Actually, you can’t refer to Notre Dame as one entity with one
position, even with regards to the controversial commencement
invitation to President Obama and the plan to confer on him the
honorary doctorate of laws. Because plenty of people somehow affiliated
with the university strongly disagree with it.
As the debate roils on, some commentaries are particularly poignant and clarifying. Like this one out today on First Things. Especially since Francis Beckwith refers to the continuity of the logic, language and morality of civil rights in America.
The University of Notre Dame is a Catholic university,
which means that it affirms the truth of Catholic moral theology and
all that it entails about liberty, community, and the dignity of the
human person. According to Catholic moral theology, a regime whose laws
sequester a group of human beings from its protections for reasons that
are capricious and gravely immoral is a regime whose laws on this
matter are not really laws at all. In fact, we need not even consult a
Catholic theologian, philosopher, or legal scholar to receive clarity
on this question. We can cite the words of a Baptist minister, who made
generous use of St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas in what has become
one of the most important epistles in American political discourse. On
April 16, 1963, in his “A Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” Dr. Martin
Luther King Jr. penned these words:
I would agree with St. Augustine that “an unjust law
is no law at all.” Now, what is the difference between the two? How
does one determine whether a law is just or unjust? A just law is a man
made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust
law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in
the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas: An unjust law is a human law that is
not rooted in eternal law and natural law. Any law that uplifts human
personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust.
I’ve cited that letter and this quote elsewhere in the Forum here,
and it remains a pressing question for this administration and its
apologists to answer how they can reconcile the truths spoken by the
civil rights leader with the anti-life agenda driven by those for whom he paved the way.
And now reconcile this with the Notre Dame decision. Follow the logic…
According to Catholic moral theology, the unborn human
being, from the moment of conception, is a full-fledged member of the
human community. That means that the unborn’s personhood is not like a
matter of taste, preference, or a “deep concern” of “personal belief.”
It is a fact that pro-lifers are convinced they know is true, just like
such other facts as that Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon, that it’s
wrong to torture children for fun, that Mother Teresa was morally
better than Adolf Hitler, and that the Earth is the third planet from
But President Obama vigorously opposes this pro-life understanding
of human community. For those who may doubt this claim, one need only
consult the consistent and unbroken public record the president has
established on this matter…Admittedly, Obama is an articulate, winsome,
intelligent, and gifted leader. But, whether we like it or not, he has
employed those gifts as an apologist for excluding prenatal human
beings from the protections of our laws.
Count the ways. Beckwith, in a series of paragraphs, enumerates the
policies and proposals Obama is responsible for executing that deny
human rights and reverse laws that protected conscience, which is
itself a universal human right.
So, this is the man on whom the University of Notre Dame
wants to bestow an honorary doctorate of laws? But, as we have clearly
seen, Obama, in spite of all his personal talents and accomplishments,
explicitly and unapologetically rejects the intrinsic dignity of the
human person, the proper subject of the natural and canonical laws on
which the university’s jurisprudential patrimony rests. It is a
jurisprudential patrimony that the university not only claims to
believe, it claims both to believe that it is true and that it knows
that it is true.
I have no doubt that Notre Dame would never bestow an honorary
doctorate in science to an astronomer who vigorously advances the
agenda of geocentricity or a chemist who refuses to teach his students
the periodic table, or award an honorary doctorate in divinity to a
theologian who is an unrepentant apologist for racial apartheid and
white supremacy, regardless of what these three individuals may have
accomplished or how well their celebrity may be received by the wider
culture and its influential institutions.
Or, as professor Janet Smith said in her letter to Fr. Jenkins (snip from Fr. Jonathan’s blog):
“If someone like George Wallace had been elected
president of the United States–no matter how much good he had done–no
matter how many causes “near to Notre Dame’s heart” he had elevated,
Notre Dame would not have invited him to be the commencement speaker
nor given him an honorary degree, for the world would not have believed
that Notre Dame remained “firm and unwavering” in its opposition to
racism and would not have thought that Notre Dame was hoping to spark a
national dialogue on racism. It would have thought Notre Dame had lost
its mind and faith.”
And that is something Dr. Martin Luther King worried about, in a larger context, in the Birmingham Jail.
So often the contemporary church is a weak,
ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. So often it is an
archdefender of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the
presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is
consoled by the church’s silent—and often even vocal—sanction of things
as they are.
But the judgment of God is upon the church as never before. If
today’s church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early
church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions,
and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the
twentieth [and twenty-first] century.