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.