Notre Dame, Obama and the Catholic Brand

How Honoring the President Could Weaken the Catholic Voice

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By Helen M. Alvaré



WASHINGTON, D.C., APRIL 9, 2009 (Zenit.org).- Supporters of Notre Dame University's decision to honor Barack Obama at its commencement employ elevated and even aspirational language in their attempt to characterize the meaning of the event. They invoke the language of "engagement" and "common ground" and "dialogue."  But no matter their intentions or even their hopes, the very contents and structures of their argumentation ultimately denigrate the Catholic "brand" of speaking in the public square.

This "brand" involves relying upon empirically supportable assertions and rational argumentation, and respecting one's listeners. But the arguments deployed by supporters of Notre Dame's decision do not exhibit these qualities. If Catholics are persuaded to adopt or accept them, our "brand" will be diluted and the Church will be a less effective advocate on all issues and in every arena where it operates. This should concern all Catholics who toil in public arenas -- before legal bodies, academic critics, the media, or the public generally -- no matter what issues are on the table.

Cast in their best light, the arguments made by supporters of Notre Dame's decision to offer Barack Obama an honorary Doctor of Laws degree are as follows (most are drawn from the interview given by Notre Dame's president, Father John Jenkins, to the campus newspaper): first, Notre Dame commencements have regularly been visited by presidents of both political parties. This obviously confers prestige upon Notre Dame in the eyes of some. As Father Jenkins expresses it, the president "honors" the university by his willingness to come to campus. Also, according to Father Jenkins, the president deserves to be honored because he is an "inspiring leader" who is addressing our nation's present challenges with "intelligence, courage and honesty."  He also deserves to be honored as the first African American president who, by his race and his words, merits the title of "healer" of historic racial wounds.

Finally, according to Father Jenkins, it is precisely "because" Notre Dame "care[s] so much about the "critical issue of the protection of life" that "we invited" President Obama. Honoring him could be the "basis of an engagement" with Obama, a "catalyst for dialogue," and the occasion of future opportunities "to persuade" him or, if not to persuade, at least to show respect for" and "listen to" Obama. Conversely, Jenkins seems to claim that failing to invite and honor people like Barack Obama would be to "shun" them. This would harm efforts at persuasion.

There is another argument one could make in favor of inviting President Obama to the Notre Dame campus, which is likely in the minds of some Catholics, and is likely more persuasive than those arguments put forward by Father Jenkins. It might even do a better job of preserving the Catholic Church's reputation for speaking truthfully about controvertible matters in a pluralistic environment. It is this: President Obama talks often about things that the Catholic Church has long cared about: more widely available health care, the end of nuclear threats, a cleaner environment, and more help for the working poor. It is not surprising that some people, Catholics included, who have long toiled on these issues, should be happy to hear a U.S. president take up these causes as his own, even if there is no guarantee that any of his particular approaches will work. But such an argument is still not up to the task of justifying the bestowal of an honor upon President Obama. This is because there has never been a U.S. president -- or any nationally known politician for that matter -- whose personal opinions and actions regarding unborn and newborn life have been so literally "inhumane," so remorseless and even so irrational. To persons already holding the pro-life view, there is little need to rehearse these opinions and actions, but others will want to know to what I am referring here. An abbreviated summary will have to do.

