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.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Whom Should a Catholic law school honor?

In my never-ending quest to avoid controversial topics, I've posted a new paper, Whom Should a Catholic Law School Honor?: If Confusion is the Concern, Context Matters.  This short essay is my contribution to a forthcoming symposium in the Journal of Catholic Legal Studies.  Here is the abstract:

If a Catholic can vote for a pro-choice candidate when proportionate reasons justify that decision, can a Catholic law school honor a pro-choice public figure if there are proportionate reasons to do so? In other words, should the law school’s inquiry focus simply on whether the honoree defies Church teaching on any matter of grave moral importance, or should the law school also consider the message communicated by the honor in light of the broader context in which it would be extended? This short essay suggests that a contextual approach is more consistent with the U.S. Bishops’ instruction on this matter and avoids some of the collateral harm arising from a bright-line prohibition on honoring anyone who defies even a single aspect of Church teaching.

For those looking for a detailed blueprint that provides answers to specific commencement speaker controversies, you should look elsewhere.  In this paper, I'm simply trying to articulate: 1) why a Catholic institution should evaluate its decision to honor a person in light of Church teaching, but also 2) why the approach taken by some groups (e.g., the Cardinal Newman Society) is, in my view, short-sighted and often counterproductive.  I welcome feedback.


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This article starts a helpful discussion. Part of the context, it must be noted, is that Catholic University faculty have tracked their secular counterparts in being disproportionately wrong and indifferent on abortion, instead of being disproportionately where the Catholic faith should have put them. This analysis doesn't start at ground zero. So I think the Cardinal Newman Society deserves more understanding.

Ultimately, I think the problem is that Catholics are tempted to view support for legal abortion as not so bad. No one would perjoratively call it a "single issue" standard to exclude racists from university honors. Efforts to soften standards for Catholic endorsements almost always coincide with rationalizations to support people who support legal abortion. Even calling abortion in the US from 1973-2010 a "single issue" suggests an inappropriate lenience towards the problem. 50 million murders and counting. People, not you, have taken the single issue label you use and said that opposition to honoring Obama was based on a single issue. Calling abortion a single issue compartmentalizes even the polictical realities of how pervasive the evil is. In his encyclical On Social Concern, Pope John Paul II speaks of "structures of sin," which is an understated way to describe massive, entrenched social evils. Describing it as a "single issue" is a denigration. It seems to me that even if publicly pro-abortion people were excluded, Church-minded universities could do just fine highlighting people who have served Gospel values on other issues. Arguably, the failure to intentionally honor social justice servants who *aren't* pro-abortion is what has contributed to the acceptability of people like Prejean being soft on a procedure that Pope John Paul II says we need to call murder. We need to measure the situation not just by what scandal Catholic Universities are causing by continuing to honor these people, but what good they could have done yet didn't do by failing to honor people who aren't supporting the massive entrenched social evil of our day. The opportunity cost of honoring these people is significant.

Posted by: Matt Bowman | Feb 2, 2010 10:20:54 AM