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A Serious Error at Notre Dame

Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio
Diocese of Brooklyn NY

Published in The Tablet
Diocese of Brooklyn, NY

April 8, 2009

My dear brothers and sisters in the Lord,

The invitation by Father John Jenkins, C.S.C., president of Notre Dame University, to President Barack Obama to be this year’s commencement speaker and to receive an honorary degree from the university has caused an uproar and a division within the Catholic community.

In 2004, the U.S. Catholic Conference of Bishops in a document, Catholics in Political Life, taught, “The Catholic community and Catholic institutions should not honor those who act in defiance of our fundamental moral principles. They should not be given awards, honors or platforms which would suggest support for their actions.”

Politicians, like all men and women, are bound by the natural law which allows all persons of good will to discern good from evil. When asked last August by Reverend Rick Warren, in an interview at the Saddleback Church, the then-candidate Obama answered, “I think that whether you are looking at it from a theological perspective or a scientific perspective, answering that question with specificity, you know, is above my pay grade.”

Father Jenkins made a serious error in inviting President Obama to be the commencement speaker at Notre Dame, and even more so in conferring upon him an honorary degree. Father Jenkins speaking to the rationale behind the invitation has said that it should not be interpreted as “condoning or endorsing his (President Obama’s) positions on specific issues regarding the protection of human life, including abortion and embryonic stem cell research. Yet, we see his visit as a basis for further positive engagement.”

Unfortunately, his disclaimer has not been accepted by the bishop of his diocese, and many other bishops, as well as a host of the laity and alumni of the University of Notre Dame. Our engagement is always meant to influence the person for the good, to explain perhaps how they may be in error and always to respect the dignity of the person even if they may be wrong. I will write to Father Jenkins and explain my opinion, sending a copy of this article.

Mary Ann Glendon, a professor of law at Harvard University and former United States Ambassador to the Vatican and member of the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences, was to receive the Laetare Medal this year at the Notre Dame commencement. Ambassador Glendon declined the honor reminding Notre Dame of our responsibility “not to honor those who act in defiance of our fundamental moral principles.” Interestingly, she was President Obama’s constitutional law professor at Harvard.

This controversy, unfortunately, cannot be resolved since the invitation to President Obama cannot be rescinded. Whatever scandal has occurred cannot be eliminated. However, it is a lesson for the Catholic community regarding interaction with politicians.

Catholics in political life must come to understand their unique responsibility as lay Catholics involved in the public forum. There is a considerable misunderstanding on the part of our elected officials regarding their Catholic faith and their functioning as political figures. They are not irresolvable, nor are they mutually exclusionary.

Catholic politicians and Catholic voters may never directly support anything which is intrinsically evil. Our best example is abortion. Support for abortion, or camouflaging it as a matter of choice, can never be an acceptable position for a Catholic. There are many times when Catholic politicians may not be able to directly influence the cessation of abortion, but at the same time they must do whatever they can do to limit and eventually eliminate the need for abortion. Some politicians have used this as an excuse, saying that they are in the business of limiting and not excluding the possibility of abortion. While not everything can be done at once, the ultimate intention must be the clear elimination of intrinsically evil acts such as abortion.

We are facing difficult times as we try to explain to our own Catholics and the general populous why we take such positions. The Church’s moral teaching is not merely a matter of faith, but rather it comes from a long tradition of moral reasoning and judgments that have little to do with modern day personalistic philosophies that disregard ageless traditions and principles.

We are putting out into the deep waters of political and religious interaction. This interaction has never been easy and has become more difficult in the present time. Without forcing ourselves to understand better our moral positions, we might take the easier path and follow the crowd in our society which gives little thought to reason and the common good.

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