Mirror of Justice

A blog dedicated to the development of Catholic legal theory.
Affiliated with the Program on Church, State & Society at Notre Dame Law School.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

A response to Rob’s “Whom Should A Catholic Law School Honor?”



Thanks to Rob for bringing to our attention his recent and engaging paper entitled “Whom Should A Catholic Law School Honor?” [Rob’s post here] I am responding to his welcome for comment and input.

At the outset, I find myself in agreement with Rob on many of his thoughtful points. Thus, I do not want my following remarks to be seen simply as critique. As I have said, I agree with much of what he has to say in this characteristically thoughtful presentation. In particular, his analysis of Fr. John I. Jenkins’s distinction between Catholic and non-Catholic speakers is on target. Rob got it right, but Fr. Jenkins did not. It would be nonsensical to say that Catholic institutions are prohibited from honoring or giving platforms to Catholics who act in defiance of the Church’s teachings, including its moral teachings but are allowed to honor or give platforms to non-Catholics who defy Her teachings. An example of this is Larry Flynt’s invitation to speak at Georgetown University several years ago. The fact that the Bishops’ Statement properly noted and quoted by Rob was issued after the Flynt fiasco does not excuse Georgetown from doing the incomprehensible, i.e., inviting Flynt and awarding him a platform to do what most thoughtful people knew he would do—engage in coarse ridicule and display open contempt.

At the beginning of his paper Rob also correctly brings to our attention the significance of “broader debates about the institutional identity and fidelity” that pertain to the question: whom should any Catholic institution—including law schools—honor? I, for one, think that the identity, and therefore the fidelity, of the institution is an unavoidable issue that must be addressed and answered prior to answering: whom can this institution honor? Therefore, I don’t consider it promising to answer Rob’s inviting question without first having established what do “Catholic identity and fidelity” mean, including the context of a law school that uses the term “Catholic” to identify itself.

Books can be and have been written in response to the issues surrounding Catholic fidelity and identity. So, my humble posting cannot get into too many important details about fidelity and identity. But this can be said about Catholic identity and fidelity. Must everyone who is associated with the institution using the modifier “Catholic” be a Catholic—one who professes the faith of the Creed, who follows the Church’s teachings, who acknowledges Peter, who knows that he or she is a sinner but nonetheless strives to live a holy and virtuous life? No. Must the institution that relies on the modifier Catholic and most of those who are in some fashion or other associated with such an institution acknowledge that that there is a profession of faith inextricably connected to the institution’s raison d’être, that there is a deposit of faith (the Church’s teachings) to which adherence is expected, that Peter exists, and that there is the need to strive for holiness in spite of the temptation of sin? Yes.

Now here’s the tricky but vital matter: does the institution which calls itself Catholic profess fidelity to the Creed; does it acknowledge and honor—not ridicule or critique—Peter; does it adhere to rather than dissent from the Church’s teachings; and, does it encourage its members to strive for holiness rather than succumb to the temptations of this world that are so often promoted by a surrounding culture, including that endorsed, promoted, or condoned by a university and its law school? If the institution, at best, pays lip service to, i.e., uses the modifier “Catholic,” but does not embrace the Creed, the Church’s teachings, Peter, or the call to holiness, it is really Catholic in spite of its claim. (Clara Peller of happy memory asked a parallel question about the competitors of the Wendy’s restaurant chain: where’s the beef? In Thomistic fashion, I ask: but where’s the Catholic?)

To borrow from an old line, would there be sufficient evidence to convict the institution claiming to be Catholic to be held so? Until this issue is addressed upfront, addressing the question “Whom Should A Catholic Law School Honor?” is and remains an interesting but theoretical pursuit.

But if we have sufficient understanding of the fundamental question dealing with both fidelity and identity, then I shall proceed to express some alternative thoughts to those presented by Rob’s reflective paper. I agree with him that ascertaining what are “proportionate reasons” for siding with someone who may be a potential candidate to receive an academic honor or platform is a challenging question. But even challenging questions cannot escape good-faith efforts that seek answers.

