To honor President Obama or not? This controversy is not about what should be said at Catholic universities, but about what should be said by a Catholic university.
By Richard W. Garnett
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What it is not
To understand what the controversy surrounding Obama’s invitation is about, it is important to understand what it is not about.
Most important, the issue is not, as some commentators have suggested, whether Notre Dame should welcome, engage, debate and explore a wide range of viewpoints. Of course it should. It was, after all, a central message of the Catholic Church’s Second Vatican Council that “nothing genuinely human fails to raise an echo” in Christians’ hearts, and the same can be said for the work of a Catholic university. Such a university has nothing to fear from — indeed, it has the best possible reasons to welcome — inquiry, investigation, argument and testing. And so, no one could reasonably oppose inviting the president to Notre Dame for discussion and dialogue on immigration, education, health care — or even abortion.
The question on the table is not whether Notre Dame should hear from the president but whether Notre Dame should honor the president. A Catholic university can and should engage all comers, but in order to be true to itself — to have integrity — it should hesitate before honoring those who use their talents or power to bring about grave injustice. The university is, and must remain, a bustling marketplace of ideas; at the same time, it also has a voice of its own. We say a lot about who we are and what we stand for through what we love and what we choose to honor. The controversy at Notre Dame is not about what should be said at Catholic universities, but about what should be said by a Catholic university.
It is also a mistake to frame the controversy in terms of academic freedom. Obviously, this freedom, properly understood, is central to the mission of any great university.
Even so, no one is proposing limits on what can or should be discussed, debated, taught, studied or written by students or scholars. The American Association of University Professors is right to insist that “the opportunity to be confronted with diverse opinions is at the core of academic freedom,” but wrong to imagine that this principle requires a university to be indifferent to the messages it sends through the honors it confers.
No university is entirely neutral; every university makes decisions about what to affirm, through its policies, as good or true. One can (and should) affirm the right (and duty) of scholars at Catholic universities to be true to their scholarly vocations while still asking whether Notre Dame is being true to itself.
Blogger’s Comment: Let me make that stronger. An institution selling itself under the rubric of “Catholic” can never be neutral. It must have above all a single issue which is “Christ.” To say “Christ” is to say God and the Absolute. That Absolute is a Person. But the Person of Christ – as prototype of every person – is self-determining. Remove self-determination, and you remove freedom. Remove the person by abortion, and you remove the only absolute that grounds freedom.
Notre Dame must be about that one Absolute, always and everywhere, in order to be able to examine all the issues with respect for the persons who hold them. Then, we are free to discuss and engage the truth content on the level of ideas of persons determining themselves. The freedom to discuss is built on the one value that grounds the existence of all the ideas, but which transcends discussion.
Make the person a fungible issue, abort him, and you abort freedom. Abort freedom, you abort academic freedom. To isolate the Magisterium of the Catholic Church from a fictitious autonomy of academic freedom is oxymoronic. No one is free to espouse abortion in any forum anywhere, much less at Notre Dame, without falling into the contradiction of denying the democratic character of the country, the catholicity of the university, and real freedom of thought.
Exercising religious liberty
Next, some have suggested that it threatens the separation of church and state for Catholic bishops to express regret and criticism regarding Notre Dame’s decision. This suggestion is badly misplaced. A Catholic bishop who calls on a Catholic university to be true to its Catholic character is exercising, not undermining, religious liberty.
Finally, the reason some say that an authentically Catholic university — even one that appreciates fully President Obama’s appeal and the historical significance of his election — should not honor him with a ceremonial law degree is not because he rejects “Catholic” views on abortion. The worry, instead, is that Notre Dame will send the wrong message and say something that is inconsistent with its Catholic character and with its commitment to human rights by honoring — at this time, anyway — a president whose record so far on abortion and embryo-destructive research is glaringly in conflict with that commitment.
The Catholic view on these matters, after all, is that there is no specifically or narrowly “Catholic” view. The church affirms that human life is sacred, and that every human being, at every stage of development, should be welcomed in life and protected in law. This affirmation rests on the same foundational principles of human dignity and equality that animate the Declaration of Independence and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, principles that were celebrated not only by Pope John Paul II but also by Martin Luther King Jr. and Abraham Lincoln. The president’s error is not failing to submit to “Catholic” authority — why should he? — but aggressively and consistently promoting policies that are unjust because they deny the basic equality of every human being.
To doubt that a Catholic university should honor Obama at this time, and to worry about the message such an honor sends, is not to engage in partisan or “single issue” politics or to deny that there are many things to be celebrated and admired about our new president’s life, campaign, election and vision. Indeed, these things make it all the more regrettable — tragic, really — that he is so badly misguided on such a fundamental issue of justice.
Richard W. Garnett is a professor of law at the University of Notre Dame.