable moral position led President Obama to assume that Krauthammer might be sympathetic to the signing. If someone of that journalist’s stature were there (Krauthammer also holds a medical degree from Harvard), it would cast an aura of legitimacy over this most dubious presidential decree.

Krauthammer’s dissection of the White House’s calculation is something that particularly drew my interest. As I thought about it, the scene reminded me of something. Of course, it was the famous case in the “Apology of Socrates.” We read it every semester in my class at Georgetown. The local rulers commanded Socrates to cross to the island of Salamis to pick up a certain Leon, an admiral. He was to be returned and executed for failing his duty in a naval battle.

Athenian law required that bodies of the dead (they were not interested in stem cells in those days) were to be returned for proper burial. The episode has a kind of prophetic import. By commanding Socrates and four other gentlemen to go over to pick up Leon, the authorities sought to implicate them in the executions. Socrates’ participation would implicitly make the act seem moral.

Socrates thought the trial that had condemned Leon was illegal. Athenian citizens had to be tried individually, not in a group, as had happened in this case. When the other four came to collect him to go over to grab Leon, Socrates told them to go on. In a famous phrase, he tells us that instead “he went home.”

That is, Socrates would not participate in such an illegal act. He further states that he would have been himself killed for this refusal had the current rulers not fallen from power. So he lived a few years longer, until his next trial, the one we all know about.

Krauthammer, with no reference to Socrates in mind, says of the White House invitation, “I declined to attend.” He gives his reason: “Once you show your face at these things, you become a tacit endorser of whatever they spring.” After seeing what the president signed, he added, “My caution was vindicated.”

Now I am not suggesting that Charles Krauthammer is Socrates. But in declining this presidential invitation, he is a man who stands in a certain tradition. He would prefer to stay home rather than be associated with something as morally dubious as the stem cell action. And, if I might extrapolate, this refusal is what civilization is about.

It is about Socrates’ “It is never right to do wrong.” If you refuse to go along, as Socrates eventually discovered, you pay the consequences. But in paying them, you stand for what is right, what is civilized. That is why in our current situation Charles Krauthammer’s words should be remembered: “I declined to attend.”

James Schall, S.J., is a professor at Georgetown University, and one of the most prolific Catholic writers in America.

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