Is being an absolutist absolutely wrong?

Damon Linker, former editor of First Things, has written a provocative (and sometimes annoying) essay on how he believes Pope John II's moral absolutism has affected Americans' discussions of embryonic stem-cell research and the court-sanctioned dehydration death of Terri Schiavo:

After a century of mass murder, John Paul's unconditional defense of human dignity cannot fail to impress. His articulate and passionate advocacy for human rights helped to bring about the fall of communism, and it justly earned him the respect and admiration of humanists (Christian and non-Christian alike) around the globe.

Yet there are reasons to be suspicious of all absolutisms -- even the noblest kinds. While they inspire great certainty and conviction, they also distort our vision, obscuring the exceedingly complicated, even paradoxical, character of morality itself.

Take the Pope's influence on the way stem-cell research is discussed in the United States. John Paul convinced many American conservatives that the union of sperm and ovum instantly produces a unique person who possesses the same dignity (and thus rights) as a mature human being; embryonic stem-cell research, which destroys this person within two weeks of conception, must therefore be prohibited. From this standpoint, those who support such research appear to be immoralists advocating a bloodthirsty "culture of death." But this is far from fair. . . .

It also tends to poison and polarize political debate, as we recently observed in the rancorous conflict over the fate of Terri Schiavo. It is an eerie coincidence that John Paul's death followed so swiftly on the heels of this saga, since it stands as a further, and even more troubling, example of the Pope's influence on moral argument in the United States. Those who sided with Schiavo's parents in their efforts to have her feeding tube reinserted (including President Bush and leading members of the Republican Party) explicitly described themselves as defenders of a "culture of life" against its enemies. It didn't matter to them that 19 judges had ruled that removing Schiavo's feeding tube was permitted under Florida law. It didn't matter that established legal procedures precluded appeals to the federal courts. It didn't matter that the U.S. Constitution left open no role for Congress or the president. Such procedural and pragmatic considerations were irrelevant. The only thing that mattered was that they turn back the "culture of death" by any means possible.

Both culture of life and culture of death take sneer quotes throughout the essay, but that's pretty much inescapable in reports that acknowledge the concepts. In writing about the dangers of moral absolutism, Linker paints with too broad a sweep. It would help, for instance, to see an acknowledgment that some activists opposed Terri Schiavo's death on grounds other than moral absolutism.

Still, given how often religious leaders favor avoiding difficult moral stances, it's refreshing that the pope affirmed moral absolutes clearly enough to attract criticism. Compared to an editorial that blames millions of African deaths on John Paul II's opposition to contraception, Linker's essay is a model of restraint.

Tom Round of the Father McKenzie blog says Linker's essay is a man-bites-dog phenomenon because in 1996 First Things questioned the American government's legitimacy amid earlier culture of life/culture of death debates. But First Things raised that question five years before Linker joined the staff as an associate editor.

Linker's subsequent employment at First Things is a tribute, I think, to that journal's editorial ecumenism and to Linker's diverse interests as a writer. More specifically, Linker -- a Roman Catholic -- has:

• Taught for two years at Brigham Young University. • Written as the first non-LDS contributor at a Latter-day Saints blog called Times and Seasons. • Criticized Richard Rorty's liberal absolutism. • Tagged Bruce Wilkinson's Prayer of Jabez as a work of New Age theology. • Ticked off the right people in a letter to his alma mater's Ithaca College Quarterly.

Linker's bio line in The New Republic mentions that he is "writing a book about the influence of religious conservatism on American politics." However that book turns out, it's unlikely to be boring.

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