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Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Notre Dame is wrong

By Dennis Byrne
Chicago Tribune

As a Marquette University graduate, I don't give a hoot what the University of Notre Dame does. It can endow an academic chair in honor of Attila the Hun for all I care, and my life would proceed apace.

But the Indiana school somehow has been crowned the "nation's pre-eminent Catholic university"—a dubious claim considering the quality of other Catholic colleges. So everyone must have an opinion on the honors it will award to President Barack Obama while giving him a commencement podium to expound, if he wishes, his extremist positions on "reproductive rights."

Thus, even secular columnists—well practiced in telling those papists, but not, say, Unitarian-Universalists what to do—have assigned themselves to defend Notre Dame. Don't give in, they say, to troglodytes who would sink academic freedom by demanding that an institution that bills itself as Catholic should honor one of the faith's central tenets: the inviolate right of every life created in its maker's image to enjoy all the inalienable rights bestowed on every person. Shame on those Catholics.

Social justice is another key teaching of the Catholic Church. (This will surprise some who have ignorantly categorized the Catholic Church as a bastion of oppression and indifference.) Now suppose Notre Dame decided to confer an honorary degree on an acknowledged opponent of that particular church teaching, someone like Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, no adherent of social justice he.

Because it's always good to hear from "the other side" in academe, let's suggest more folks that Notre Dame should honor: North Korean tyrant Kim Jong Il, who can explain why his approach to social justice is beneficial to all mankind. Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, who can expound on why the deaths of more than 200,000 and the displacement of more than 2 million people in Darfur was an exercise in social justice. We can all learn from listening graciously to this criminal, recently indicted by the International Criminal Court. Then there's Osama bin Laden. . . .Well, you get the point, which you will protest is too easily made. After all, Obama is none of those characters, and to in anyway equate them with the president is insulting, outrageous. And so it is. But there's this:

It is a firmly held belief by millions of Catholics, hierarchy and laity alike, that the abortion of millions of unborn people is a catastrophe of Holocaust proportions. To them, the legalized slaughter of innocents brutalizes us all. You might not agree, you might argue that the church is wrong on matters of "reproductive rights" and, therefore, there's nothing wrong with Notre Dame honoring Obama. But don't you see? You're telling Catholics what they should believe. It's as arrogant as entering a temple or mosque and telling the adherents that their refusal to eat pork is wrong, so line up for your ration of bacon. So much for your precious "diversity."

You can argue that the purpose of any university is discourse and disputation, so Notre Dame should invite whomever it pleases. John Henry Newman, a respected Catholic scholar, has a deeper, less simple-minded take. In his essay "The Idea of a University," he calls the university a "tribunal of truth." It is arrived at, yes, by conversing and disputation.

But truth is a hard proposition for modern ears to hear. To them, the search for truth is the entire story; its discovery is not to be admitted because truth, say some, is unknowable.

Newman continues: "Truth, a subtle, invisible, manifold spirit, is poured into the mind of the scholar by his eyes and ears, through his affections, imagination and reason; it is poured into his mind and is sealed up there in perpetuity by propounding and repeating it, by questioning and requestioning, by correcting and explaining, by progressing and then recurring to first principles, by all those ways which are implied in the word 'catechizing.' " If, then, disputation is the reason for Obama's appearance, then let it be in a classroom or confrontational format, where the antagonists can fence. Honoring Obama is not the same as disputing him.

Disputation in the academic sense is not the reason for Obama's appearance. Notre Dame assuredly knew that the Obama honors would cause a massive controversy, one that would catch the nation's attention and divide the church. It was a cynical move by an institution captivated by its own "pre-eminence" to draw attention to itself. At the expense of its (now-dead) principles.

8 comments:

KEITH said...

As a former teacher of Philosophy at Marquette (Mr. Byrne's university of choice), I would appreciate a column from Mr. Byrne on the meanings and interrelations of "truth," "knowledge," and "belief." By doing this, we then would know what criteria Mr. Byrne is using to measure the cogency of "beliefs" other than the mere assertion of such beiefs. Merely by using the category "belief" (so no one can "tell" anyone else what to beieve) does us no good.

Anonymous said...

Dennis, I really enjoyed your article about the upcoming Obama visit to Notre Dame. Also, I find it ironic as this is being discussed nobody mentions that Ronald Reagan's visit to Notre Dame in the early 1980's drew protests and criticism.

Rich said...

