Since I am out here on the road, at times far from wireless and my usual news-media fixes, I am still playing catch-up on the actual results of the Saddleback forum (transcripts here and here) the other night.
We are all in the post-media-event commentary stage now and, you regular readers know, GetReligion tries to stay away from editorials and commentary pieces as much as possible. However, Rod “friend of this blog” Dreher is onto something with his post about an exchange between Andrew Sullivan and his Atlantic Monthly colleague Ross Douthat about Sen. Barack Obama’s “pay grade” remark in response to the pivotal question about abortion.
I raise this issue here because this exchange between Sullivan and Douthat — who are both Catholics, but with very different views on the teachings of their church — focuses on a matter of fact, a fact at the crossroads of theology and law that really affects how journalists cover this issue.
Watch the video clip at the top of this post (by all means feel free to turn it off before the very political, very pro-McCain editing kicks in), then read Sullivan’s take:
Obama is being razzed by the usual suspects for saying that the theological, scientific and moral question of when human life becomes a human person is “above his paygrade.” … But even the Vatican doesn’t claim to know that precise answer. From the lips of Ratzinger:
“The Magisterium has not expressly committed itself to an affirmation of a philosophical nature [as to the time of ensoulment], but it constantly affirms the moral condemnation of any kind of procured abortion.”
So it’s above the Pope’s pay-grade as well.
Thus, notes Douthat, Sullivan and others defending Obama’s answer are arguing that Pastor Rich Warren asked a theological question, one that points toward the eternal mystery of “ensoulment” — which certainly is an issue that the U.S. Supreme Court is not going to be handling anytime soon. And “ensoulment” would certainly be above the “pay grade” of a layman in a very congregational, very “low church” (in the worship and church tradition sense) denomination such as the United Church of Christ.
But there’s a problem. Note the wording of Warren’s question in the forum: “At what point does a baby get human rights, in your view?”
This is a legal and political question, one that has affected debates on several political issues, such as legislation on “Partial-birth abortion” and other bills trying to protect the lives of children who are accidentally born alive during abortion procedures. Obama certainly knows that his critics differ with him on both of those issues and want to see him defend his political views on the record (as MZ just noted).
Thus, Ross notes:
Obama tried to dodge by saying that from a “theological perspective” or a “scientific perspective” the issue is “above his pay grade.” But Warren asked a more narrow question, and one that any politician who votes on abortion laws should be able to answer. And of course, as a supporter of Roe and Casey, Obama does have an answer: He thinks that a baby acquires rights when it’s born — well, perhaps depending on how and why it happens to be born — and lacks them at every juncture before birth. He just didn’t want to come out and say it.
This is a crucial issue in the coverage. Let me stress, this has nothing to do with whether one agrees or disagrees with Obama on this issue. Please do not click “comment” to argue about that. What I am trying to underline is an actual question linked to the facts in the news story, the facts about the question that Warren asked and why he asked it.
The question again: In politics, in law, in legislation, in public life, when does a baby get basic human rights?
Forget theology for a moment. This is a political question, the way Warren asked it. It should have been possible to give a political answer. Right? If Obama gives a political answer, then reporters can quote that answer and people can debate those views in a political context. There’s no reason to pump up the theological fog in this case.