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.Â 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 Christâ€”you don’t even have to believe in Godâ€”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 claimâ€”that all members of the human family have a dignity and worth that law and public policy must recognizeâ€”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.Â
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.Â
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.