The Zeal of a Convert

Ramesh Ponnuru, an honoree at the Morley Institute’s 25th Anniversary Partnership Dinner, offered remarks at the event on his search for truth and the defense of life.
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It is generous of you to recognize me since I have been a Catholic in public life for such a short period of time. My wife, April, and I converted only three years ago.

Of course to specify a date of conversion is an oversimplification. Robby George said nobody becomes a Catholic, you just realize you already are one. I am grateful for a number of people here today who played a role in my dawning realization.

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I was just about to be received into the Church when I wrote an article arguing that pro-abortion politicians had, sadly, rendered themselves ineligible for communion. I hadn’t even joined the Church, and already I was kicking people out of it.

People say “the zeal of a convert” as though zeal were a bad thing.

We see all too much zeal on the other side of the life issues. Most Catholics in Congress consistently vote for abortion and embryo-destructive research. We are all familiar with the dodges: Politicians who vote this way say that they are “pro-choice,” not pro-abortion, which is just a way for keeping incontestable premises from yielding inconvenient conclusions.

The Massachusetts senators seem to have a special flair for this type of self-deception. There is Ted Kennedy, about whom it has been said that his religion is so private, he doesn’t even impose it on himself. John Kerry, in 2004, invoked Pope Pius XXIII in support of his position. So he has gone Kennedy one better: His religion is so private, he has his own pope.

The case for life — and against abortion, embryo-destructive research, and euthanasia — can be made without reference to religion. The case does not depend on, though it may be supported by, citations of Scripture or appeals to the authority of the Vatican. In my book The Party of Death I made the case without even using the words “natural law.” And indeed I formed my pro-life views when I was an agnostic.

A number of my reviewers thought I should be embarrassed by the fact that most pro-lifers are Catholics and evangelicals. “You say that your arguments are rational,” went this line of criticism, “but its appeal is sectarian. Obviously you are simply disguising religious viewpoints” — and, of course, they went on to say, threatening the separation of church and state.

There are a lot of things that could be said in response to that criticism, many of them having to do with that opaque phrase “the separation of church and state.” Perhaps the simplest is that Catholics and evangelicals have reached the more reasonable conclusions about abortion and related matters. To assume that it is impossible that they should have done so is to assume that Christian moral beliefs are inherently irrational, and that rationality is for the irreligious to define.

But there is another dimension to this question. In our time, what would have struck our predecessors as the merest common sense is now held to be fundamentally religious. Even when I was not a Christian, I believed that there was such a thing as truth, including moral truth, and that reason could apprehend at least some of these truths. I thought everybody implicitly accepted these postulates. In the response to my book, I have come to find out that these views make me a raging fundamentalist. I feel a bit like the character in Molière who discovers that all his life, without knowing it, he has been speaking prose.

I can’t help it; it is not a choice. We don’t choose what is true. And while I continue to insist that revelation is unnecessary to show that unborn human beings have a right to be protected from violence, I do not shy away from saying that Christianity is relevant here. Christians have special obligations: to orient themselves toward truth, to seek justice and mercy.

And we should never forget that in standing for life, we are not only offering justice and mercy to the vulnerable and weak, as important as it is. We are also trying to help those of our brothers and sisters who have fallen into grievous moral error. Let us pray for the unborn and the sick; for the abortionists, the scientists, and the mothers; for ourselves, that we have the wisdom to identify the right course and the courage to follow it; and let us also pray for our errant fellow citizens and leaders, that they may have a change of mind and heart and conscience.

And let us all thank crisis, for doing what it can to bring about that change.


  • Ramesh Ponnuru

    Ramesh Ponnuru is a senior editor of National Review and the author of “The Party of Death: The Democrats, the Media, the Courts, and the Disregard for Human Life” (Regnery, 2006).

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