What does honoring Obama with a law degree communicate about our view of law and morality?

Over at New Catholic, Mark Stricherz expresses his doubts about the ‘dialogue model’ of engagement with culture, as mounted by some in defense of Obama’s appearance at Notre Dame:

But the dialogue model can’t, doesn’t, and shouldn’t entirely govern Catholic universities (and again, all universities). In exceptional cases, it breaks down. Surely these cases are absolute moral issues: torture, slavery, genocide, racial segregation, and yes, violence against pre-natal life (abortion, embryonic stem cell research, and cloning). Universities have little to learn from politicians who support such intrinsic evil. What exactly would Notre Dame have learned from, say, Stephen A. Douglas in the 19th century about domestic policy or Dick Cheney in 2009 about foreign policy? Would Douglas and Cheney have changed their mind about slavery and torture?

Giving awards to politicians of this stripe, I think, isn’t pragmatic and humble; it’s expedient and naïve. Nothing in Obama’s history indicates he will alter his mind about the legal status of unborn infants. Yes, as a morally serious person with whom the bishops must deal, he should be allowed to speak at the university. But conferring an honor upon him suggests his policies are morally fit.

I would not be entirely opposed to having President Obama appear at Notre Dame in some other context — for instance, a panel discussion and/or debate. (Imagine, for instance, were Obama to consent to engage Professor Robert P. George? — who wouldn’t want to see that? =)

What particularly gets to me about this invitation to deliver the commencement address is the bestowal of an honorary law degree by a Catholic university upon a zealous advocate of Roe v. Wade, and what that communicates to a wider audience.

Today, Francis Beckwith expounds on this very point in Barack Obama and Notre Dame: Juris Doctor Honoris Causa? (First Things March 31, 2009):

[Why would] the University of Notre Dame bestow an honorary doctorate of laws on someone who for his entire public life has enthusiastically fought for a segment of the human population, the unborn, to remain permanently outside the protections of the law? Not only that, he has also demanded that our legal regime require that his fellow citizens, including Catholics, underwrite the destruction of these prenatal human beings. And not only that, he is right now preparing to remove by executive order protections that were put in place so that pro-life physicians, nurses, medical students, and others in the health care field may not be forced to participate in abortions or be discriminated against for refusing to do so or even harboring such beliefs.

Unless the university does not believe that the Church’s understanding of the moral law is true and knowable, it can no more in good conscience award an honorary doctorate of laws to a lawyer who rejects the humanity of the proper subjects of law than it could in good conscience award an honorary doctorate in science to a geocentric astronomer who rejects the deliverances of the discipline he claims to practice.

At some point, a Christian university must recognize that the truth it claims to know matters, even if the truth is unpopular, and even if the propagation and celebration of that truth may put one’s community at odds with those persons and centers of influence and power that dispense prestige and authority in our culture.

15 Responses to What does honoring Obama with a law degree communicate about our view of law and morality?

  • In answer to the titular question of this post, it seems obvious to me that this honor communicates — and is intended to communicate — that no moral, religious or political position is so offensive, evil or outrageous that we wouldn’t be willing to hear from a President who held that position.

  • Paul,

    we wouldn’t be willing to hear from a President who held that position

    hear from? I think awarding an honor goes far beyond “hearing from”, you don’t?

  • “What does honoring Obama with a law degree communicate about our view of law and morality?”

    To be quite blunt it means that the powers that be at Notre Dame, at best, don’t give a damn about the fight against abortion.

  • “What does honoring Obama with a law degree communicate about our view of law and morality?”

    That sucking up to power is an overriding goal.

  • As proof of the utter failure of the honorary degree = dialogue hypothesis, consider this: none of the Presidents honored by Notre Dame changed their views so much as a jot or tittle.

    Jenkins and the University are flattering themselves. Good luck pulling a rabbit out this time, Bullwinkle.

  • none of the Presidents honored by Notre Dame changed their views so much as a jot or tittle.

