Notre Dame's Common Ground [Fr. Z. comments]
By Douglas W. Kmiec
March 29, 2009
As a former law school dean, I know selecting commencement speakers can be difficult. The ideal speaker must raise your institution’s prestige and be universally beloved for a life well-lived. Toss in the school’s religious mission, and it’s depressing to think Mother Teresa is deceased. [Should those be the criteria? "raise prestige"? "be univerally beloved"? I don’t think that being universally beloved has to be a factor. But actually honoring a person who stands for things your institution should be against seems might be a criterion for disqualification.]
One would think the president of the United States would be a good bet.
Presidents are political figures, of course, but just as politics are expected to stop at the water’s edge, partisan sentiment ill-becomes a graduation. [Is Kmiec, like so many others, going to reduce this to a political issue?] The rough and tumble of political debate is as awkwardly out of place at commencements as attempting to mediate an intrafamily grievance would be at a wedding.
Commencements are mostly celebrations—of achievement, past and anticipated. Seated among the berobed faculty is everyone from Grandma to Uncle Harry, and while the scholars expect to hear, and the families tolerate, orations touching on the issues of the day, ponderous intellectual heft is best checked at the door, or at least moderated with kind words about the graduating class and a touch of wit. Not everyone follows this prudential guidance, of course. In the 20 years I taught at the University of Notre Dame, I witnessed presidents, scholars, actors, scientists and world figures defy this formula—or worse, the need for brevity. One speaker delivered his remarks entirely in untranslated Italian. A South American head of state went on so long that it is a standing joke among the graduates of that class that Notre Dame built a new auditorium because he is still speaking in the old one.
Of course, the controversy over President Barack Obama at Notre Dame is different. [Not if it is reduced to a political issue it isn’t.] Even as unprecedented numbers of Catholics voted for the president (54 percent of the Catholic vote nationwide), Catholic voters paying respectful heed to local bishops had reservations. [Which bishops? Also, I detect a whiff of the universal excuse I call "the struggle". If you "struggle" with something, you are to be exonerated of any guilt for doing something wrong. I am guessing that "having reservations" does the same thing on Kmiec’s planet.] Of course, this is not unusual either. Politics is the art of compromise and candidates are the embodiment of it. But there’s the rub, the Catholic Church is the foremost defender of unborn life, and properly, uncompromising about it. [That use of "properly, uncompromising" surprises me from him. So… is he saying that the Church’s pastor’s, properly following the properly uncompromising stand of the Church on abortion, properly warn their subjects about the consquences of improperly promoting abortion?] Obama is more pragmatic, accommodating other religious and scientific views that see the origin point of life differently. [How enlightened he is. He sees so many sides of the difficult issue at once. Oh… ! ...... ..... ...... I almost swooned there for a moment, but I am better now.] Obama may thoughtfully [he is so pragmatic, accomodating… and thoughtful too! He is a deep thinker. He’s like that statue… you know… The Thinker.] call reducing the "moral tragedy" of abortion a top priority of his faith office, but this is not absolute legal protection, and the Catholic hierarchy has not been shy about raising moral objection, for example, to the president’s new direction on embryonic stem-cell research. [Okay… let me get this straight. Kmiec has chosen to cite, of all the various things Pres. Obama has said and done about abortion, to cite… wait for it, his desire to reduce the "moral tragedy" of abortion as a priority of his "faith office". That is what Kmiec is going to say about Pres. Obama’s position on abortion? His desire to reduce the "moral tragedy"?]
Notre Dame’s president, Rev. John Jenkins, has also made it plain that the commencement invitation represents no disregard of the church’s commitment to life. [Right! And President Obama is working through his faith office to reduce the moral tragedy of abortion!] And while it is unfortunate the local prelate, Bishop John D’Arcy, has chosen to be elsewhere rather than pray with Obama and engage him in conversation, [booo! hisss! bad bishop! President Obama is so pragmatic! He would be practical enough to use the occasion for dialogue. But not Bp. D’Arcy! Pres. Obama is so accomodating! But not the bad bishop! Pres. Obama is thoughtful! He reflects on everything ... with depth! But Bp. D’Arcy won’t come to pray with him. He has chosen to be elsewhere rather than be with The Wun!] the significance of the bishop’s absence and Jenkins’ candor is surely not lost on our intellectually gifted 44th president. [pragmatic, accomodating, thoughtfull, intellectually gifted… wow… Well.. I should hope the absence of the bishop will be noticed!]
So with all this reservation and dissent, [sooo… what does "dissent" mean in this sentence? I think he might actually be applying it to the people who don’t approve of the invitation to the President.] should Notre Dame regret Obama’s acceptance? [NB: regret his acceptance…. Clever. Should they regret the invitation!] And in light of the commotion being stirred up by Obama’s detractors, should Obama feel unwelcome? [It just piles up, doesn’t it? The dentification of Pres. Obama’s positions as morally unacceptable to a human being (not just a Catholic) because they violate natural law and reason, is not "detraction". Kmiec is saying that if you call the President’s positions for what they are, you are a "detractor". Maybe this is why Kmiec wouldn’t say more, above, about the President’s position on abortion other than that he wants to reduce the moral tragedy, blah blah….]
