I wonder: What is it about us Catholics that we seem to be the only ones arguing about graduation speakers this time of year? There are two answers to this question and both speak well of Catholicism.
First, a secular university can live by its own lights, but a Catholic university must conform to both the methods and norms of a modern university and to the life and faith of the Catholic Church. This makes Catholic institutions of higher learning far more interesting than their secular counterparts, more resistant to fads, the kind of place where a reductionist or a megalomaniac or a poseur will fund a bump in his road and be exposed or frustrated in his ambitions. The interplay between faith and reason, and I would add, the access to truths that are only available within a committed faith life, these enrich Catholic universities immeasurably. They also breed controversy, in the best sense of the word.
The second answer to the question is that Catholics look at, and care about, and recognize the significance of their faith, in ways some other mainstream Protestant denominations do not. I mean no slur against Protestantism, only to point out that by rejecting tradition in favor of “sola scriptura” and postulating a more direct, individualistic approach to the Godhead, Protestantism has more easily aligned itself with the norms of the modern liberal State, with its requirement that faith per se be kept out of the public square. We Catholics want our faith to inform all of our culture and our institutions: “Open wide the door for Christ!” We insist on the communal, public expression of our faith.
So, let it be said clearly: These squabbles about graduation speakers indicate the vibrancy of faith. They are a good thing. The issues engaged are worth engaging.
One of the responses to the letter from a group of prominent academics to Speaker John Boehner is a perfect example of how to engage these issues. At “Mirror of Justice” Notre Dame law professor Rick Garnett has written a fine essay that insists there was something different about Obama appearing at Notre Dame from Boehner speaking at Catholic Univeristy. Garnett takes issue with my distinction between honoring a Catholic and a non-Catholic by giving them the speaker’s rostrum, and an honorary degree. Garnett concludes, “While I agree (of course) that it would be silly to withhold an honor from Obama for not believing in the Real Presence, it is a different thing, I think -- given what the Church teaches abortion actually is, and why it is actually wrong -- to refuse to honor a person, of whatever religion, who errs badly on a question of fundamental justice and who supports constructing and strengthening a legal regime that entrenches, and supports, this injustice. In addition, and with all due respect, the fact that President Obama is not Catholic does not deflect the concern that Notre Dame was, given all the givens and the relevant context, likely to be understood as saying something (about abortion, and about the gravity of the President's error on this matter of basic justice) that, as a Catholic university (and, Notre Dame is a Catholic university) it should not have said.”
Garnett’s position is a thoughtful one, but it risks reducing the rich moral tradition of the Catholic Church to a singular focus on abortion. Garnett, to be sure, does not in his many writings betray this reductionistic tendency, but others do. There is something foundational about the Church’s opposition to abortion, but whether those foundations are located in our Christian anthropology, which is rooted in dogma as much as our belief in the Real Presence, or in natural law philosophy, which has become, for good or ill, an almost uniquely Catholic way of viewing things, I do not think it serves either the Catholic identity of our institutions nor our efforts to protect the unborn to fail to engage those whose views of what justice demands differ from our own. I am glad there was controversy about President Obama’s appearance at Notre Dame. I am glad President Obama listened to Father Jenkins reiterate the Church’s concern for the unborn. I am glad that the entire country was reminded that we Catholics have not – indeed, cannot – abandon our defense of the unborn. But, that is not the only word of Christian ethics. It is only by engaging people who disagree with us that we can, with God’s grace, help them to see the error of their ways. And, a Catholic university is the perfect place for such an engagement.
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Of course, for every thoughtful essay by Garnett, one sadly discovers a piece of agitprop, and Father Robert Sirico does not disappoint. His essay at National Review fails in almost every regard. He writes, “It appears then that these Catholic academicians who have written to Speaker Boehner do not understand the distinctions the Church herself makes between fundamental, non-negotiable dogmas and doctrines, and the prudential and debatable give and take when it comes to applying the principles of Catholic social teaching.” Of course, the “non-negotiable” bit does not come from any Church document but from political talking points devised by conservative Republican Catholics. But, Sirico’s point fails for reasons other than provenance. Yes, we can debate how to help the poor, but not the need to help the poor, in the same way as we can debate how to eliminate the scourge of abortion without debating the fact that abortion is a scourge. The difference between a fundamental doctrine and the application of that doctrine is as much a difficulty for the moral issue of poverty as it is for the moral issue of abortion.
But, of course, Sirico’s larger failing is that he refuses to acknowledge that the Boehner-led House Republicans are not advancing their budgetary proposals as the best way to fulfill the mandate of Matthew25 to do for the least of these our brethren. They advocate for their policies by invoking the pagan philosophy of Ayn Rand and her disciples. Sirico is in danger of replacing Michael Novak as the most idolatrous Catholic in America in his fawning over the false God of the market. There is also an evidentiary problem for Sirico. The GOP’s policies of lower taxes at all costs, a stance restated just this week by Boehner, have not in fact helped the poor or the middle class who have seen their wages stagnate or decline while the rich get filthy rich.
Sirico also invokes the principle of subsidiarity, which is, as he notes, a key component of Catholic social thought. He charges that the Catholic Left ignores this principle. I can’t speak for the Catholic Left, but this Catholic Leftie has not ignored the principle. Quite the contrary, I have spilt quite a bit of ink in the ten months this column has existed pointing out that subsidiarity is a two-way street, which is something Catholic conservatives tend to ignore. When lower levels of social organization fail to meet basic human needs, the government must intervene. That, too, is part of the principle of subsidiarity.
So, let the debate continue. It shall continue as long as there are Catholic universities. It should continue as long as we find ourselves this side of the eschaton. The debate is evidence that the “Dying of the Light” at Catholic universities has not been as pronounced as the prophets of doom had foretold. We Catholics argue about these things because our faith matters to us. In an increasingly secular age, that is cause for celebration.