Sunday, April 05, 2009

The Meaning of Notre Dame - II

Part one of this series is here.

The University of Notre Dame has invited President Barack Obama to speak at its upcoming commencement exercises. It will also, as is the custom, give an honorary degree to the president, typically the highest honor a college or university can bestow.

“This college will be one of the most powerful means for doing good in this country.”
-- Rev. Edward Sorin, C.S.C., founder of the University of Notre Dame du Lac

That was the promise the founder of Notre Dame made back in 1842. We are now 167 years on and Notre Dame has become one of the most prominent universities in the world. Its loyal sons and daughters have gone marching onward to victory on the football field and in the larger world.

Beyond all those factors, Notre Dame has been the most visible symbol of Catholicism in the United States. Bishops and cardinals come and go, but Notre Dame remains. Much of Notre Dame's prominence is tied to the efforts of one man, Fr. Theodore Hesburgh. Fr. Hesburgh was president of Notre Dame for over 35 years and was, aside from the Rev. Billy Graham, probably the most prominent clergyman in America. His tireless efforts in promoting Notre Dame brought the school great prominence in American life, in avenues well beyond the football field. Fr. Hesburgh was the Catholic go-to guy for presidents from Eisenhower to Clinton and never shied away from pronouncing his views on political and social issues. Fr. Hesburgh was generally a down-the-line liberal, so much so that he was one of the founders of People for the American Way, the left-wing advocacy group that has been most prominent in attempting to sandbag conservative judges.

In this context, Notre Dame's invitation of President Obama to speak isn't especially surprising. In many ways, the current president's views are actually quite congenial to the stance that Notre Dame has long espoused. Academe has long been one of the most important redoubts of the Left in this country and Notre Dame is comfortably within that political spectrum. With one crucial exception -- abortion.

The stance of the Catholic Church on abortion is clear and unmistakable. It was laid out in Humanae Vitae in 1968. Pope Paul VI made it pretty clear:

We are obliged once more to declare that the direct interruption of the generative process already begun and, above all, all direct abortion, even for therapeutic reasons, are to be absolutely excluded as lawful means of regulating the number of children.

And in case that wasn't clear enough, here's the clincher:

Though it is true that sometimes it is lawful to tolerate a lesser moral evil in order to avoid a greater evil or in order to promote a greater good," it is never lawful, even for the gravest reasons, to do evil that good may come of it (18)—in other words, to intend directly something which of its very nature contradicts the moral order, and which must therefore be judged unworthy of man, even though the intention is to protect or promote the welfare of an individual, of a family or of society in general. Consequently, it is a serious error to think that a whole married life of otherwise normal relations can justify sexual intercourse which is deliberately contraceptive and so intrinsically wrong.

There's no wiggle room here. It doesn't matter that Aquinas struggled with the idea of quickening or ensoulment in his writings. This is the Church teaching today. And this is what those who hold the Catholic faith are supposed to teach.

I don't presume to know the condition of Barack Obama's soul, nor is he bound by the dictates of the Catholic Church. But the church has a message to him, the same message it has offered to every president and other ruler since 1968:

And now We wish to speak to rulers of nations. To you most of all is committed the responsibility of safeguarding the common good. You can contribute so much to the preservation of morals. We beg of you, never allow the morals of your peoples to be undermined. The family is the primary unit in the state; do not tolerate any legislation which would introduce into the family those practices which are opposed to the natural law of God. For there are other ways by which a government can and should solve the population problem—that is to say by enacting laws which will assist families and by educating the people wisely so that the moral law and the freedom of the citizens are both safeguarded.
Emphasis mine. Whatever the condition of Barack Obama's soul, his support of partial-birth abortion and his support of the Freedom of Choice Act directly contradict Church teaching. And since Notre Dame is a Catholic institution, it really shouldn't be giving him an honorary degree.

But it will. And that has meaning well beyond the event itself.

Next: opposition and its limits


Anonymous said...

