The question on the table
is not whether Notre Dame should hear from the president but whether
Notre Dame should honor the president.
That’s re-centering the conversation. ND law professor Richard Garnett does it well in this engaging USA Today piece.
Most important, the issue is not, as some commentators
have suggested, whether Notre Dame should welcome, engage, debate and
explore a wide range of viewpoints. Of course it should. It was, after
all, a central message of the Catholic Church’s Second Vatican Council
that “nothing genuinely human fails to raise an echo” in Christians’
hearts, and the same can be said for the work of a Catholic university.
Such a university has nothing to fear from — indeed, it has the best
possible reasons to welcome — inquiry, investigation, argument and
testing. And so, no one could reasonably oppose inviting the president
to Notre Dame for discussion and dialogue on immigration, education,
health care — or even abortion.
Now focus the lens even more sharply.
A Catholic university can and should engage all comers,
but in order to be true to itself — to have integrity — it should
hesitate before honoring those who use their talents or power to bring
about grave injustice. The university is, and must remain, a bustling
marketplace of ideas; at the same time, it also has a voice of its own.
We say a lot about who we are and what we stand for through what we
love and what we choose to honor. The controversy at Notre Dame is not
about what should be said at Catholic universities, but about what should be said by a Catholic university.
It is also a mistake to frame the controversy in terms of academic
freedom. Obviously, this freedom, properly understood, is central to
the mission of any great university.
Even so, no one is proposing limits on what can or should be
discussed, debated, taught, studied or written by students or scholars.
The American Association of University Professors is right to insist
that “the opportunity to be confronted with diverse opinions is at the
core of academic freedom,” but wrong to imagine that this principle
requires a university to be indifferent to the messages it sends
through the honors it confers.
No university is entirely neutral; every university makes decisions
about what to affirm, through its policies, as good or true. One can
(and should) affirm the right (and duty) of scholars at Catholic
universities to be true to their scholarly vocations while still asking
whether Notre Dame is being true to itself.
This commentary not only re-centers the debate, it redirects badly
needed attention to the role of a university and the principles of
And here is an important distinction lost on even a significant number of Catholics for whom that identity is blurred.
Finally, the reason some say that an authentically
Catholic university — even one that appreciates fully President Obama’s
appeal and the historical significance of his election — should not
honor him with a ceremonial law degree is not because he rejects
“Catholic” views on abortion. The worry, instead, is that Notre Dame
will send the wrong message and say something that is inconsistent with
its Catholic character and with its commitment to human rights by
honoring — at this time, anyway — a president whose record so far on
abortion and embryo-destructive research is glaringly in conflict with
The Catholic view on these matters, after all, is that there is no
specifically or narrowly “Catholic” view. The church affirms that human
life is sacred, and that every human being, at every stage of
development, should be welcomed in life and protected in law. This
affirmation rests on the same foundational principles of human dignity
and equality that animate the Declaration of Independence and the
Universal Declaration of Human Rights, principles that were celebrated
not only by Pope John Paul II but also by Martin Luther King Jr. and
Abraham Lincoln. The president’s error is not failing to submit to
“Catholic” authority — why should he? — but aggressively and
consistently promoting policies that are unjust because they deny the
basic equality of every human being.