A commentary by J. F. Kelly, Jr.
Catholics, including many American bishops, were in a collective tizzy over Notre Dame’s invitation to President Barack Obama to deliver the commencement address to this year’s graduating class. Because of his pro-choice views, they felt he should not be honored with a platform at what some consider America’s most prestigious Catholic university. The president was also awarded an honorary doctorate.
Personally, I believe it perfectly appropriate that the president of the United States address the graduates of any American university, including religious schools, so long as his aim is not to attempt to convert members of his audience to positions which are contrary to the teachings of their religions. It is the president, in fact, who honors the university by accepting the invitation. I believe, moreover, that it is generally a mistake for religious institutions of higher learning to ban speakers from the campus solely because of their views on contentious social issues like abortion, birth control and homosexuality as long as the school’s own religious teachings are respected.
That said, I believe that Notre Dame went too far in conferring an honorary degree on Mr. Obama. Honorary degrees, unlike earned degrees are virtually worthless but they do confer a symbolic honor and should recognize some significant accomplishment of academic interest. One might fairly ask what Mr. Obama has accomplished thus far in his young career to warrant such an honor other than get elected
A speaking invitation is not really an honor. It’s more like a gig. Conferring an honorary degree, however, is by definition an honor. As a Catholic, I feel that a Catholic university should refrain from conferring such an honor on someone whose views on abortion are markedly contrary to the church’s teachings. Doing so sends decidedly mixed messages to the public. William McGurn, writing in The Wall street Journal, said that this was precisely the message President Obama wanted to send, to wit: How bad can he be on abortion if Notre Dame is willing to honor him? But according to the Church’s teaching on abortion and the sanctity of life, there is no degree of good or bad on this matter. Abortion is regarded as murder and is forbidden under any circumstances including rape, incest, abnormal development or health of the mother.
Mr. Obama went to Notre Dame “in search of common ground”, according to press reports. There may, in fact, be acres of common ground shared by Mr. Obama and the Catholic Church. Liberal social spending programs and wealth transference designed to end poverty may be one example of policies that are very compatible with Church teachings. But on abortion there is no common ground. It is not enough for Mr. Obama to proclaim that we all want fewer abortions. The Church teaches that there should be no abortions under any circumstances. If Mr. Obama went to South Bend to seek common ground on this issue, he embarked on a fool’s errand.
The Church’s teachings in this area actually go much further, in fact, than just forbidding abortion. Artificial means of birth control are also forbidden. It also teaches that homosexuality is wrong as is same sex marriage. The fact that many Catholics may not always follow the Church’s teachings in these areas changes nothing except to create some confusion in the minds of non-Catholics which might lead them to believe that “common ground” or compromise is achievable. But the Church’s teachings in these matters are unlikely to change. That doesn’t mean, of course, that the Church condones discrimination against non-Catholics whose beliefs are different. To the contrary; the Church teaches, rather, that we must love the sinner and detest only the sin.
The point of all this, is to point out a reality that often gets lost in our zeal to convert others to our point of view. Deeply-held religious convictions are generally not negotiable. Proponents may debate and argue the merits of their respective positions on abortion, artificial insemination, contraception, homosexual behavior or same sex marriage until they are blue in the face but if the views on these subjects are based upon religious beliefs, few positions will be changed, brilliant arguments and persuasive language notwithstanding. Laws can certainly be made or changed to prevent discrimination and permit freedom of choice but attempting to change someone’s fundamental beliefs on what is right and wrong, moral or immoral, when based on religious teachings is usually a waste of time and an affront to that person’s religious beliefs.
Copyright 2009 by J. F. Kelly, Jr.