Wednesday, May 11, 2011
Michael Sean Winters links to a letter, signed by a number of Catholic academics, that accuses Speaker Boehner of having a your voting record that "is at variance from one of the Church’s most ancient moral teachings" and that professes to aim to "reawaken [his] familiarity with the teachings of your Church on matters of faith and morals as they relate to governance." Certainly, it would be a good thing if Catholic public servants -- and, for that matter, Catholic academics -- came not only to greater "familiarity with" Catholic teachings on "matters of faith and morals as they relate to governance," but also to the sincere embrace of those teachings and of the Church's authority and obligation to propose them.
Certainly, there is nothing wrong with the composition and publication of such a letter and I have no doubt that many of those signed the letter embrace sincerely the Church's social teachings and believe in good faith that the Speaker's positions regarding taxes and spending are outside the bounds of faithful, reasonable efforts to apply those teachings. I believe, also in good (and equally well informed) faith, that those who believe this are (for the most part) wrong. And so it goes.
I want to speak, instead, to something that Michael said about the letter. Distinguishing between this letter, on the one hand, and the criticisms of Notre Dame's decision to honor President Obama at graduation two years ago, he notes that "President Obama is not a Catholic, so his disagreement with the Church on a range of issues, including abortion, has a different quality than Speaker Boehner's disagreement with the Church on vital issues. If a university wishes to have a Jewish or Muslim or Hindu graduation speaker, and confer an honorary degree upon him or her, should they not do so because that person denies the divinity of Christ?"
While I agree (of course) that it would be silly to withhold an honor from Obama for not believing in the Real Presence, it is a different thing, I think -- given what the Church teaches abortion actually is, and why it is actually wrong -- to refuse to honor a person, of whatever religion, who errs badly on a question of fundamental justice and who supports constructing and strengthening a legal regime that entrenches, and supports, this injustice. In addition, and with all due respect, the fact that President Obama is not Catholic does not deflect the concern that Notre Dame was, given all the givens and the relevant context, likely to be understood as saying something (about abortion, and about the gravity of the President's error on this matter of basic justice) that, as a Catholic university (and, Notre Dame is a Catholic university) it should not have said.
UPDATE: Michael Sean Winters responds to this post here. He notes, among other things, that the "graduation wars" are continuing at Catholic universities and suggests that, actually, this is not a bad thing. I agree: Not every skirmish is edifying or pleasant, but at least they suggest to us an engagement with the question, "given what we are, and aspire to be, what should, and should not, we be saying-through-honoring?" Responding to my post, he writes:
I do not think it serves either the Catholic identity of our institutions nor our efforts to protect the unborn to fail to engage those whose views of what justice demands differ from our own. I am glad there was controversy about President Obama’s appearance at Notre Dame. I am glad President Obama listened to Father Jenkins reiterate the Church’s concern for the unborn. I am glad that the entire country was reminded that we Catholics have not – indeed, cannot – abandon our defense of the unborn. But, that is not the only word of Christian ethics. It is only by engaging people who disagree with us that we can, with God’s grace, help them to see the error of their ways. And, a Catholic university is the perfect place for such an engagement.
To be clear -- I have no problem with, and in fact welcome, "engagement" with those who do not (yet, please God) see the injustice of our abortion-related legal regime, and agree with Michael that this engagement can and should happen at Catholic universities. My expressed concerns about the honorary degree for President Obama have always (I think) focused on (what I worried was) the "social meaning" or "expressive content" of the honor; I would not have objected, at all, to a prominent lecture by the President, on campus, notwithstanding his mistaken views on abortion (and other things).
I could, I am happy to admit, be wrong: It could be that what Notre Dame "said" when it honored President Obama was something different (e.g., "let's celebrate this wonderful step along the road to healing the damage caused to our political community by slavery, racism, and Jim Crow -- a road that was so important to Fr. Hesburgh"). But, I still have my concerns.