No, on both counts; the "O" in Obama’s name may be only remotely Irish (kin on his mother’s side traced to Moneygall—which sounds like a place American International Group execs go to vacation), [soooo funnny too!] but this much is undeniable: both Notre Dame and our new president are "fightin’ Irish" when it comes to working for social justice. [Hey! Forget about the dissent in the theology department or the disgraceful desire to honor a man who is working so concretely to advance abortion – because that is what the President is really doing Prof. Kmiec. Forget about the President’s actual record, his promises, his concrete actions since taking office! They are fighting for social justice. Applicable to all but the unborn. Er… no… I guess some of those who were accidently born don’t get social justice either.] The Obama administration’s early victories extending health insurance to children, rectifying imbalances in a tax code neglectful of the working man, and persuading Congress to allocate abundant resources for educational reform, despite the economic distress, all coincide strongly with church teaching. [He is so, gifted, and pragmatic, and thoughtful, and …. gosh…. wonderful. It’s just that pesky thing about the the meaning of all human life, isn’t it. This has been Kmiec’s position since the campaign: all these things he lists are, in effect, more important than defending the dignity of all human lives. Some are less valued, in effect. Some are expendable. But if they are expendable… then why not old people, or the sick or stupid… as defined by, well, me! Or, because people will blue eyes irritate me today…. them too.] So too is the president’s disposition to end an unjust war, the exploitation of the immigrant and his pursuit of environmental stewardship that will no longer be profit’s afterthought. [He’s soooo groooovy.]
And there is a very special reason [When "special" isn’t enough to describe our need to honor President Obama, it becomes "very special"!] why only Notre Dame is capable of giving emphasis [And let’s pander to Notre Dame! Maybe they’ll invite Kmiec next year?] to these compelling aspects of Barack Obama. The reason: honoring the extraordinary priesthood and life of Rev. Theodore M. Hesburgh, 92, [Hesburgh? The driving force behind the notorious Land O’Lakes Statement? That Fr. Hesburgh?] Notre Dame’s president emeritus who during the 35 years he led the university to its present greatness, served as chairman of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission. Today, Father Ted has been rendered nearly blind by illness, but he, like Obama, can see clearly two great goods missed by the short-sighted critics [Get it? Get it? Hesburgh is blind but can see more clearly than the physically sighted but obtuse critics of the President and Notre Dame? Get it? Get it?] of the invitation: first, that while on Inauguration Day, all Americans rejoiced in the election of the first African-American to the presidency, today we are with him or against him irrespective of race, and second, that despite our occasionally profound disagreement, if we are truly to learn to live with one another, [can’t we all just get along?] we will need to find a way, as Obama has remarked, "that reconciles the beliefs of each with the good of all." [YES WE CAN!]
Cheer, cheer [clever to the end, I see] for Notre Dame for being an inviting place of common ground.
Douglas W. Kmiec is a law professor at Pepperdine University and the author "Can a Catholic Support Him? Asking the Big Question about Barack Obama."
The University's Egregious Error [Fr. Z. comments]
By George Weigel
March 29, 2009
When a university invites a prominent personality to deliver a commencement address and accept an honorary degree, a statement is being made to graduates, students, faculty, parents, alumni and donors: "This is someone whose work is worth emulating." The invitation, in other words, is not to a debate, or to the opening of some sort of ongoing conversation. The invitation and the award of an honorary degree are a university’s stamp of approval on someone’s life and accomplishment. [Precisely. You can’t just hide behind the reason that he is POTUS. This is a POTUS with a difference!]
Which is precisely why the University of Notre Dame, which claims to be America’s premier Catholic institution of higher learning, made an egregious error in inviting President Barack Obama to address its May commencement and accept an honorary doctorate of laws degree.
Since Inauguration Day, Obama has made several judgment calls that render Notre Dame’s invitation little short of incomprehensible. [Noooo… I know this is a rhetorical device, but please. But compare the list that follows with Kmiec’s list, above:] The president has put the taxpayers of the United States back into the business of paying for abortions abroad. He has expanded federal funding for embryo-destructive stem-cell research and defended that position in a speech that was a parody of intellectually serious moral reasoning. The Obama administration threatens to reverse federal regulations that protect the conscience rights of Catholic and other pro-life health-care professionals. And the administration has not lifted a finger to keep its congressional and teachers’ union allies from snatching tuition vouchers out of the hands of poor inner-city children who want to attend Catholic schools in the nation’s capital. ["But Father! But Father!", you are squeeking as you wave your hands to get my attention. Yes… I know… you are itching to point out that Pres. Obama is working through his "faith office" to reduce the "moral tragedy".... etc. Prof. Kmiec taught me that, above.]
How any of this, much less the sum total of it, constitutes a set of decisions Notre Dame believes worth emulating is not, to put it gently, easy to understand. [Again.. the rhetorical device. It is really quite easy to understand.]
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. [HUH? What about all those things Kmiec listed above? Don’t they really, if put in the balance against all the great things The Wun is doing… don’t they outwiegh the whole abortion thing?] 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. [Right! This is a human issue, not a Catholic issue. Doesn’t that make it twice as bad when a Catholic, who has the advantages of the Church, dissents from the clear truth?] 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 [the unborn included… and those born even accidently … in Illinois…] 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. [If you cannot defend the rights of the innocent unborn, then you have no grounds for defending the rights of anyone else. If one innocent group is denied the right to live, then another innocent group can be denied other rights.] That claim and that work made it possible for Obama to be elected president of the United States. 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. [Yes… a good rhetorical device. We know why they are doing this.]
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. 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. [Exactly.] 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. [Therefore… what do we conclude about the University’s convictions? (Keep in mind the pivotal role UND played in the Land O’ Lakes Statement.)]
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. And that is very bad news for all Americans. [Not just Catholics.]
George Weigel is a distinguished senior fellow of Washington’s Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.