April 6, 2009
Controversy has erupted over Notre Dame's invitation to President Barack Obama to speak at its May commencement ceremony. The President will address the university and receive an honorary doctorate in law. Bishop John J. D'Arcy of the Fort Wayne-South Bend diocese has decided not to attend the commencement, explaining, "My decision is not an attack on anyone, but is in defense of the truth about human life." Bishop D'Arcy's position is reflective of the outrage of many in the Catholic community. Their angst is understandable since Mr. Obama has pursued a strong anti-life agenda both before and after assuming the office of President. Indeed, Mr. Obama’s actions are at odds with the very foundations of American law and justice: a belief that all men are created equal and that innocent human life should be protected by the State.
Catholic tradition is very clear that both abortion and the destruction of embryos undermine the basic principles of human life. The Catholic catechism states, "Human life must be respected and protected absolutely from the moment of conception. From the first moment of his existence, a human being must be recognized as having the rights of a person—among which is the inviolable right of every innocent being to life." The catechism goes so far as to call for "excommunication latae sententiae" (essentially, immediate default excommunication) for anyone who cooperates in an abortion. With such clear, strict pro-life doctrine, it is no wonder that Catholics are up in arms over Notre Dame's decision to honor a man whose words and actions directly support the destruction of nascent human life.
Since taking office in January, President Obama has changed U.S. policy to support abortions abroad, removed limitations on the federal funding of embryonic stem cell research (research which would require the destruction of embryos), and appears ready to remove federal laws which allow physicians to object on conscience to performing abortions or giving out contraceptives. Moreover, the President promised during his campaign to repeal the Hyde amendment, an amendment that prevents federal funding of abortions (except in cases of rape or incest or to save the life of the mother). He also promised to sign the Freedom of Choice Act, which would overturn nearly all state and federal restrictions on abortion and nearly all state and federal restrictions on funding for abortion.
The right to life has properly been described as the First Right. It is that right without which no other right can exist. As Pope John Paul II stated in his Apostolic Exhortation Christifideles Laici, "The inviolability of the person which is a reflection of the absolute inviolability of God, finds its primary and fundamental expression in the inviolability of human life. Above all, the common outcry, which is justly made on behalf of human rights—for example, the right to health, to home, to work, to family, to culture—is false and illusory if the right to life, the most basic and fundamental right and the condition for all other personal rights, is not defended with maximum determination." The protection of human life is necessary to establish justice and compassion in society.
The debate knows no bounds. Notre Dame President Rev. John Jenkins has defended the school's position, calling the speech "a basis for further positive engagement." Pro-life Notre Dame alumnus Kenneth L. Woodward echoes this defense in a recent Washington Post column. He explains that the university must necessarily allow for the open discussion of such issues, since it is "devoted to both faith and reason." Woodward and Jenkins miss a key distinction: There is a big difference between allowing a person to speak at a university and granting him an honorary degree and making him the centerpiece of commencement exercises. The former can be defended on the grounds that a university should allow for a wide discussion of issues, but the latter expresses the University's stamp of approval on the President.
Catholic theologian and biographer George Weigel sees through Rev. Jenkins's faulty argument: "Commencement is not an occasion for debate. Commencement is not an opportunity to set the foundations for a dialogue. Commencement and award of an honorary degree is a statement on the part of the university that this is a life worth emulating."
Catholics have long upheld the importance of protecting nascent human life, even as other groups of Christians have succumbed to cultural pressures. Pope Benedict XVI stated, "God's love does not differentiate between the newly conceived infant still in his or her mother's womb and the child or young person, or the adult and the elderly person. God does not distinguish between them because he sees an impression of his own image and likeness (Genesis 1:26) in each one." Unfortunately, Notre Dame appears to value cultural approval more than the teachings of the Catholic Church.
By honoring Mr. Obama at its commencement, Notre Dame trivializes our culture's devaluation of human life. The consequences of doing so are explained clearly in the Vatican's summary of Evangelium Vitae: "The causes of this 'culture of death which threatens man and civilization are traced by the Holy Father to a perverse idea of freedom, which is seen as disconnected from any reference to truth and objective good, and which asserts itself in an individualistic way, without the constitutive link of relationships with others."
Our culture is increasingly embracing a culture of death, and Notre Dame's blessing of our President is yet another disturbing sign of this trend. If even Catholics are abandoning their traditional, rich understanding of life, who will be left to defend it?
Ken Connor is an attorney and co-author of "Sinful Silence: When Christians Neglect Their Civic Duty." He is also Chairman of the Center for a Just Society. For more articles and resources from Mr. Connor and the Center for a Just Society, go to http://www.centerforajustsociety.org