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Theological Notebook: Thoughts on the Controversy Re: President Obama's Invitation to Notre Dame

Mom wrote and asked me about what I thought about all the controversy regarding President Obama's addressing the graduating seniors at the University of Notre Dame. I hadn't consciously articulated my thoughts until she asked, but now that I have, I thought that I would just copy it all down here. I would preface my comments by reassuring or informing anyone who found them objectionable from a Catholic perspective that I'm twice as orthodox as they are and am willing to prove it in public, internationally-televised debate, and that I can successfully do so with two glasses of wine on an empty stomach in my system, which proves both that I'm a notorious lightweight and that I am so orthodox that I'm willing to invoke Paul and foolishly boast about it because it's so true that I don't have anything to gain or to prove from it. That's my response to anyone whose most beloved rhetorical strategy is to deny the faith of anyone who disagrees with them, which has been more embarrassing in all this affair than anything having to do with the actual invitation to President Obama. So, as I wrote to Mom:

The Notre Dame thing is more irritating to me than anything else. It's a kind of short-sightedness that I find sometimes irritating or sometimes just disappointing. The same thing happened with Bush in 2001, but I don't know that that was made into such a big deal by the press, perhaps because the press felt any protest regarding Bush was part of the natural order of things. I call it short-sighted because I think it's an illusion at best that anyone would expect a President of the United States to perfectly line up with Catholic teaching. There are a number of things in the party platforms of both Democrats and Republicans that are utterly opposed to Catholic ethics, so this should be no surprise. Even someone perceived to be as politically "Right" as the late Fr. Richard John Neuhaus, publisher of First Things, had warned those around him that they ought to always expect the Republican Party to betray them, despite the current seeming alignment of Republican interests with some of the concerns of his circle. In the same way, when you were younger, it was taken as a matter of simple fact that the Democratic Party, the party of the "little guy," was the party that Catholics and Evangelical were going to be naturally aligned with. But then came the shift of the "New Left" in the 1968-73 period when what it meant to be "Left" in the Democratic leadership underwent an astonishing ideological transformation, not least in its new hostility to religious belief and expression. The Republican Party in the late 1970s made a conscious and concerted effort to pick up the Evangelicals as a voting block, with great success. Since the 2004 Presidential election, the political Right has gone back to that playbook and has been making a major effort to do the same thing with Catholic Americans, though not with such visible success, except among some bishops who ought to be a bit more circumspect and clever about the extent to which they are being used for partisan politics.

The basic political issue, both in the Notre Dame snafu and in the past several years, is of course abortion. Because human life in particular is held to be sacred, with each human being possessing the dignity of being the image and likeness of God, a human rights ethic that has any consistency includes an opposition to abortion. This has been the case in Christian teaching since the late first century, when we see the topic first addressed explicitly, or in parallel secular ethics like in the unedited version of the Hippocratic Oath, where ancient physicians of that school swore to protect life even in its earliest stages. With respect to the sketch of the political context of this Notre Dame debate that I just gave, I have seen very little evidence that the leadership of the Republican Party is interest in pursuing the abortion issue as a priority beyond using it for the gathering of a voting block: a few rallying cries during elections, blocking the use of American funds to commit abortions overseas, sure, but nothing beyond that. There has been nothing like the forcing of the issue in the way the Abolitionists did in the lead-up to the Civil War.

The shape and nature of the argument involved in all of this has great significance. The logic used to justify the act of abortion itself, that the undeveloped fetus is not yet a "person," is a philosophical logic. That the fetus is human and is alive is a simple matter of genetics. People who debate using that language are just being sloppy. The question of "personhood," or of "humanity" as a philosophical concept, is more hazy. But Catholic ethics has increasingly become sensitive to the use of this argument through history, where invoking the debatable nature of someone else's humanity ("so-and-so isn't really human": no one has ever used this argument with regard to their own humanity) has been the justification for every other atrocity that people now repudiate. We pride ourselves on being the sort of people who would never have done that awful thing, whether against Jews, Africans, Native Americans, Cambodians, Rawandans, Sudanese, whoever. But it seems significant that the logic and the shape of the argument is the same. Catholics led the opposition to legalized abortion when it became an issue in the United States and when it culminated in the Roe v. Wade decision at the same time as that hard Secularist shift in the Left. So abortion has in many ways been popularly perceived as a particularly "Catholic" issue by those on both sides of the argument. Within Catholicism, this has become as much a "litmus test" issue as it has by those supporting the idea of a right to abortion, who throw their support behind anything even perceived to have anything to do with abortion, such as recent debates over the use of fetal stem cells in medical research. (The logic being that if any ethical qualms are shown here, it amount to becoming too close to admitting that unborn human beings have political and human rights, and so therefore no ethical concerns can be allowed to be raised on this issue. If you look at the lobbying groups supporting such research, it is abortion-rights groups that lead the way: "science" as such has very little to do with the politics.)