During his time in the Illinois legislature, Barack Obama acted personally to ensure that that legislature would not pass a law banning the killing of disabled newborn children, born alive following botched abortions. In connection with his tenure as a U.S. Senator, he distributed fundraising circulars to raise money on the grounds of his support for continuing the practice of partial-birth abortions (a technique involving partially delivering live infants outside the bodies of their mothers, save for their heads, which are then stabbed and suctioned, before being fully delivered, now dead). As a candidate for president, he promised that one of his first legislative acts would be the passage of a law (the Freedom of Choice Act) to remove all existing regulations from the practice of abortion in the United States. On the anniversary of Roe v. Wade, and as against the tens of thousands of pro-life marchers gathered in the January cold of Washington, D.C., he issued a public statement supporting the decision that overturned every state's decision to shield the unborn from being killed. He later issued several executive orders releasing hundreds of millions of federal dollars for abortion groups operating overseas, and for researchers killing human embryos. In the context of the latter order, he both excoriated defenders of embryonic life as ideological and political versus "scientific," and claimed the mantle of morality, and scientific purity for himself. He also claimed support for his decision based upon a national "consensus" and his "faith," but failed to give evidence of the former claim, or to confront the facial irrationality of the latter claim. Despite excoriating his opponents as anti-scientific, he himself refused to acknowledge the scientific data confirming the humanity of the embryo, or the emerging scientific consensus that adult stem cells offer a superior therapeutic and moral alternative to embryonic stem cells. President Obama furthermore is readying the federal government to strip conscience protections from doctors and hospitals morally opposed to performing abortions. And he has literally filled the White House and powerful federal agencies with lawyers from the nation's foremost extremist abortion-advocacy groups, the groups that have bitterly opposed every effort of the Catholic Church, both here and overseas, to protect the lives of the unborn and their mothers from abortion.

Believe it or not, the list actually goes on. But enough has been said to help even those who might initially defend Obama's appearance at Notre Dame to understand its significance. As indicated above, however, I am not criticizing Notre Dame, or Father Jenkins' remarks in particular, simply for failing to comprehend the enormity of the threat President Obama poses to respect for vulnerable human life. I am not simply lamenting Notre Dame's willingness to trample upon the sensibilities of hundreds of thousands of ordinary Catholics who have worked nearly four decades in support of human life, or even the willingness to exacerbate a kind of "class divide" between actively pro-life Catholics and the intellectual class of Catholics who attend and run prestigious universities. I am, most of all, writing to caution those who, speaking as Catholics, would deploy irrational and condescending arguments in the public square on any issue. For the stature of Catholics in the public square is fragile at best, despite the brilliance of our best-known public intellectuals such as Professor Robbie George of Princeton or Mary Ann Glendon of Harvard. Our stances on sexual morality, on respect for life, and on marriage, are increasingly out of favor with elites. The effects of the sex-abuse crisis in the Church linger.  Our enormous contributions in the health care, charitable and educational arenas are underreported. If we are to continue to be welcomed at the table where public policies are debated and crafted, we cannot appear to have "descended" below our usual "brand" of argumentation. Reason and truth make up this brand.

But the arguments deployed by defenders of Obama's visit to Notre Dame betray the brand. Commencement ceremonies and the granting of honorary doctorates are not occasions for persuasion, dialogue and engagement on controvertible issues, as Father Jenkins claims. Having received honorary doctorates at several universities (and even though I am infinitely lower on the food chain than the President of the United States) I can tell you that they are nothing but occasions for fulsome praise, protocol and pleasant conversation. The "message" received by all -- the one honored and all of the onlookers -- is that the honoree somehow embodies the values of the institution granting the degree, and the aspirations of the graduates. This is common knowledge.

As for Father Jenkins' statement that Notre Dame honors Obama precisely "because" Notre Dame cares so much about "the critical issue of the protection of life" -- this statement hardly merits commentary. It is worthy of a desperate politician or an advertising agency, but not a Catholic institution that cares to represent itself to listeners as reliably truthful and rational. The message actually sent by Notre Dame's honoring President Obama, is that the decision makers at Notre Dame -- and perhaps the many Catholics they represent -- do not believe that the right of vulnerable persons not to be killed is as important an issue as centuries of Catholic teaching have made it out to be. The further message is that Catholic sources are willing to use irrational and condescending argumentation, if that's what it takes to preserve our own interests or to prevent "embarrassment" in a difficult situation.

All Catholics who wish to be welcomed into public debates on any issue in the future -- not just abortion -- ought to be dismayed at how Notre Dame's attempted justification of the Obama invitation has denigrated our reputation, our "brand" for speaking truthfully and rationally, even to power.

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Helen Alvaré is a senior fellow in law for the Culture of Life Foundation, and an associate professor of law at the George Mason University School of Law in Arlington, Virginia. In 2008, Benedict XVI named Professor Alvaré a consultor to the Pontifical Council for the Laity.