An address is not a dialogue

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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.

The mind boggles, indeed.

2 thoughts on “An address is not a dialogue

  1. In the end we are not a nation of morals, we are not a nation of people separate unto ourselves and our own beliefs. We are not, when all is said and done, a nation where might makes right, whether that might be in the guns of the Branch Davidians or the pens of Weigels who opine. We are not a nation of moral standing whether it be Christian, Jewish, or Sharia. We are not a nation with a national church like Britain or Saudi Arabia. We are a nation whose foundation is the law. And that is a special grounding. We are a nation of laws of the governed, by the governed and for the governed not reflecting a national church, a national movement. but ourselves collectively. Our nation was not born from the notion of control of the many resting with the few, no matter how right that few may be. In fact we are a nation whose control ultimately rests in the combined beliefs, feelings and opinions of the many and those ideas become concrete within the framework and context of the law. While one may believe because of faith or scientific fact that human life begins at conception, the beliefs of the few, no matter how right cannot be imposed on the many. John Brown tried and ultimately failed. The Confederacy tried and ultimately failed. The Republicans in reconstruction tried and, once again, ultimately failed in their attempt as well. Now the responsibility of the pro-life movement in this country is to refrain from childish useage of wimpering and demonization. Mr. Obama is only the straw man to cover the fact that people in the pro-life movement are not ready, or feel themselves incapable of winning people over in the marketplace of ideas. So they use the ways of children and not adults. The pro-life movement in its infancy seeks to hide behind such straw men. But the movement in its maturity must put away the stuff of children and now must convince in the marketplace of ideas that life begins at conception and ends at natural death. To demonize Notre Dame and Obama is to ignore the fact that most people in America are perfectly happy with abortion laws as they are. The average American still holds to the belief that life begins with the first breath and ends with the last. Until the many are convinced that this is not the case, the laws of the governed, by the governed and for the governed will not change. Obama deserves to speak at Notre Dame because ultimately he believes in the power of the law to change things if the people’s will is in it. And he has the power to share that belief with the students. He understands that it is his duty focus and direct that will for the good of the nation. Likewise it is the duty of the pro-life movement to focus and direct that will as well. By threatening law makers, the pro-life movement shows its disregard for the law. The movement’s real responsibility is in changing the hearts and minds of the governed to help and aid those who are too young to govern themselves. It is now time for the pro-life movement put away the stuff of children, to grow into its responsibility and take on the opposition in the marketplace of ideas and not the marketplace of coercion.

  2. Nobody is threatening lawmakers. False accusation. The pro-life movement has worked for over 30 years through the law. Most people know that. They have at the same time worked hard to change hearts and minds, not through deception and distortion but through information and alternatives. The stuff of children is name-calling and silly charges of ‘demonization’.

    Rise to the challenge of the debate that is actively engaged in the marketplace of ideas, above the temptation to sloganeering.

    As far as wielding power, Pope Benedict made some excellent remarks to the United Nations in his US visit, which you can find here:

    Look for where he says ‘might does not make right’, and he refers to ‘consensus as the power of the few to replace truth and right order’.

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