President Obama’s commencement address at Notre Dame is generating
more and more debate, some of it obfuscating and some clarifying. Many
are misguided attempts to paint this as an opportunity for dialogue.
George Weigel’s op-ed in today’s Chicago Tribune clarifies. This is actually fundamental. It begs logic and consistency.
Pope John Paul II, Pope Benedict XVI and the Catholic
bishops of the United States, following the teaching and intention of
the Second Vatican Council, have all declared that the defense of life
from conception until natural death is the premier civil rights issue
of our time. It is important to remember, however, that the Catholic
defense of the right to life is not a matter of arcane or esoteric
Catholic doctrine: You don’t have to believe in the primacy of the
pope, in seven sacraments, in Mary’s assumption into heaven, in the
divine and human natures of Christ—you don’t even have to believe in
God—to take seriously the Catholic claim that innocent human life has
an inalienable dignity and value that demands the protection of the
laws. For that claim is not a uniquely Catholic claim; it reflects a
first principle of justice that anyone can grasp, irrespective of their
religious convictions or lack thereof.
Moreover, it is precisely that claim—that all members of
the human family have a dignity and worth that law and public policy
must recognize—that once led men like Notre Dame’s former president,
Father Theodore M. Hesburgh, to work for decades on behalf of civil
rights for African-Americans. That claim and that work made it possible
for Obama to be elected president of the United States.
That poignant point should stand alone for a moment.
And, in a bitter irony, it is precisely that claim that
is contradicted, indeed trampled on, by the Obama administration’s
policies on a whole host of life issues. This is what Notre Dame wishes
to propose as worth emulating, by the award of an honorary doctorate of
laws? This is what a Catholic institution dedicated to the idea that
all law is under moral scrutiny wishes to celebrate? The mind boggles.
About those allegations that protestors aren’t open to dialogue with people who disagree…
If Notre Dame wished to invite Obama to debate the life
issues with prominent Catholic intellectuals during the next academic
year, it would have done the country a public service and no reasonable
person could object. If Notre Dame had invited the president to address
a symposium on the grave moral issues the president himself
acknowledges being at the heart of the biotech revolution, that, too,
would have been a public service. For that is one of the things great
universities do: They provide a public forum for serious argument about
serious matters touching the common good.
Excellent points all.
But, to repeat, a commencement is not a debate, nor is a
commencement address the beginning of some sort of ongoing dialogue, as
Notre Dame officials have tried to suggest. A commencement address and
the degree that typically accompanies it confer an honor. That honor
is, or should be, a statement of the university’s convictions.
By inviting Obama to address its commencement and by offering him an
honorary doctorate of laws, Notre Dame’s leaders invite the conclusion
that their convictions on the great civil rights issues of our time are
not those that once led Hesburgh to stand with Dr. Martin Luther King
Jr. and proclaim an America in which all God’s children are equal
before the law.