President Obama's Controversial Degree from Notre Dame University and a Profile in Courage

Mary_Ann_Glendon_1 Principled people in public leadership are too rare these days. This is what made former Vatican Ambassador Mary Ann Glendon’s (photo at left) simple, and rather non-dramatic, refusal to accept Notre Dame’s Laetare Medal at this year’s commencement a profile in courage. Glendon rejected the honor primarily because the university is also awarding an honorary doctoral degree to their commencement speaker, President Barack Obama.

The Notre Dame/Obama controversy has been discussed and analyzed, right and left and at all points in between, for the past six weeks. Patrick Buchanan asked, in a March 31 article in the very conservative paper Human Events: “Is Notre Dame Still Catholic?” I’ll give you one guess what he concluded.

At the center of this storm is Notre Dame’s president, Father John Jenkins. Why has he chosen to openly celebrate the contributions of the most pro-choice president in history? (I will not endeavor to prove this point about President Obama since it is plainly established by his actions during his first one hundred days, as well as by his lifetime record of votes on this issue. He actual record is pro-abortion 100% of the time!)

Weigel George Weigel (photo at right), a Catholic scholar of note who is also a good friend to evangelicals, sees this degree as a strong statement that Notre Dame wants to make at this time. They are saying, in effect: “Here is a man we should admire and emulate.” But how can a Catholic university say that about a man who will soon appoint his first Supreme Court justice and has clearly promised that this choice will be pro-abortion. (Only Obama admitted to the "litmus test" idea in the campaign so no one should be surprised by all his pro-choice actions in his first hundred days.) Buchanan concludes that Father Jenkins has created a contradiction that renders Notre Dame “a morally incoherent institution.” While Notre Dame has a number of great students and a first-rate faculty, which includes evangelical leaders such as my friend Mark Noll, so far as the institution itself goes I fear that Pat Buchanan is right. (I quite often disagree with Pat Buchanan so I weighed this comment very carefully!)

Bishop John A’Arcy, of the Fort Wayne-South Bend diocese, has openly spoken against the university’s decision and intends to miss the ceremony. Bishop D’Arcy, himself a serious ethicist on the subject of embryonic stem cells, says, “While claiming to separate policies from science, (Obama) has in fact separated science from ethics and has brought the American government, for the first time in history, into supporting direct destruction of innocent human life.”

The American bishops, writing about such thorny matters in general, concluded that Catholic institutions should “not honor those who act in defiance of our fundamental moral principles.” In Obama’s case the conflict seems obvious, even if you agree with him on many other issues. (I am alarmed by how many evangelicals who voted for Obama now seem silent about the moral issues that define life and protect it. So many of these Christians assured me they would be faithful in the moral outcry against him if he went down this path. I do not hear their voices but maybe I am missing something here.) This I do know: Notre Dame is acting in a way that defies logic, common sense and Catholic moral theology.

Alg_obama_school I am reminded of Obama’s attempted deflection of the real moral basis for the abortion debate when Rick Warren asked him in the Saddleback Forum (September, 2008) about when a baby is really a human and thus receives legal protection as a person. Obama famously answered: “Whether you’re looking at it from a theological perspective or a scientific perspective, answering that question with specificity . . . is above my pay grade.” Obama had a clear chance to explain himself but took a calculated pass. Why? He wants to defend the idea that he is committed to reducing abortions while he keeps all abortions legal. His view, in reality, is more liberal than that of most liberals, both in America and Europe.

But back to Mary Ann Glendon. This woman, called an “abortion foe” by the mainstream media, is nothing more than a consistent, pro-life Roman Catholic Christian. Mary Ann Glendon is not your typical anti-abortion right winger, as the media likes to portray her and her decision to reject this prestigious award. She is actually a Harvard University law professor and an author on bioethics and human rights. Kathleen Parker, in her Washington Post syndicated column, suggested that the real reason Glendon rejected this great honor appears to be rooted in the sense that she was being used to deflect the fierce criticism pointed at the university for awarding an honorary degree to President Obama.

The sad irony, as a Pew Forum Poll clearly showed this week, is that the majority of Catholics side with Notre Dame, not with Mary Ann Glendon. But then the majority of Catholics voted for Barack Obama. The best research shows, as we have now come to routinely expect, that the more active the person is in the serious practice of their faith the more likely they will be to oppose the president, at least on this moral point. There is, in other words, a direct correlation with the practice of one's faith and how one views the ethics of abortion.

Many of those Catholics who voted for Obama believed that he would actually work to decrease the number of abortions. I read these supporters for Obama very seriously. I spoke to some of them personally. On the surface this appears consistent with the rhetorical answers the president provided during the campaign and since. He reasons that his programs will so help poor women that they will be less likely to abort children as a result. There is no hard evidence for this conclusion. I hope he is right and commend the desire. But we need more than desire when it comes to a moral issue like abortion. A child is either protected by the law or she is not. Obama has taken a series of action steps and promised a conclusion that is at variance with what we know to this point in our history. One can hope for the best but meanwhile it is much easier to have an abortion in America, since January 21, 2009, than almost anywhere else in th
e world.

This is the same president who said that he would not wish to “punish” his daughters with an unwanted pregnancy if one of them was pregnant and did not wish to keep their baby. I do not understand how any prospective grandfather could ever say such a thing, especially with two young girls being shaped in their views of life and death in his home. I have two granddaughters thus the moral revulsion this creates inside of me is profound.

My good friend Gerald McDermott, professor of religion at Roanoke College, has rightly suggested that this is all particularly odd because “our first African-American president . . . promote[s] a practice that is decimating African Americans.” But, says Dr. McDermott, “It is sad that Catholics committed to social justice seem not to realize that this nation’s premier Catholic university may unwittingly subvert the fundamental civil right of this country’s most aggrieved minority” (“Notre Dame, Obama and Black Civil Rights,” an April 30 online article).

Amd_notre_dame_library The late medical doctor Walker Percy, who became one of our best Catholic novelists, received the Laetare Award (the award Mary Ann Glendon quietly turned down this week) in 1989. He told the graduating class: “It is a disaster when only one kind of truth prevails at the expense of another. If only one kind of truth prevails—the abstract and technical truth of science—then nothing stands in the way of a demeaning of and a destruction of human life for what appear to be reasonable, short-term goals.”

What is happening to a society, and for that matter to its churches, when Christian schools, especially the premier Roman Catholic school in America, no longer hold that there is a clear line between divinely created human life and the fatalistic conclusions of naturalistic materialism?

If I could speak to President Obama I would urge him to show courage and respect and withdraw from this ceremony. Personally I would still oppose his abysmal abortion record but my respect for him would genuinely increase. I pray for him and want to respect him even more in the coming months. He would help me respect him, and I expect millions of others would join me in this, if he acted in such a courageous and morally consistent way. He doesn’t need this degree. He doesn’t need to give this speech. Is it a tad cynical for me to think that he is doing this for political ends? Or am I a moral realist who still thinks politicians will be politicians?

There is only one hero in this tragedy. She teaches the law at Harvard. This gives me hope that some young lawyers will still get a good education in the law and an even better education in human courage and moral sanity. This is the education Christians should promote through their universities. Is this too much to ask? Christians should act like Christians!