    Well, I don’t think we can say that a dialogue wasn’t successful simply because the participants didn’t change their views. It’s pretty rare for anyone in public life to change their position on an issue of importance, and it’s difficult to take them seriously even if they claim they have (see, e.g., Romney, Mitt).

    A dialogue does, however, involve an exchange of views. And there’s little to reason to think that granting an honorary degree and a role as commencement speaker involves an exchange of views, rather than a platform for Obama.

  • I’m referring to what Professor Appleby and Father Hesburgh have said:

    http://thelede.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/03/30/obama-visit-to-notre-dame-provokes-debate/?hp

    Prof. Appleby: Mr. Appleby, the history professor, said the long-range goal of such a discussion with Mr. Obama would be “to change hearts and minds” and move the country “toward a culture of life” that opposes abortion and embryonic stem-cell research and allows medical workers who oppose abortion rights to opt out of participating in certain procedures.

    “The question is, how can one who is so good and so insightful and so poised on issues of human dignity and human rights — how can that same person not engage fully and seriously in a debate on unborn life?” Mr. Appleby said.

    Fr. Hesburgh: “No speaker who has ever come to Notre Dame has changed the University. We are who we are. But, quite often, the very fact of being here has changed the speaker.

    Again, in light of the stated aims, ND’s batting average in such things is .000. What makes them think Obama will be any different? Given his contemptuous statements on embryonic stem cells, the odds are to small to be meaningfully calculated.

  • Appleby:how can one who is so good and so insightful and so poised on issues of human dignity and human rights

    Is he joking???? It is clear that those who oppose the rights and dignity of the most vulnerable can not be trusted with any issue regarding human dignity and rights. Obama’s perspective of dignity is entirely different from the Catholic one.

  • Notre Dame, since the days of Father Hesburgh, has had far less impact on the World, than the World has had on it. Hesburgh isn’t an idiot, he realizes and supports this. His words are just so much flab-jab to help the current powers that be get through a rough patch among Catholics who actually believe in what the Church teaches in regard to abortion, instead of laughing at it behind closed doors at academic conferences at Notre Dame.

  • To be quite blunt it means that the powers that be at Notre Dame, at best, don’t give a damn about the fight against abortion.

    I’d like to take this opportunity to remind the Catholic Americans here of this blog’s comment policy:

    I will not exaggerate others’ beliefs nor make unfounded prejudicial assumptions based on labels, categories, or stereotypes. I will always extend the benefit of the doubt. (Ephesians 4:29)

    Donald, you seem to have failed.

  • As in so many, many things Catholic Anarchist, we will have to agree to disagree.

  • I think granting an honorary law degree to President Obama is a gesture of an “honor” for speaking which is a common practice. It is honoring him with a degree at the level which he has already earned, as he graduated from Harvard Law. Most importantly, it shows a separation from the role of belief and a “fight against abortion” to support the continuation of a tradition that has held for I believe over 24 years of inviting the President of the United States. This invitation is given with the recognition of position and accomplishment, regardless of belief or political party, to speak at a University known for teaching intelligent students, to see the world through understanding and knowledge. Both of which require listening to and debating issues with the brightest minds not only of whom you agree with, but more importantly those you disagree with, to find wisdom and depth beyond initial judgment. This especially goes for highly religious students, who seek temperance and tolerance as foundational ideals in a world of chaos and hatred.

  • Alexander,

    regardless of belief or political party

    or violent action against the unborn.

    listening to and debating issues

    There will be none of that in this case.

  • As I said before, if this is simply a gesture of an “honor” that Obama deserves, then might as well grant the same honor to Hitler as well for having successfully resurrected a Germany that had been reduced to ashes after WWI.

    Of course, you would have to ignore the fact that he had wanted to exterminate an entire race of people now would you?

    Yet, there will be those who would find this analogy inappropriate — after all, Obama’s fiercely global pro-abortion policies have little or really nothing to do with the extermination of people but babies.

    Unborn babies hardly qualify — as even certain Catholics themselves here would attest to, in fact.

    So, Hail Obama and, yes, Hail (or rather Heil) Hitler!

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