While veteran conservative columnist George Will once described himself as an “amiable, low-voltage atheist”, his latest attack on the Catholic Church demonstrates that he has decided to drop the amiability and amp up the atheism. Dredging up long discredited anti-Catholic slurs, Will claims that Pope Francis “stands against modernity, rationality, science and, ultimately the spontaneous creativity of open societies in which people and their desires are not problems but precious resources.”
Pope Francis, claims Will, “embodies sanctity but comes trailing clouds of sanctimony” and thus the Catholic faithful cannot simultaneously “honor and celebrate their nation’s premises.” Insisting the pontiff’s sentiments possess the “intellectual tone of fortune cookies,” Will reaches back to the Middle Ages to denigrate what he sees as an oppressive Church that had “ruled the roost.”
Although Will’s current column reaches new levels of animus toward Catholicism, Will has been denigrating the Catholic faith for more than thirty years now. On January 11, 1987, when he appeared on “This Week With David Brinkley,” Will claimed that “there is a residual anti-Semitism at work in Vatican Policy.” This claim led the late William F. Buckley to publish a column in the Washington Post calling Will’s words a “vituperative attack” on the Vatican. Implying Catholic complicity in the final solution, Will escalated his attack on the Church in a January 15, 1987 column when he criticized New York’s Cardinal John O’Connor’s words at the Holocaust Museum. Twisting Cardinal O’Connor’s statement that the Holocaust “may have been an enormous gift that Judaism has given the world,” Will made it appear that the Cardinal endorsed the Holocaust on the grounds that it gives us something to grieve over. So egregious was Will’s column, that Buckley reminded him that “rhetorical abuses can also be crimes against humanity.”
In 2005, Will published a column titled “The Christian Complex” in which he ridiculed Christians for “cultivating the grievances of the weak.” Claiming that “many Christians are joining today’s scramble for the status of victims,” Will dismissed Christian concerns about threats to their religious liberty—suggesting that “their persecution complex is unbecoming because it is unrealistic.” Mocking the idea that religion is threatened in the public square, Will provided his readers with long lists of undue Christian influence in society—including the fact that “Christian book sales are booming,” and television networks are “getting religion” because it sells.
Last year, Will publicly adopted the utilitarian argument in favor of assisted suicide, pointing out that “almost 30 percent of Medicare expenditures are for patients in the last six months of life.” Lauding the choice for assisted suicide by Brittany Maynard, the 28-year-old brain cancer victim, Will praised her decision “to be with loved ones when she self-administered her lethal medications.” For Will, assisted suicide is the rational choice—suggesting that “Civilization depends on the drawing of intelligent distinctions…There is nobility in suffering bravely borne, but also in affirming at the end the distinctive human dignity of autonomous choice.”
Will has experienced such end-of-life suffering. In a reflection on his father’s death in 1998, Will wrote that for his father, a brilliant philosophy professor, “medicine becomes problematic when it resists not the body’s afflictions but the body itself.” For Will, some lives are simply not worth living. Although an accomplished and best-selling writer, Will has not had an easy life. His first born son, Jon, has Down syndrome—yet Will has been a loving father, and Jon’s greatest champion. Deploring the fact that “science enables what the ethos ratified, the choice of killing children with Down syndrome before birth,” Will has promoted the pro-life cause. For Will, aborting children with Down syndrome is a tragedy because “judging by Jon, the world would be improved by more people with Down syndrome, who are quite nice, as humans go.”
Christians have always known this; they are significantly more likely to choose to carry their children to term even after a diagnosis of Down syndrome. The truth is that Christianity—and Pope Francis—are George Wills’ greatest allies in helping him create a culture that values people with Down syndrome. Throughout his pontificate, Pope Francis has gone out of his way to elevate the cause of respecting all lives by embracing those with mental and physical handicaps. A year ago, Pope Francis invited Alberto diTullio, a 17-year-old boy with Down syndrome up onto his open-top pope mobile, “letting him spin around on the pontiff’s white chair while tens of thousands of people looked on.”
Pope Francis knows—as George Will must know—that culture matters when it comes to creating an environment that is hospitable to babies with Down syndrome. Such a culture does not use a utilitarian calculus to measure happiness based on the intellectual contributions we each make to society. (There is also the fact that the Catholic Church is a consistent defender of reason that has played a key role in the development of natural science.) Rather, it is Christianity that plays the important role in helping to nurture the kind of culture that welcomes all children—including those with Down syndrome—into this world with gratitude and love. It is time for George Will to recognize those facts and to stop relying on low-voltage attacks on the Catholic Church.