Monday, March 30, 2009
Kenneth Woodward's comment on the ND/Obama controversy largely depends, it seems to me, on the idea that Notre Dame is not really honoring President Obama by awarding him an honorary degree. He refers to the degree as the "customary honorary degree" and later notes that Obama "will receive an honorary degree because it is the custom, not as a blessing on any of his decisions." Woodward's comment notes that Notre Dame is "allowing its graduating class to hear from the President" (is anyone saying that President Obama ought to be prevented from making his views known?) and he (Woodward) seems to view the graduation ceremony as a debate between Obama and Glendon. (Does the Laetare Medal recipient deliver a speech at graduation?)
If Notre Dame had invited President Obama to speak at Notre Dame to participate in an exchange of views with Mary Ann Glendon, I doubt whether there would be a firestorm. The objections to Notre Dame's actions are not really about a desire to avoid engagement or about shunning the world as evil.
The objections seem largely the result of the perception that Notre Dame is in fact honoring President Obama by awarding him an honorary degree. I agree that there is room for prudential judgments. What if the public official was the Secretary of State whose public duties and actions were not inconsistent with Catholic moral teaching but who had expressed opposition to Church teaching on matters--e.g., Humanae Vitae--not relevant to that official's public duties and actions? I think, then, that one could make the argument that the award of an honorary degree to such a person should not reasonably be viewed as creating scandal or creating confusion about Church teaching on moral issues. (I wonder, though, why Catholic schools think it is so important to award honorary degrees to high profile public officials. Maybe the schools ought to rethink the whole matter.) But that doesn't seem to be the case with an award to President Obama. Woodward himself notes that Obama's actions have "violated fundamental Catholic principles on the protection of human life." (I wonder why Woodward refers to these principles as "Catholic"--which seems to leave the impression that the views are theological in nature?)