The Clash of Orthodoxies: Law, Religion, and Morality in Crisis By Robert P. George. Forward by John J. DiIulio (ISI Books, $24.95 U.S., 387 pages)

In a day and age when the upholders of traditional morality and people of faith are finding it increasingly difficult to gain a hearing in the public square where they are marginalized by the reigning liberal orthodoxy, it is surely a blessing to find such a skillful writer as Robert P. George who can not only criticize the ways of our society, but offer positive alternatives to the moral chaos in which we live. Written in a scholarly but accessible manner, The Clash of Orthodoxies: Law, Religion, and Morality in Crisis, examines the reasoning behind the views of those contemporary liberal theorists that we are likely to come across in our college classrooms, the news media and key court decisions that are shaping our society’s understanding of abortion, euthanasia, same-sex marriage and embryonic stem-cell research.

Taking his stand from a natural law perspective that grounds the right to life of individuals and their duties towards society in the dignity of the human person, George, Professor of Jurisprudence and Director of the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions at Princeton University , argues that the traditional morality of religious conservatives offers a more rational and compelling basis for liberal democracy than the radically individualistic or liberationist basis of the mainstream, reigning liberal “orthodoxy.” As the issues revolving around life and our understanding of human sexuality are so central to the way that we define ourselves as human beings, George makes no apologies for granting them the especial emphasis given in his text.

Divided into three sections, namely “The Public Square,” “The Courts‚” and “The Church,” George moves from contemporary liberal theory and his criticisms into their applications in the area of constitutional law, and finally ends off with religion’s contribution and role in speaking out against the crisis of our age. The first section brings his scholarship to bear down upon the liberal claim that theirs is a morally neutral doctrine of human rights, and argues for the dignity of the human person as the objective basis of human rights against the power of the state, ballot box or courts. Under his analysis of the judiciary, George notes the difficulties of distinguishing between natural law principles and the appropriateness of the courts to define and enforce them under the powers given to them by the US Constitution. As a key example, he certainly criticizes Roe v Wade as an abuse of “raw judicial power,” to use the words of dissenting Justice Byron White, but admits that this does not necessarily mean that a Supreme Court ruling outlawing abortion is justifiable, even though he seems to suggest that it may be possible through a judicious reading of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

However particular his analysis may be to the United States, his thoughtful and nuanced examination reveals the key issues pertaining to any attempt to incorporate universal natural rights into a particular constitutional or legal code.

Having upheld the wisdom of revealed religion, related natural law traditions and the writings of John Paul II throughout the text, the closing chapters provide a bittersweet analysis of the role of religion, and in particular the Catholic Church, in the debates that are raging in our day. In his chapter, “Bioethics and Public Policy: Catholic Participation in the American Debate,” George largely attributes the vast gulf that exists between Church teachings on abortion and the opinions of pro-abortion Catholic politicians to such initiatives as “the Seamless Garment” ethic proposed by the late Cardinal Bernardin back in 1983. By lumping the Church’s straightforward teachings on abortion with a vast array of particular policy prescriptions and pronouncements on other social issues, the actions of the U.S. Bishops have unwittingly weakened their witness against the evils of abortion and enabled many pro-abortion politicians to claim that their agendas were more in accord with Church teachings than those of their more conservative, pro-life opponents. George notes a favourable change in the Bishop’s policies in this regards, but wonders if it is not too little, too late.

The long term hope lies in the initiatives of the Pope in documents like Fides et Ratio, to revitalize the teaching of philosophy in Catholic colleges and seminaries in the hopes of equipping the Church with a better means of understanding and witnessing to its truths in a hostile world. This would seem to correspond with the purpose of George‚s book, which proves the value of serious philosophical discourse in the cause of preserving human dignity in a Culture of Death.

As the book is largely a compilation of essays, The Clash of Orthodoxies can occasionally be a bit repetitive, but it is otherwise a very compelling book and a great pleasure to read. For the studious, its thorough endnotes point to further articles and texts that can deepen their grasp of the issues introduced by the author. Whether for a young college undergraduate feeling overwhelmed by political correctness, the busy layman who wants to inform himself about pertinent moral debates or a member of the academy, this book has much to offer.

Frank Monozlai is pursuing his Masters in Political Science at the University of Toronto. To order Clash of Orthodoxies or other Intercollegiate Studies Institute books, call 1-800-261-2736.