Saturday, March 4, 2017
Notre Dame has decided to invite Vice President Pence to speak at the university’s commencement ceremony and receive an honorary degree. I agree with Rick that extending this honor is appropriate for a Catholic university.
Honoring President Trump would present a much thornier dilemma. I don’t believe that Trump’s stated policy positions necessarily preclude an honor even though some positions conflict directly with Church teaching. The concern surrounding the bestowal of these widely publicized honors is that they create muddled institutional messages. The potential harm stems from confusion caused by the honor. As the Catechism puts it, the sin of scandal refers to “an attitude or behavior which leads another to do evil,” and typically “operates by giving a bad example.”
If muddled messages are the concern, then the analysis has to be contextual, as I argued in an essay I wrote after Notre Dame’s decision to honor President Obama. Checking a box on a particular issue does not, standing alone, determine the appropriateness of the honor. The university must weigh whether the honor “would amount to a surrendering of [its] public witness.” It may not be enough to point to the honoree’s views on a single issue. Even when an honoree rejects Church teaching on an essential matter such as abortion, “there are many instances where the honor is unlikely to amount to ‘scandal’ because the honoree is overwhelmingly associated with work through which the Gospel is proclaimed.” Context matters.
Context makes it more difficult for a Catholic university to honor President Trump without creating muddled institutional messages, but not because he espouses more positions that are contrary to Church teaching than past Presidents have. (Reasonable Catholics can argue about that.) Rather, the more dangerous confusion arises from the fact that his words and actions reflect an absence – indeed, a deliberate rejection – of the virtues that Catholic universities seek to impart to their students. While we all fall short, we have not witnessed a President in recent memory who so enthusiastically celebrates what Catholics (and previous generations of Americans) would have viewed as personal shortcomings; President Trump appears not to see them as shortcomings at all.
Consider the cardinal virtues: prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance. Or recall the fruits of the Spirit: charity, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, generosity, gentleness, faithfulness, modesty, self-control, and chastity. Now consider the qualities that our President seeks to cultivate in himself and others. Even in his visit to a Catholic elementary school yesterday, President Trump encouraged one young student to get rich and two others to become famous (by getting their photos taken with the President). Minor episodes, to be sure, but part of a consistent pattern over the decades. Even the President’s supporters defended a widely perceived lack of “character” on the part of their chosen candidate by insisting that the country needs a strong leader, “not a Sunday school teacher.” Very few defend our President as virtuous, of strong character, or exhibiting “the fruits of the Spirit.” For some supporters, it is this absence of virtue that makes him appealing – the ability to do what needs to be done without worrying about social niceties. His rejection of traditional virtues is not an afterthought -- it was core to his candidacy, and it is an inescapable dimension of his public reputation as President.
Is this something that a Catholic university can overlook? I recommend, to cite but one of many illuminating examples, Catholic University President John Garvey’s remarks on the dangers of separating the cultivation of intellect from the cultivation of moral virtue in the mission of Catholic higher education. If Catholic universities are called to guard their public witness by avoiding muddled institutional messages, an honoree’s publicly known indications of character are as relevant as the honoree’s publicly known policy positions. As such, Catholic universities should think twice before honoring President Trump.