Keep up the good work Dennis. If Notre Dame wants to honor an abortion policy promoter named Obama its pathetic, but its their affair. All I ask is that Notre Dame stop calling itself Catholic.
No matter how Notre Dame trys to justify it, at the end of the day an abortion defender advocate will receive one of the highest honors that that institution can bestow.
Rich

Anonymous said...

The President of the French Republic, as successor Head of State to the Kings of France, is Sole Honorary Cantor of the Basilica of St. John Lateran in Rome (the Bishop of Rome's cathedral church). The current President of the French Republic, Nicolas Sarkozy, is a twice-divorced, pro-choice politician. He was installed as Honorary Cantor with full ceremony, and no objection from the Vatican.

Is Mr. Byrne arguing that the US Bishops, whose own moral authority has been diminished of late, should hold a politician to a higher standard than the Vatican holds itself? If so, he does so poorly. No surprise, that...

Mary ,MU '81 said...

Dennis, your column made several excellent points about Obama's visit to Notre Dame. I totally agree. Although the invitation won't be rescinded, it is really discouraging that Fr. Jenkins hasn't found the backbone to directly address the issue. He has not said that Obama's stance on abortion is gravely immoral and highly offensive. Instead Jenkins wants to focus on Obama's accomplishments, whatever that means this early in his term. What has Notre Dame got to lose if Jenkins clearly condemns Obama's policies?

Anonymous said...

Notre Dame is a Catholic instution of learning and so it has the right to decide if a person can speak at their University or not. If all instutions kept any one away that disagreed with their way of believeing or thinking there would be no growth.

Mr Byrne's article in the tribune called What if? an excerise; would take this excerise; If he or the Cardinal were having a dinner for the poor and I agreed to supply then with a Bushel of apples, a dozen chickens and 1 cow, pig and lamb, they paid me in advance and I sent them a bushel of pollinated apple blossoms, a dozen fertilized eggs and the embreo's of a pig, cow, and a sheep. I wonder if they would be satisfied. Biology in all living thing are simular.

The church should be more embarres over it's part in poverty and unhappy marriages for people who have Children they cannot afford financialy, emotionally,or physically. To expect a married couple to have sex only when a woman is un fertile is as unnatural as any method of birth control.

It is unnatural to have any surgery, heart transplants, or keep people alive on tubes if they do not want it. They are as much obstructing the plan of God as any one who practices Birth control.

Anonymous said...