For those opposing President Obama's appearance at Notre Dame, the assumption is that any perceived acceptance or honouring of Obama as President is tantamount to an endorsement of his position as a supporter of abortion. This is, of course, foolish. That argument, extended logically, would imply that any recognition of the authority of the government of the United States implies an endorsement of its current policies. This is the exact opposite of what a democracy entails, of course, where everyone can cheerfully oppose the policies of their government without recourse to succession or civil war: one just has to convince their fellows to follow another course during the next general election, and thus we have revolution without bloodshed. So the basic argument against recognizing President Obama in this way falls apart. Notre Dame has recognized and received a number of Presidents over the years, every last one of which can be found to be in violation of Catholic ethical principles on one point or another. (Whether President Obama's choice of accepting the Notre Dame invitation over the hundreds of other commencement invitations he has received is driven by any particular political agenda is not a question I'll bother to consider here.)

But, say those who push this point, the abortion question is a special one: it is a fundamental crime against humanity to kill those least capable of defending themselves, depriving them of the chance to achieve any potential in their lives. They point out that John Paul II highlighted the particularly egregious nature of this act as perhaps the most fundamental violation of human rights that we have ever committed. All true. If so, that raises the question of complicity again. We are either complicit in aiding and abetting our society's support of abortion or we are not. Honouring a President who supports the idea of abortion rights, they argue, creates a tacit support that is incompatible with being Catholic. Myself, I cannot accept this argument, for the reasons described above. If their argument is true, these people are also aiding and abetting abortion by remaining citizens of the United States and by recognizing the legitimacy of this administration. To be truly consistent, their options could only be emigration, revolution, or utter non-recognition of the government in a state of permanent civil disobedience, probably no matter whose administration is currently running the show. Any position other than these seems to me to be opportunistic and disingenuous, if they have really followed their logic to its natural conclusions. That is, one that is opposed to President Obama on a more individual and personal level, and is using the abortion issue as a front for that opposition, but without being willing to follow their own logic to its natural ends. To insist that there should be this utter "line drawn in the sand" over the mere appearance of the President of the United States at the University of Notre Dame, or even the specific honouring of him for other goods shown in his life, and not to therefore question whether there is the same "line in the sand" between their Catholicism and their American citizenship is to "have their cake and eat it, too." There are a few Catholics who have been that consistent regarding issues of church and state. I do not see it happening here, which to me undermines the seriousness of the protests being raised.

The question becomes one of the greater good. Which is the greater good? To exist together in a democracy where freedom from the threat of civil war is seen as more important than even disagreement on fundamental issues of human rights such as that seen in the abortion debate, where the status of even a human being's development and acquiring of human rights is questioned? Or to exist in a country that guarantees that right to life (and all attending human rights, even those opposed by the Political Right but supported by the Catholic Church) even if guaranteeing those rights must come at the cost of the political union of the nation itself? Unless people follow their arguments all the way to the fundamental issues, which to my mind is the same thing as saying that they admit what they are really arguing about, then I think they are just wasting their time. Or worse, showing off for the cameras, whether to demonstrate to others how serious they are, or whether to reassure themselves.

So no, I don't find the people debating President Obama's presence at and honouring by Notre Dame to be persuasive. I am a Roman Catholic Christian, who has thoroughly investigated and has been convinced of the truth of the questions of that faith. I am also an American, excited by the prospect of a diverse democracy built upon a fundamental conception of Natural Law and Human Rights – the intellectual children of the Medieval Catholic universities which were then fostered by the Modern age. I am also a loyal son of the University of Notre Dame du Lac, excited by that school's distinctive gift and history of voicing Catholicism into the university, national, and international cultures of our time. The presence of the President is one more day at Notre Dame, one more person present who is in the midst of the ongoing conversation or story of their life. I was never in doubt about the Catholicity of Notre Dame, so protesting President Obama's presence does nothing to convince me any more of Notre Dame's Catholicity. I was never in doubt of President Obama's not being Catholic, so protesting his presence does not tell me or him anything that we didn't already know. The willingness of several of the prominent protesters to call Notre Dame President Fr. John Jenkins's Catholic faith into question over his issuing the invitation? That doesn't convince me any further of the depth of their Catholic faith. Instead, I find the moment, the conversation, the appeal to decency, logic, law, the Good – all things that are good – I find that the appeal to these sorts of things that the President and Notre Dame would be talking about, these are all aspects of God's creation, of the action of the Word and the Spirit in the world. That being the case, all that the President actually has to talk about are those things that the Catholic Church affirms, even if he has yet to make some of those connections, himself. I'm content to let that process happen, to even pray for the occasion, and to let God do any convincing necessary, having long since learned the lesson that my being loud or rude in no way assists God in this work.

President Jenkins put it entirely sensibly when he said, "We are not ignoring the critical issue of the protection of life. On the contrary, we invited him because we care so much about those issues, and we hope . . . for this to be the basis of an engagement with him," as well as adding that, "You cannot change the world if you shun the people you want to persuade, and if you cannot persuade them . . . show respect for them and listen to them." Former President Fr. Ted Hesburgh also put it well when he said the other day, "No speaker who has ever come to Notre Dame has changed the University. We are who we are. But, quite often, the very fact of being here has changed the speaker."

Hmm. And that concludes my thoughts. Sorry about the length, Mom: you asked. (And you're the Irish parent.)

Mike
Tags: academia, america, catholicism, church and state, ethical, family, john paul ii, notre dame, political, theological notebook
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