Let me flesh out my approach to seeking and providing an answer to this last issue. In doing so I use two of the illustrations presented by Rob, i.e., Notre Dame’s conferral of an honorary degree on President Obama and the platform from which to speak; and, Xavier’s conferral of an honorary degree on Ms. Donna Brazile and the platform from which to speak. Even if honorary degrees were not conferred, platforms to which there would be no response—and none is expected in the context of commencement speakers—were given. To be given such a platform is, in fact, an honor whether there is an honoris causa degree given. There is a subliminal message that—even without being awarded a degree honoris causa, a medal, a citation, or some other similar recognition—an honor is bestowed when the commencement podium is given to the commencement speaker. Might Notre Dame and Xavier have invited the President or Ms. Brazile to participate in a colloquium where those faithful to the Creed, Peter, the Church’s teachings, and the call to holiness are also invited participants? Of course, but would they come? Presidents typically don’t do this (they recognize the wisdom of Teddy Roosevelt’s “bully pulpit” analogy), but this would not have prevented Notre Dame from extending the invitation to the President to join in a colloquium or symposium discussion where the Church and all that she stands for would not be marginalized or forgotten. News commentators, campaign directors, and Georgetown adjunct-professors like Ms. Brazile often do receive and accept such invitations as I have just described. These are contexts vital to Rob’s contextual discussion that he presents in his paper that were not mentioned.

Here is what I contend is my fundamental disagreement with Rob. If I have misunderstood or misconstrued him, I beg his correction. He states:


A Catholic law school should never honor a person because of their actions that defy the Church’s teachings. A Catholic law school may honor a person despite their actions that defy the Church’s teachings, but only if the circumstances are such that the honor is unlikely to cause observers to question the school’s commitment to the truth of the Church’s teachings.”


Rob makes a good distinction by using “because” and “despite.” But the inquiry about context and confusion cannot rest here. Rob suggests that there might be circumstances in which observers will not be confused about the institution’s “commitment to the truth of the Church’s teachings.” I disagree. The invitee is being honored in some way—be it with an honorary degree, a podium, both, or something else constitutive of an honor. A pretext may be offered in publicity materials such as “We know our honored speaker disagrees with us as Catholics on important issues, but we agree on others.” It might be said that a certain chancellor of Germany could be commended for his plan to extract his country and her people from economic disaster; but, should he be honored knowing what else he has done, to what else he was committed? Context is not partial, it must be complete in assessing the suitability of candidates who are to be honored by an institution that claims fidelity to the modifier “Catholic.” Rob correctly brings up the important matter of the common good, an essential element of the Church’s teachings. But let us not forget that the Church has defined the meaning of this term, and Her definition is not forgetful of Her teachings. She does not and cannot rely on the explication given to this important phrase (and the ideas it represents) offered by those who disagree with the Church teachings. They may say they are for the common good, but they do not share in the meaning held and taught by the Church. It is an expansive topic that covers all vital interests, not just some.

There are ways of extending invitations, as I have mentioned, so that persons who cannot be honored can still be present and participate in a robust exchange of ideas at an institution that claims to be Catholic. This point is, I believe, concurrent with Rob’s statement about identity flourishing “more through proactive witness than through omission.” But, an honor is an honor. And, its being conferred in whatever way cannot escape the conclusion—or to use Rob’s term, confusion—that the particular person’s defiance of Church teachings is permissible. It is not. Again, there are contexts where those who stand in defiance may nonetheless be able to participate in an event sponsored by a Catholic institution. But, let us be clear on one thing, an honor by any name is still an honor. Be it conclusion or confusion, observers will be given a message that is inescapable about the true nature of the institution that has extended the honor regardless of this institution’s claim to the contrary. It is Catholic, or it is not. Honoring a person or organization who may assert that it is for the “common good” and other important issues but is opposed to the Church’s teachings on issues for which there is no compromise or ability to disagree is support for the person or organization who persists in defiance—implicit or explicit. The “Catholic” institution that extends this support betrays its claim that it is Catholic. The person who cannot be honored might still be invited given the appropriate context without the honor being extended and without the inevitable conclusion or confusion that, in spite of the institution’s claim that it is Catholic is, in fact, otherwise.


RJA sj



Araujo, Robert | Permalink

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Thanks for the thoughtful response, Fr. Araujo. I think we agree that the objective of the bishops' statement is avoiding confusion. I guess we disagree on the nature of the confusion to be avoided. Let's say that Xavier always chooses as its commencement speaker a figure who has been a pioneer in overcoming barriers to African Americans' full participation in public life. Or let's say that St. Ambrose invites Senator Casey to serve as the keynote speaker for a pro-life conference. Does the fact that Brazile is pro-choice or that Casey supports civil unions really send a confusing message about the Catholic identity of the institution? The bishops stated that institutions cannot extend honors that suggest "support for [the honorees'] actions" that defy our fundamental moral principles. I have a hard time seeing how honoring Brazile or Casey under those circumstances would suggest support for such actions -- it might suggest a willingness to honor in spite of the actions, but I think that's different than "support."

Posted by: rob vischer | Feb 3, 2010 11:08:20 PM