I am writing because I am Catholic and I disagree with Bishop D'Arcy's reaction to the invitation of President Obama to speak at the University of Notre Dame Commencement. I am concerned that many in the Catholic Church in the United States have oversimplified their analysis of what it means to be a good Catholic who makes coherent choices in the political arena. While the opposition to abortion is an important issue, and one I feel that the Church should continue to uphold in both discourse and action, it is not the only political issue which is informed by one’s faith. Many seem to decide their support or opposition to a political figure or party based only on the litmus test of whether or not they would seek to overturn Roe vs. Wade. This, regardless of whether that political figure actually has much direct impact on that decision. No other issues seem to matter to them.
Unfortunately, to a thoughtful Catholic, there is no one political party or figure that seems to be on the correct “side” of all the issues. For example, in part due to my faith, I strongly disagreed with President Bush’s support of the death penalty, and particularly diagreed with his decisions in favor of preemptive war. Like Obama, I opposed the war before it started. Due to President Bush’s decisions, many thousands of men, women, and children have died. Is preemptive war and violence, a decision over which the president has direct control, acceptable? Pope John Paul II also spoke out against the decision to go to war. Nevertheless, there was no protest from the diocese when President Bush spoke at Notre Dame, and many Catholics actively supported his reelection. In addition to his opposition to an unjust war, I also feel that the current president, both before and after becoming a politican, has seemed to be more concerned about social justice than many other political figures including the prior president. As a Catholic and as a physician, I am strongly in favor of, for example, health insurance for all, which Obama also supports.
Why is abortion the only political and social issue that matters to some Catholics? In a sense, I envy them, as it makes their decision of for whom to vote and what to think so easy, so black and white. However, I think that they need to realize that the lives of those who have already been born are also important—even if they live in other countries, and even if they are poor. In other parts of the world priests and lay Catholics, the church in general, focus more of their energies in helping the poor and the sick (of whom we have many in this country as well). Many priests have a daily battle to fight the oblivion many orphan children, abused women and the hungry have fallen into; things that Jesus did when he walked the earth. Catholics in the US fortunately have, on average, a better standard of living that that of much of the rest of the world, which has simplified their responsibilities as Catholics by distracting them from the complexity of human suffering in the world.
For those of us who object to abortion, rather than protesting or sending letters to Obama, why don’t they protest outside the houses of the justices who uphold Roe vs. Wade? Even better, why don’t they help poor mothers take care of their children? Why don’t they work to decrease child abuse among those who are already born? Why don’t they get involved in high schools and work on preventing teenage pregnancy? Some may already be doing these things, but many are not.
As a physician, I also see that the abortion issue is not as black and white for a politician as it is for a bishop. The Church has made it easy for us by telling us that life begins at conception; in part the reasoning is that we don’t know, so we assume that it begins at conception just in case. However, I know that there is a large difference between an embryo, a fetus at 8 weeks gestation, and a fetus close to the age of viability. Some religious groups—the members or which are as validly American citizens as are Catholics—believe that the fetus begins to have a soul at about 3 months gestation, and not prior. A large percentage of pregnancies are miscarried in the first trimester, often without their mothers realizing, due to genetic errors or other reasons. This appears to be part of God’s plan. While our beliefs are clear, someone governing a nation that contains many different faiths has to find a way for us all to live together. Someone who is not Catholic may look at the difference between a sperm and an egg, an egg that was just fertilized, a fetus that does not yet appear any different than other mammals at that early stage of gestation, and a fetus at 24 weeks gestation and point out that they appear to be quite different. Yes, they are all alive, and all could become children if they developed normally; sperm and eggs have life, as do embryos, and may become children. However one doesn’t tell people to have intercourse as often as possible, to produce more potential children. I am not arguing this to convince you that abortion is right; just to express that I understand how others may hold a different position.
As Catholics, we are lucky that we do not have this ambiguity to worry about; we believe that human life is sacred upon conception. However, does that give us the right in a democracy to legislate what others must believe? We should advocate what we believe, yes, and we should work to decrease abortions, but I am not sure that the most important thing to us when we choose a president is whether or not he might submit to Congress—which ultimately decides on his or her approval— the “wrong” candidate to the Supreme Court.
Even if abortion were made illegal, it is not clear to me that abortions would cease or even become much less common. In many countries, such as Romania, when abortions were illegal they were more common and more dangerous, and more likely to be done later in pregnancy. What happens if we “win” and abortions become illegal, but do not decrease in frequency, or if later term abortions become more common, or if there are more complications to the women involved? It is not not clear that the only way to decrease abortion is to ban it.
I believe that most women actually do not want to have an abortion, but feel that they do not have the support to have their child survive and have a good life. As Catholics I believe that our first priority needs to be to find and support these women, rather than point fingers at them or legislate them into hiding. Groups like the Women’s Care Center here in Indiana are extremely important in doing this work. I also agree that we need to continue to advocate reasonable limitations on abortions, such as a ban on late trimester abortions (which are fortunately very rare), in a way that seeks compromise and understanding in this debate rather than further polarization on the issue. Even those who support continued “abortion rights,” I believe must really be against these procedures, but since the debate is so polarized—again, black and white—they irritationally support these extreme positions. President Obama tried to put himself forward as a person who would seek compromise, and I would welcome compromise on this issue if it means that we focus more on helping women and children, and less on winning our moral debate.
I hope that the Bishops and all Catholics continue to work towards a world closer to God’s plan, with respect to eliminating abortion but also in regards to all the other injustices that occur every day. I hope that people of faith continue to stay engaged in the political arena, not just with respect to the issue of abortion or embryonic research, but with regards to all of the societal injustices which affect God’s people.


Katherine Lisoni, MD

Anonymous said...