I am curious why these sanctity of life issues weren't raised when President Bush spoke at ND. His extreme support for and seemingly callous execution of the death penalty when he was Governor of Texas also seems to have violated the Church’s teachings concerning human life. Don't you think? And where was the hue and cry from the Catholic Right when Condoleeza Rice (who is publicly pro choice) gave the commencements at Boston College a few years ago, and at Notre Dame in the late 90's.

The whole notion that you cannot pick and choose what you like about the Church’s teachings seems to be selectively applied by many Catholics, to the the extent that it is now applied differently to people based upon their political affiliations. Furthermore, isn't choosing to elevate abortion over all other life issues a judgment call? If the taking of a life is a categorical moral evil, then abortion shouldn't really be the only item to consider here. But it is so much easier to draw lines in the sand over a single issue.

Lastly, it is a commencement speech. The President is not being asked to address theological issues or give a speech on ethics, and for him to do so at a commencement would be wrong.


PS. I have been way too busy to do much other than work, so I have been doing some catch up reading. Tell Maria I said hello, and hope she is doing well in her recovery.

Mark Heuring said...


First, you have to show me the equivalent of Humanae Vitae in re the death penalty. You won't find it. Recent Popes have spoken about their opposition to the death penalty, but there hasn't been an encyclical on the subject, so support of the death penalty is not as categorical a moral evil as abortion is. For the record, I oppose the death penalty.

Should there have been a hue and cry about Condi Rice? Yeah, I guess so.

Is elevating abortion a judgment call? Of course it is. Is there a reason I shouldn't make that judgment?

Finally, the issue isn't the speech, the issue is giving Obama an honorary degree. The reason I went to the trouble of talking about Fr. Hesburgh in such detail is to show that what's happening at ND is of a piece with a long history for that particular institution. And I have a lot more to say about that in future installments of this series.

my name is Amanda said...

Growing up Catholic in the Midwest (South Dakota), I can't say I would've thought of ND at all, if asked to name the biggest symbol of Catholicism in the US. When choosing a Catholic college, ND wasn't a consideration in the least. When I think about ND, I think football. But I'm not disagreeing with your statements about its influence, just comparing my perceptions of the institution.

Does ND give an honorary degree to every commencement speaker? If this is the case, then it seems arbitary as to whether there is an arguement in regard to the speech or the honorary degree. I will trust that you will get to the difference later in the series, and I'm enjoying the history of the topic.

Mark Heuring said...


I don't know if ND gives an honorary degree to every commencement speaker, but it's the general protocol at most every university I'm familiar with.

Your perception of ND is interesting. If you don't mind me asking, did you go to a Catholic high school? Rich and I both did and since Rich is a Chicagoan, I'd wager that he got the Notre Dame indoctrination harder than I did.

Gino said...

I got the 'Loyola' indoctrination.
but i grew up on the left coast.

didnt much matter, as i wasnt vetting colleges anyway, so wasnt paying much attention. BUT, i could get attention, and cause the staff to swoon by the mere mention of Loyola as a possible option.
an option i wasnt thinking about anyway.

i've heard/read many complaints from true catholic apologists as to the state of major 'catholic' universities having not much to do with actual practice and teaching of the Faith.
Catholic for them is a brand. not a commitment, unlike smaller colleges such as Aquinas or Fransiscan University.

so, this ND flap is a much deserved pox upon them, and others, for what has been happening for decades anyway.

and do not forget Obama's support for 4th trimester abortions. i dont know how anybody with such a skewed moral compass and reading of the constitution can be worthy of any law degree, let alone an 'honorary' one.

Mark Heuring said...

i've heard/read many complaints from true catholic apologists as to the state of major 'catholic' universities having not much to do with actual practice and teaching of the Faith.
Catholic for them is a brand. not a commitment, unlike smaller colleges such as Aquinas or Fransiscan University.

That's part of what I want to talk about later on. And the key word is "brand."