Wednesday, March 25, 2009

More fallout

The Obama invitation and honorary degree has attracted more widespread attention and criticism than I would have expected since the White House broke the news on Friday, but while I wish the criticism weren't necessary in the first place (if Obama weren't invited), it's certainly warranted now. The way the university has handled it (no press release until the White House said anything, no featured stories on the ND homepage, not even a courtesy call to the bishop until just before the news broke) has something to do with it. Most of their actions suggest they knew it would be an objectionable choice not in line with Church teaching and specific guidelines. In other words, I think the decision can't be attributed to cluelessness as to how alumni and the wider American Catholic community would respond. The administration knew, they attempted to downplay it, and while they are trying to make an affirmative case for why the honors are valid, they're really on the defensive now as people are severely disappointed and upset by the whole affair. Then again, maybe they knew but didn't expect the scope of the blowback?

As many people thought, Bishop D'Arcy has responded by stating that he will not attend Commencement. The statement was not harsh, but was extremely pointed: "[A]s a Catholic University, Notre Dame must ask itself, if by this decision it has chosen prestige over truth." Given that this president has "separated science from ethics and has brought the American government, for the first time in history, into supporting direct destruction of innocent human life," the decision by ND to confer an honorary degree can't be reconciled with the Catholic mission of the university. The bishop has asked for prayers for the university to recommit itself to the "primacy of truth." I'm glad he has taken a strong stand and hope it has an impact on the administration.

The alumni association, though, isn't handling it that well yet, judging by its statement yesterday. Thomas Peters posted this letter sent out to ND Club presidents yesterday. A key point:

Here are a few University observations about the selection of the President as the Commencement speaker: The University does not support President Obama’s positions on specific issues regarding the protection of human life, including abortion and embryonic stem cell research. Notre Dame’s positions on these issues are firm and unwavering. The invitation to the President to be the Commencement speaker shouldn’t be taken as condoning or endorsing his positions that contradict the teachings of the Catholic Church.

Rather, the University has invited the President to campus for what he’s done for racial equality, and for his stands on poverty, health care, immigration, education, infectious disease, and seeking peace. These are causes dear to the heart of Notre Dame, and he has elevated these causes and made them his own.

I fully concede that my reaction to the claims of the second paragraph are mostly political (i.e., how exactly is the push for socialized medicine a praiseworthy thing? How is eliminating voucher programs for disadvantaged minorities a great thing for racial equality and education?) Regardless, however, the fact is that human life issues trump all of these in importance, according to the Church (and one would hope, according to the conscience of most citizens). Active support and furtherance of a legal regime that's resulted in forty million innocent deaths in America alone since Roe v. Wade -- itself a legal abomination that Obama the law prof supports and would codify into law -- has to trump, and does trump, a stand on immigration in any moral calculus. (Unless, for instance, the existing immigration policy was the legalized mass slaughter of immigrants.) Very notably, the Alumni Association letter doesn't say anything about the USCCB policy that was specifically intended to address moral equivalence between (or inversion of priority of) life issues and abortion, on the one hand, and "justice" issues like immigration and education on the other. Any "University observations" that miss this key point are severely flawed. (The Alumni Association letter also makes more points about dialogue and discussion being the point of the invitation.)

I still think that if the University can't back away from having Obama as Commencement speaker, they should at the very least not confer an honorary law degree on him. But I hope they do more than that. If Fr. Jenkins thinks people should be satisfied on Commencement day with a generic, "We have our differences on life issues, but we have *so much* in common on these other points and we're honored and thrilled to have you here," he is sorely mistaken. I am waiting to see what the next steps will be.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Scandalous invitation

The news broke late Friday that President Obama will be Notre Dame's commencement speaker this year. That the nation's preeminent Catholic university would invite the most pro-abortion president we've ever had to give such a prominent address and receive an honorary law degree is astonishing and unjustifiable.

After a weekend with little to no comment from the university -- they must realize how objectionable this whole affair is -- Fr. Jenkins commented yesterday in an interview with the Observer. My take: I'm still as upset as I was on Friday when I heard about it, and a lot of other people are too. I bet Bishop D'Arcy won't even attend the ceremony.

In its 2004 statement "Catholics in Political Life," the USCCB advised, "The Catholic community and Catholic institutions should not honor those who act in defiance of our fundamental moral principles. They should not be given awards, honors or platforms which would suggest support for their actions." This should be a no-brainer, but the frequency with which Catholic institutions host such speakers means it needed to be said. Unfortunately, Fr. Jenkins seems to be ignoring the clear meaning and context of this directive in favor of hair-splitting interpretations: The president's honorary degree, he said, "does not, it is not intended to condone or endorse his position on specific issues regarding life. That's not what we're honoring."

So how is he going to make that clear? As the USCCB statement implied, it's hard to separate public honors and accolades of a person from censure of his positions. That's assuming censure even occurs, which I doubt it would here. Fr. Jenkins can tell the alumni and students in the student newspaper that of course we disagree with the President on life issues, but is it likely he's going to say even that much on stage? - much less give any sort of harsh rebuke to the President for causing taxpayers to fund international abortions or destruction of human embryos? Of course not. (You can already tell from Jenkins's comments that he is looking forward to honoring Obama as a "powerful and eloquent" speaker who is "an inspiring leader." Um, sure.)

Even if Catholics could delude themselves, a la Doug Kmiec, before the election that Obama was somehow, despite all evidence to the contrary, really pro-life in practice, there is no way they could think so now. The President has gone out of his way, during a time of economic distress, to allow taxpayer funding for embryonic stem cell research and abortions. He routinely selects pro-choice Catholics (Biden, Daschle, Sebelius) for key positions, including ones that will affect health care in America. And regardless of whether it's likely to end up on his desk, he has said he will sign the Freedom of Choice Act to eliminate all legislative restrictions on abortion. This is morally and ethically wrong, especially to Catholics. Fr. Jenkins doesn't pretend otherwise (I don't doubt he adheres to Catholic teaching on life issues; of course he does); he just thinks hosting Obama will allow us to have a dialogue and engagement with Obama on these issues.

I think this is unlikely, to say the least. I think, instead, the media and public at large will miss any nuanced "dialoguing" that happens on campus in connection with the event, leaving the main narrative perception of the commencement events to be that Notre Dame hosted Obama, and so abortion just must not be that big of issue for the American church today. (Everyone today remembers Mario Cuomo's "personally opposed" debacle in the 80s happened at Notre Dame. Was there "dialogue" on campus at the time? Who knows?) It gives cover to the Pelosis and Bidens of the world who promulgate ludicrous misreadings of Church teaching and continue publically supporting abortion and other moral wrongs in America. It undermines the moral standing and Catholic character of Notre Dame. It's a huge disappointment for anyone who loves the university and cares about its character. For shame, Fr. Jenkins.