I am writing because I disagree with Bishop D'Arcy's reaction to the invitation of President Obama to speak at the University of Notre Dame Commencement. I am concerned that many in the Catholic Church in the United States have oversimplified their analysis of what it means to be a good Catholic who makes coherent choices in the political arena. While the opposition to abortion is an important issue, and one I feel that the Church should continue to uphold in both discourse and action, it is not the only political issue which is informed by one’s faith. Many seem to decide their support or opposition to a political figure or party based only on the litmus test of whether or not they would seek to overturn Roe vs. Wade. This, regardless of whether that political figure actually has much direct impact on that decision. No other issues seem to matter to them.
Unfortunately, to a thoughtful Catholic, there is no one political party or figure that seems to be on the correct “side” of all the issues. For example, in part due to my faith, I strongly disagreed with President Bush’s support of the death penalty, and particularly diagreed with his decisions in favor of preemptive war. Like Obama, I opposed the war before it started. Due to President Bush’s decisions, many thousands of men, women, and children have died. Is preemptive war and violence, a decision over which the president has direct control, acceptable? Pope John Paul II also spoke out against the decision to go to war. Nevertheless, there was no protest from the diocese when President Bush spoke at Notre Dame, and many Catholics actively supported his reelection. In addition to his opposition to an unjust war, I also feel that the current president, both before and after becoming a politican, has seemed to be more concerned about social justice than many other political figures including the prior president. As a Catholic and as a physician, I am strongly in favor of, for example, health insurance for all, which Obama also supports.
Why is abortion the only political and social issue that matters to some Catholics? In a sense, I envy them, as it makes their decision of for whom to vote and what to think so easy, so black and white. However, I think that they need to realize that the lives of those who have already been born are also important—even if they live in other countries, and even if they are poor. In other parts of the world priests and lay Catholics, the church in general, focus more of their energies in helping the poor and the sick (of whom we have many in this country as well). Many priests have a daily battle to fight the oblivion many orphan children, abused women and the hungry have fallen into; things that Jesus did when he walked the earth. Catholics in the US fortunately have, on average, a better standard of living that that of much of the rest of the world, which has simplified their responsibilities as Catholics by distracting them from the complexity of human suffering in the world.
For those of us who object to abortion, rather than protesting or sending letters to Obama, why don’t they protest outside the houses of the justices who uphold Roe vs. Wade? Even better, why don’t they help poor mothers take care of their children? Why don’t they work to decrease child abuse among those who are already born? Why don’t they get involved in high schools and work on preventing teenage pregnancy? Some may already be doing these things, but many are not.
As a physician, I also see that the abortion issue is not as black and white for a politician as it is for a bishop. The Church has made it easy for us by telling us that life begins at conception; in part the reasoning is that we don’t know, so we assume that it begins at conception just in case. However, I know that there is a large difference between an embryo, a fetus at 8 weeks gestation, and a fetus close to the age of viability. Some religious groups—the members or which are as validly American citizens as are Catholics—believe that the fetus begins to have a soul at about 3 months gestation, and not prior. A large percentage of pregnancies are miscarried in the first trimester, often without their mothers realizing, due to genetic errors or other reasons. This appears to be part of God’s plan. While our beliefs are clear, someone governing a nation that contains many different faiths has to find a way for us all to live together. Someone who is not Catholic may look at the difference between a sperm and an egg, an egg that was just fertilized, a fetus that does not yet appear any different than other mammals at that early stage of gestation, and a fetus at 24 weeks gestation and point out that they appear to be quite different. Yes, they are all alive, and all could become children if they developed normally; sperm and eggs have life, as do embryos, and may become children. However one doesn’t tell people to have intercourse as often as possible, to produce more potential children. I am not arguing this to convince you that abortion is right; just to express that I understand how others may hold a different position.
As Catholics, we are lucky that we do not have this ambiguity to worry about; we believe that human life is sacred upon conception. However, does that give us the right in a democracy to legislate what others must believe? We should advocate what we believe, yes, and we should work to decrease abortions, but I am not sure that the most important thing to us when we choose a president is whether or not he might submit to Congress—which ultimately decides on his or her approval— the “wrong” candidate to the Supreme Court.
Even if abortion were made illegal, it is not clear to me that abortions would cease or even become much less common. In many countries, such as Romania, when abortions were illegal they were more common and more dangerous, and more likely to be done later in pregnancy. What happens if we “win” and abortions become illegal, but do not decrease in frequency, or if later term abortions become more common, or if there are more complications to the women involved? It is not not clear that the only way to decrease abortion is to ban it.
I believe that most women actually do not want to have an abortion, but feel that they do not have the support to have their child survive and have a good life. As Catholics I believe that our first priority needs to be to find and support these women, rather than point fingers at them or legislate them into hiding. Groups like the Women’s Care Center here in Indiana are extremely important in doing this work. I also agree that we need to continue to advocate reasonable limitations on abortions, such as a ban on late trimester abortions (which are fortunately very rare), in a way that seeks compromise and understanding in this debate rather than further polarization on the issue. Even those who support continued “abortion rights,” I believe must really be against these procedures, but since the debate is so polarized—again, black and white—they irritationally support these extreme positions. President Obama tried to put himself forward as a person who would seek compromise, and I would welcome compromise on this issue if it means that we focus more on helping women and children, and less on winning our moral debate.
I hope that the Bishops and all Catholics continue to work towards a world closer to God’s plan, with respect to eliminating abortion but also in regards to all the other injustices that occur every day. I hope that people of faith continue to stay engaged in the political arena, not just with respect to the issue of abortion or embryonic research, but with regards to all of the societal injustices which affect God’s people.